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Phineas Taylor Barnum


Born at Bethel, Connecticut. Married in 1829 to Charity Hallett who died in 1873. In 1874 he married Nancy Fish. (He was 64, she was 24).

Barnum was a showman exhibiting various curiosities. His career began in 1835 when he bought and exhibited Joice Heth who claimed to be 161 years old and former nurse to George Washington. An examination after her death set her age in the eighties. Barnum wrote to the newspapers claiming that he had been deceived and how his trust had been betrayed.

In 1841 he negotiated to purchase Scudder's American Museum in New York City. He renamed it Barnum's American Museum. They had been losing the competition with Peale's Museum. Later Barnum also purchased Peale's. An admission token for Peale's Museum is considered part of the Hard Times Token series (Low 269; Rulau 303).

Barnum's museum opened in 1842. Signs led to the exhibit of the "Egress." Patrons who hurried through the halls in search of the exhibit found themselves outside. The American Museum burned July 13, 1865, and again March 3, 1868. There is a medal for Barnum's Museum showing Barnum on the reverse.

One of Barnum's star attractions was the dwarf Tom Thumb. (Charles Sherwood Stratton 1838-1883. Straton was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut.) Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America in 1850. He made her rich and increased his fame. Barnum was elected to the legislature of Connecticut in 1867-1869 and ran for Congress.

Barnum was president of the Association for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. The exhibition in New York city included a Crystal Palace modeled after London's Crystal Palace. It was destroyed by fire October 5, 1858. The exhibition was commemorated with a mint medal (Julian AM-16) issued in 1854.

About 1869 he began to organize "The Greatest Show on Earth." They opened April 10, 1871. The menagerie burned down December 24, 1872. Another fire destroyed the winter quarters at Bridgeport November 20, 1887. Barnum became partners with Bailey to form the combined Barnum and Bailey Circus that opened March 28, 1881. One of their feature attractions was the elephant Jumbo. Jumbo was hit by a train September 15, 1885. Barnum promoted Jumbo as a hero who had died to protect his son. He then exhibited the stuffed remains.

The passing of Jumbo was noted in the May 1892 issue of The Numismatist, "It may not be generally known that Jumbo was a collector of coins, yet such on post mortem was found to be the fact. He didn't carry them around in his trunk, but in his stomach were found enough coins to start an average cabinet. He seemed to have a leaning to the coins of the Anglo Saxon race."

Barnum was mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875. He contributed to the development of the city and appears on the obverse of the Bridgeport Centennial commemorative half dollar. The design was by Henry Kreis. Twenty-five thousand pieces were struck.

Some tokens are associated with Barnum including those showing Tom Thumb alone or with his wife. Other tokens were issued for "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Barnum is incorrectly noted for the quote, "There's a sucker born every minute." The quote actually originated with one of Barnum's competitors. It is a sentiment taken to heart by many coin dealers.

Barnum died in Philadelphia.

bio: ApCAB; DAB; Drake; NCAB 3; TCBDA; WAB; WWWA-H

Source credit: Pete Smith, American Numismatic Biographies


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