The Great American Showman, Part 1

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PT Barnum
PT Barnum

This is an article by Tim Morris 

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.” Abraham Lincoln Phineas T Barnum

It has been argued, by no less an authority than James Grunig himself, that the origins of modern public relations lie (appropriately some might say) in the Wild West with the press agents of mid-19th century America. These included agents who acted as publicists for such classic American heroes as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane.

Prominent amongst them was Phineas Taylor Barnum. The great American showman, circus promoter and politician PT Barnum is not a figure that many people either inside or outside public relations would readily (or happily) associate with the profession.

But a strong case has nevertheless been made that Barnum was one of the earliest, and certainly one of the most high profile, historical examples of the profession (Grunig, 1992).

From publisher to prison

The young Phineas Barnum first made his name in the public arena, aged 19 years-old, as the publisher of a weekly paper The Herald of Freedom in the small East Coast town of Danbury, Connecticut in 1829.

The newspaper was an immediate success, with its fiery editorials railing against laws advocated by Calvinist church leaders that threatened to restrict gambling and travel. Popular though these editorials were with his readers, they also favoured one of Barnum’s most lucrative business interests, a state-wide lottery.

Barnum soon found that he had upset some very powerful people with vested interests of their own and he became the subject of a legal action for libel against a number of local Calvinist church leaders. A trial in the local court house rapidly followed and the young Barnum was found guilty of the charge of libel and sentenced to 60 days in prison.

Traumatic though this spell in prison must have been for the teenage publisher, Barnum found that far from damaging his career the conviction increased both his notoriety and his popularity amongst those sections of the local community not under the sway of the church. He became a folk hero for some and upon his release from prison he was met by a band and a horse-drawn carriage organised by his supporters for a parade back to town.

Back in his editorial chair Barnum continued the fight against the imposition of a state ban on lotteries in Connecticut, but in 1834 he lost this battle. Faced with the loss of his main source of income, Barnum sold up all of his business interests in Connecticut and moved to New York. There he embarked on the career that was to bring him fame and fortune as one of the first great American showmen (Kunhardt, 1995).

Barnum’s career as a showman began inauspiciously, in 1835, when he came across a disabled African American woman in New York by the name of Joice Heth. Joice was already a minor celebrity when Barnum met her and was being promoted by her sponsors as the 160 year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington.

Quickly grasping what he saw as the huge potential of Heth as a human curiosity whom people would pay to see, Barnum purchased the right to exhibit her, along with documents supposedly validating her great age. He then set about exhibiting her.

Joice Heth initially proved to be very popular a human curiosity but, once her attraction began to wane, Barnum decided to dip into his journalistic background to attempt to revive interest in his exhibit.

A New York newspaper article appeared, from an unattributable source, claiming that Joice Heth was not in fact human at all but actually an ‘automaton’ made of whalebone, rubber and springs. Outlandish as this claim sounds, and completely untrue as it clearly was, it nevertheless had the desired effect of stimulating interest.

The exhibition hall filled up once more with paying customers as Barnum made use of the editorial as well as advertising sections of the newspapers. When Joice Heth died, in 1836, Barnum claimed to be as surprised and indignant as anyone else when an autopsy proved that she had been no more than eighty years old.

Freak shows and hoaxes

Joice Heth may have been dead, but the pattern had been set for Barnum’s future career as a publicity agent promoting what he freely admitted were freak shows and outlandish hoaxes.

He justified these hoaxes as marketing advertisements to draw the attention of the public to his shows. Barnum claimed that once he had the audience inside the door his intention was not to dupe the public into believing that the hoaxes were real, but rather to entertain them and provide a show that they would feel was value for money.

In stimulating interest in his exhibits Barnum demonstrated his flair as a press agent, and created the model for tens of thousands of publicists who followed him, by placing promotional stories in newspapers about his celebrities, some of them sourced to him, some not, but all of them driving traffic to his shows.

‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

Barnum did not actually start in the circus business until he was 61 years of age. In 1871 he established a travelling circus and museum of freaks billing itself as The Greatest Show on Earth.

The circus toured the world, largely by train, with magicians, jugglers and acrobats amongst the cast. In 1874 he opened his Roman Hippodrome in New York and in 1881 he merged it with the circus of James A Bailey, turning it into a three-ring extravaganza the like of which the world had never seen. Barnum’s last great coup was the purchase in 1881, from London Zoo, of the largest elephant in captivity, the African elephant Jumbo. Barnum died ten years later, in 1891, but a successor of the circus he made famous is still touring the world today under the name Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey (Kunhardt, 1995).

To finish with the quotation from the start of this post, which offers instructive advice for any student of public relations. These famous words were supposedly included in a speech that Abraham Lincoln made on the campaign stump in a small town called Clinton, Illinois, in 1858. But the quotation does not appear at all in contemporary newspaper reports of the speech and there is considerable doubt about whether Lincoln ever actually said it. It is thought just as likely to be the creation of PT Barnum (Steers, 2007).

The generous attribution of the famous quote to the former president was in reality probably the work of Lincoln’s very own public relations agent. The writer Carl Sandburg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for History for a biography of Lincoln, published after the politician’s death, in which he claimed authorship of the quote for Lincoln (Sandburg, 1939).

The Great American Showman, Part 2


James Grunig and Larissa Grunig – Models of Public Relations and Communication – in James Grunig (Ed) Excellence in Public Relations and Communications Management – Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, New Jersey (1992)

Philip Kunhardt et al – P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman – Alfred Knopf, New York (1995)

Edward Steers Jr – Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes and Confabulations associated with our greatest ever president – University Press of Kentucky (2007)

Carl Sandburg – Abraham Lincoln: The War Years – Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York (1939)

Tim Morris

Tim MorrisTim has spent more than 20 years working within the public relations profession, mostly in-house in the public sector, but more recently in private sector consultancy. He has covered high profile investigations and terrorist attacks for Scotland Yard and Surrey Police, worked for Ministers at the Home Office and been Head of Corporate Affairs for the Parole Board. He is now a Director of his own consultancy, Rhetor Communications. Tim is a guest lecturer in public relations at the University of the Arts London and a lecturer, marker and tutor for the PR Academy. He is currently writing a book about the history of public relations, told through the narrative of some of its most influential figures, provisionally entitled Spin Stories.