Thanks to Hugh Jackman's portrayal in the wildly popular The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum has been rediscovered by adoring modern audiences. And whether you know him as an entrepreneur or as a huckster, there’s no doubting the impact that the man had on popular culture. But while Jackman’s on-screen performance stayed true to life, there are certain things that the film just couldn’t include. These obscure facts show just how little we really know about the “Prince of Humbug,” who managed to keep some of his tall tales going long after his death.
An early taste for hoaxes
We all know that Barnum loved a good hoax, and he likely developed this appreciation after being hoodwinked himself early in life. As a boy, Barnum was led to believe he was “the richest child in town” by his grandfather. And he even promised the future circus leader that he’d inherit a precious plot of ground in adulthood. Nevertheless, the young man soon discovered both of these claims to be untrue. But, encouraged by the pleasure his family gained from the prank, Barnum learned a valuable lesson in chicanery instead.
Buying a museum
With little money to their name, Barnum’s family left only a plot of marshland as their legacy. Yet somehow, Barnum managed to trade this for something of real worth. When he came to purchase his first museum in New York, the entrepreneur managed to mortgage his patch of dirt to the building’s previous owner. How? By craftily describing it as a “valuable and sentimental” location. Speaking to a friend beforehand, Barnum reportedly vowed to purchase the museum with “brass, for silver and gold I have none.”
Early odd jobs
Every businessperson worth their salt must first find their true calling – and Barnum was no different. Following his father’s death, Barnum’s family was in debt. So, the young man began his first job as a store clerk when he was aged 15. In the intervening years, besides working in a store, he became a director of lotteries and even published his own newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, in Connecticut.
A (supposedly) 161-year-old performer
Barnum’s first truly successful business venture apparently came in 1835, though, when he purchased a slave named Joice Heth. Elderly, blind, and near paralysis, Heth was described by her former owners as being 161 years old. Moreover, they even claimed that she had nursed Founding Father George Washington in his infancy. And astonishingly, the public bought into this wild claim, and the businessman reaped a fortune by exhibiting her as a human curiosity. So popular was Heth, in fact, that the exhibit reportedly earned Barnum $1,500 a week; that’s a whopping $43,000 today.