Phineas T. Barnum: Background information when reading The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb

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The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb

by Nicholas Rinaldi

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb by Nicholas Rinaldi X
The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb by Nicholas Rinaldi
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 384 pages

    Jul 2015, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book

Phineas T. Barnum

This article relates to The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb

Print Review

In 1843 in Bridgeport Connecticut, P.T. Barnum hired Charles Stratton, then aged five, to work in his American Museum. In New York, described as "just arrived from England," Charlie became an eleven-year old named Tom Thumb, and soon thrilled the viewing public with his impressions of Napoleon Bonaparte. Of these deceptions, Barnum wrote in his autobiography, "had I announced him as only five years of age, it would have been impossible to excite the interest or awaken the curiosity of the public...he really was a dwarf – and in, this, at least, they were not deceived."

P. T. Barnum Barnum himself was then thirty-three years old, the son of a Connecticut shopkeeper who had begun his career as a showman eight years earlier exhibiting a blind woman called Joice Heth who claimed to be the nurse of George Washington and therefore at least 160 years old. An autopsy later revealed Heth died at 80. Barnum claimed the wrong body had been used and that the real Heth was on tour. The purchase of Scudder's American Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in 1841, gave Barnum the base from which to build his entertainment empire using his ambition, advertising skills and talent for "humbug."

Joice Heth With the success of Tom Thumb, Barnum decided to take his diminutive star to Europe and on this tour he met his next attraction, the Swedish Nightingale, soprano star Jenny Lind. By the time Lind arrived in the States, Barnum had whipped up a storm of public interest about her and she successfully toured the country making vast sums for herself and Barnum until they parted ways in 1851.

Barnum continued with his museum, finding Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, the giant Anna Swan, the Feejee Mermaid and even installing an aquarium to house white Beluga whales, but diversifying his business interests brought risks and he was bankrupted during the 1850s. He was relentless, however, in his pursuit of success as well as being active in politics as a Unionist and anti-slavery campaigner, and an advocate of temperance.

Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster In the 1860s Barnum's American Museum was burned to the ground and a few years later, the new premises he had found for the museum were also destroyed by fire. But in 1871 Barnum was back, establishing the travelling circus with which his name is inextricably linked. Ten years later, Barnum, then 71, linked up with James Bailey and the Greatest Show on Earth, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, toured the world making Barnum a household name across the globe.

Barnum died on April 7th 1891, leaving behind his second wife and four daughters. Always the communicator, Barnum was a prolific writer who wrote and then revised his own autobiography multiple times. Often controversial and considered a phony, he was generous in sharing his story, even reproducing his own rules for success, which stand the passage of time remarkably well.

Barnum's Rules for Success in Business

  1. Select the kind of business that suits your natural inclinations and temperament.
  2. Let your pledged word ever be sacred.
  3. Whatever you do, do with all your might.
  4. Sobriety. Use no description of intoxicating drinks.
  5. Let hope predominate, but be not too visionary.
  6. Do not scatter your powers.
  7. Engage proper employees.
  8. Advertise your business. Do not hide your light under a bushel.

Picture of P. T. Barnum from
Joice Heth poster from
Barnum & Bailey vintage poster circa 1908 from Library of Congress

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb. It originally ran in September 2014 and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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