P.T. Barnum turned circuses from shabby traveling shows rolling through sleepy small towns into ultimate spectacles people flocked to see. He truly created The Greatest Show On Earth, building Barnum's American Museum in New York City to shock and entertain. A combination theater, freak show, wax museum, lecture hall, and zoo filled with eccentrics and outsized personalities, it's easy to forget there were very real people behind the glitter and dazzle. But Barnum's wonders came at a time when another wonder was sweeping the country: photography, formerly a cumbersome, expensive process, had been streamlined by the late 1800s. Combined with the notoriety and fame of Barnum's circus, we don't have to wonder what The Greatest Showman characters looked like in real life — a picture is worth a thousand words, and a step closer than a painting.
Many of Barnum's "attractions" were considered property more than persons by the general public, and spending time as living museum displays didn't help disperse the idea. Barnum's hired giant woman, Anna Haining Bates, nearly died in the infamous fire that destroyed his museum as she was too large to fit through the escape windows. Still, some people argue that Barnum gave many of his performers a dignity they didn't, or couldn't, have in their former lives, and it's fascinating to see their stories portrayed in The Greatest Showman.
P.T. Barnum didn't become famous until later in life, after cycling through numerous failed careers. He was a shop owner, book auctioneer, ran a lottery network, and dealt in land speculation, among other jobs. Just before he set up the museum and circus that would make him famous, he lost nearly everything he had in a land scam, and lost any possibility to get the money back after laws were passed banning lotteries immediately following.
He went into the showman business at the early age of 25, touring with a traveling group and exhibiting Joice Heth, supposedly George Washington's nurse and the world's oldest woman at age 161 (it was unlikely Heth was more than 80, as he himself confirmed at her public autopsy in a New York saloon, for which he charged 50 cents entry). His next big attraction, and first hoax, was 1841's Feejee Mermaid, concocted with the help of future collaborator and fellow huckster Levi Lyman. The half-fish, half-monkey was a triple-threat hoax, with Lyman posing as an English scholar to drum up press interest in his shocking "discovery". Barnum worked in theater, wax museums, at writing his biography, and hosting touring lectures of celebrities like actress Pauline Cushman, who served as a spy for the Union in the Civil War. He didn't actually enter the circus business proper until he was 60 years old. Barnum continued innovating through his life, even designing the very cemetery he was buried in.
Barnum's beloved wife Charity was no shrinking violet herself — according to Barnum's own biography, she was the one who helped instigate their plan to sneak off and get married, a bold move for a young lady at the time. Charity, or Chairy as she was called, helped her husband through the hard times, selling her own land after he lost his money until they were back on their feet. Once Barnum rose to prominence, she wrote articles for ladies' journals and participated in society events with her husband. When her health waned later in life, she let Barnum go on tour while she remained in the family home in Bridgeport, CT, according to the Bridgeport Library. In 1843, she died of heart failure. Barnum, in Europe at the time and heartbroken, decided to remain overseas.
Known as the "Swedish Nightingale", Lind was famous for her crystal clear soprano. She retired from opera at the tender age of 29, but after Barnum offered her an unprecedented amount of money to tour the U.S., she agreed — if he gave the money up front. She was a shy and devout woman, and part of her negotiations were to ensure the maximum amount of money went to the numerous charities she supported. Her beauty and kindness attracted numerous admirers - writer Hans Christian Anderson fell in love, though the two remained friends. Composer Felix Mendhelsson wrote long love letters to her, but died prematurely before their relationship even began. She ultimately, and secretly, married her pianist and composer Otto Goldschmidt in Boston, near the end of her American tour with Barnum. The two eventually returned to Europe and remained happily together.
Charles Sherwood Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, was distantly related to Barnum (half fifth cousin, twice removed). When Barnum heard of his unusual relative, he reached out and taught the young man how to dance, act, impersonate, and sing, before taking him on a grand tour of Europe, where he met Queen Victoria. Working with Barnum made him a wealthy man, though sadly he died of a sudden and unexpected stroke at the age of 45.
Annie Jones (The Bearded Lady)
The most celebrated bearded lady of her time, Annie Jones joined Barnum's touring group when she was only nine months old. She married a carnival barker at the age of 16 and remarried another carnival barker 15 years later, touring Europe with her second husband. After he died, Jones wasn't sure what to do with her life, and resumed touring with Barnum's circus until her own early death at the age of 32.
Chang and Eng Bunker & The Martin Sisters
Conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker always wanted to live as normal a life as possible, but realized the potential money to be made in touring. They did so with a number of circuses, including Barnum's, before achieving their dream: setting up a farm in North Carolina, marrying, and raising their two separate families. In 1874, Chang caught bronchitis, and though Eng was in good health otherwise, after Chang passed away in the evening Eng died a mere few hours later.
Albinos were a popular freak show attraction. A photo of Barnum's 1888 lineup definitely includes the Martin sisters Florence and Mary, but little else is known about them.
While the Barnum American Museum no longer exists, photography has helped preserve it for all time. And though it's a fictional retelling, The Greatest Showman captures all the awe and magic visitors must have felt walking through its doors.
This post was originally published on June 12, 2019. It was updated on Sept. 4, 2019.