Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
Barnum, P. T., 1810-1891
|Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810-91), showman and circus entrepreneur, served on the board of Trustees of Tufts College and as a benefactor of the institution in its early years.|
P. T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810.He held a series of diverse jobs as a youth, including selling theater tickets. In 1835 Barnum exhibited Joice Heth, an old black woman he claimed to be the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, at Niblo's Gardens in New York City. He then became head of a traveling company of performers, acrobats, freaks, and wild animals.
In 1840 Barnum bought and re-opened the American Museum in New York City. Exhibits included the Feegee [sic] mermaid, the bearded lady, and the "Egress," along with fossils and natural history specimens. Barnum discovered and exhibited the dwarf Tom Thumb and made several tours to England and Europe (1844, 1858).He modeled his Connecticut mansion Iranistan (destroyed by fire in 1857), in part, on the Brighton Pavilion. In 1850 Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America for a concert tour. In the 1870's Barnum organized the "Greatest Show on Earth," which traveled by train through the United States and Canada. In 1881 he joined his business rivals to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum died in Bridgeport, Connecticut on April 7, 1891.
After being elected to the Trustees in 1851, Barnum resigned in 1857, because his busy schedule of tours precluded his attendance at board meetings. In fact, the only record that exists of Barnum actually visiting the campus was in 1886 for the commencement ceremony. On the occasion of that visit the Tufts Glee Club greeted him with "The Barnum Song" composed by then-student Leo Rich Lewis, who was later to become professor of music and composer of numerous Tufts songs.
Barnum continued to take an interest in the college, secretly donating over $50,000 to Tufts in the years 1882-84 to build the Barnum Museum of Natural History. He also left over $30,000 in his will to build two subsequent wings. Barnum had the bodies of circus animals preserved and mounted by Ward's Natural Science Establishment (taxidermists) for exhibit in the museum.
In 1881, Barnum bought Jumbo, then the largest known African elephant, for $10,000 from the Royal Zoological Society in London. After great protest in England, he brought the animal to America. In 1885, Jumbo was killed by a train in Ontario, Canada. The elephant, stuffed by Carl Akeley and William Critchley, was taken on more circus tours.
In 1889, the stuffed remains of Jumbo were donated to the Barnum Museum at Tufts, with the idea that the publicity might be useful to the College. In 1889 Barnum made his last tour to England and compiled the scrapbook of his trip which is now in the collection. In April, 1975, a fire in Barnum Hall destroyed Jumbo and much other Barnumiana, including Barnum's desk, his bust, many circus posters, and some letters.