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October 20, 2020

The Truth Behind… Barnum


The musical Barnum (US/UK), with its rousing score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart and quick-paced book by Mark Bramble, presents a delightfully vibrant and entertaining portrait of The Greatest Showman and his cohorts.

But who were the real-life figures behind these characters? In a new series, we’re exploring The Truth Behind musicals and plays based on historical figures. Here’s a look at the characters in Barnum, from the Prince of Humbug to the Swedish Nightingale.

P.T. Barnum

In the show:
Phineas is a fast-talking, risk-taking showman and defender of the “noble art of humbug,” which he defines as “the coat of varnish he puts on the hard facts of life.” He’s charming, resourceful, tireless and irresistible as he guides the audience through a colorful retelling of his life story.

In real life:
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was an American showman, politician, businessman, author, publisher and philanthropist. He rose to fame as a shameless promoter of hoaxes, but also founded a newspaper in his early twenties, served two terms in the Connecticut legislature, and was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Though he made his fortune by exploiting the “otherness” of marginalized people, including an enslaved older woman named Joice Heth, “Aztec” children who were actually from El Salvador, and the conjoined “Siamese Twins” Chan and Eng, Barnum later fought and spoke eloquently for the abolition of slavery. He is perhaps best remembered as founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which he established in 1871, at age 60.

Though P.T. Barnum is widely credited for coining the adage “There’s a sucker born every minute,” there is no proof that he ever uttered the phrase.

Chairy Barnum

In the show:
“Chairy” is even-tempered, amiable, occasionally feisty, and a worthy partner to the exuberant Phineas. In “The Colors of My Life,” she declares that, in contrast to Phineas’ “bountiful and bold” hues, she prefers “sage and brown, the colors of the earth.”

In real life:
Charity Hallett Barnum (1808-1873) of Bethel, Connecticut, married then 19-year-old Phineas Barnum in the fall of 1829, when she was 21. Before marriage, she had worked as a seamstress. “Chairy” and Phineas were married for 44 years and had four daughters, one of whom, Frances, died before the age of two. Charity’s death notice in the Fairfield Evening Post praised her “for her unassuming charities and for the domestic virtues which adorn the character of wife and mother.” In his book of recollections, Barnum recalls his wedding as the moment he “became the husband of one of the best women in the world.”

Joice Heth

In the show:
Joice Heth, “The Oldest Woman in the World,” is an ebullient, resourceful Black woman and the first person to star as a P.T. Barnum attraction. Energetically singing “Thank God I’m Old,” Joice brings humor and vitality to the stage as she claims to be the 160-year-old former nursemaid to George Washington.

In real life:
Joice Heth was an African American woman who lived in slavery her entire life. Born around 1756, Heth was about 79 years old when she died in 1836, nowhere near the 161 years of age that she and Barnum had claimed. Small in stature, she was actually blind and partially paralyzed when Barnum promoted her as Washington’s nurse.

Little information survives regarding Heth’s birth and early years. She was originally held in slavery by a man named John S. Bowling, who presented her as an exhibit in Louisville, Kentucky. In June 1835, Heth was sold to promoters Coley Bartram and R.W. Lindsay, who created the myth concerning George Washington. When Lindsay’s ruse failed, he sold her contract to P.T. Barnum.

The exploitation of Joice Heth continued beyond her death. After she died on February 19, 1836, Barnum set up a public autopsy to authenticate her age. The procedure, performed by surgeon David L. Rogers before an audience of over 1500 people, determined that Heth was far younger than Barnum had claimed.

Tom Thumb

In the show:
“Twenty-five inches from head to foot,” the “World’s Smallest Man” takes center stage and stops the show with the enthusiastic song “Bigger Isn’t Better.” In a command performance at Buckingham Palace, Tom Thumb performs alongside Jumbo the elephant.

In real life:
Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) of Bridgeport Connecticut grew to an adult height of 39 inches (99 centimeters). A distant cousin of P. T. Barnum, (technically, a half fifth cousin, twice removed), young Charles was mentored by the showman, who taught him to sing, dance, mime and perform impersonations. As “General Tom Thumb,” Stratton toured the world, performing in grand melodramatic fairy tales, which made him a very wealthy man. His 1863 wedding to Lavinia Warren, attended by over 10,000 guests, was followed by a White House visit with President Abraham Lincoln. In 1883, at age 45, Stratton died unexpectedly of a stroke.

Jenny Lind

In the show:
The beautiful and headstrong soprano, billed as the “Swedish Nightingale,” is Barnum’s first “respectable” act, headlining concert appearances around the world. Singing “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All,” Lind catches the eye of P.T. Barnum, and the two have a six-month affair while touring Europe.

In real life:
Johanna Maria Lind (1820-1887) was indeed a Swedish opera singer and one of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century. Billed as the “Swedish Nightingale,” Lind performed soprano roles in opera in Sweden and across Europe. Her hugely successful 1850 concert tour of the United States, produced by P.T. Barnum, included 93 large-scale concerts. After the tour, she returned to Europe, married, raised three children, and served as a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music. Her final public appearance was in 1883. Tragically, no known recordings of her voice survive.

For more information on the musical Barnum, visit the Concord Theatricals website.
In the US/North America, click here. In the UK/Europe, click here.