Barnum and the Greatest Show on Earth: NYC and the American Circus

PODCAST The story of Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum and his world-famous circus extravaganza.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages — the Bowery Boys present to you the tale of P. T. Barnum and his “Greatest Show on Earth,” the world’s most famous circus!

You can’t even bring up the discussion of circuses without mentioning the name of Barnum. But in fact, he only entered the circus business in his later years, after decades of success with bizarre museums, traveling curiosities, touring opera divas and all manner of fabricated ‘humbugs’.

In the late 19th century, in order for circuses to survive, innovators like Barnum needed to come up with startling new ways to get the attentions of audiences. Although his circus — which would eventually merge with that of James Bailey and, later, the Ringling Brothers — was a sensation which toured across the United States, it always began each season in New York, specifically situated on the northeast corner of Madison Square.

Tune in to find out how New York institutions owned by Barnum became imprinted on the basic structure of the classic American circus.  And join us as we visit the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, to gather some insight on Barnum’s unique genius.

CO-STARRING: Jumbo the Elephant, the Cardiff Man, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, the Cardiff Giant and Tom Thumb!

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Barnum in an illustration from 1861.

Courtesy NYPL

And a photograph of older Barnum, impresario of the circus.

 

New York Public Library

An 1848 daguerreotype of Jenny Lind, two years before her triumphant American tour.

 

Undated picture of the circus caravan, 1880s.

NYPL
NYPL
NYPL

Preparing for the circus as Madison Square Garden — March 21, 1913 (Library of Congress)

 

 

Some images from the Barnum Museum —

 

Tom interviewing Kathleen Maher, executive director at the Barnum Museum, in front of the Feejee Mermaid!

P. T. Barnum’s top hat, a treasure in the Barnum Museum archives.

And the little suit of Tom Thumb!

The bones of a centaur — half man, half horse.

At the graves of PT Barnum and Charles Stratton aka Tom Thumb.

  • Tom999

    As more background to my comment on the Bowery Boys history of “THE BIG STORY OF OLD BET, AMERICA’S FIRST CIRCUS ELEPHANT”, it supposedly went something like this:

    A farmer was driving his produce loaded horse-drawn wagon of vegetables and eggs into town to sell and also see the ‘exotic’ elephant in the circus that had newly arrived in town. However, when his horses saw the elephant, they became so terrified, they reared up and splattered his wagon and produce on the ground. When the farmer picked himself up from the ground and dusted himself off, he supposedly said “I don’t give a hang, for I have seen the elephant”.

  • Don Corleone

    I used to go Ringling Bro’s Circus as a ritual during my youth, many many great memories at Madison Sq garden. Later in life I got to see the trains arrive in LIC – right out of the movies – brightly color cars and all. I know the animal aspect is cruel by today’s standards, but I am glad I had the chance to enjoy this as a kid. Thank you Bowery Boys, stay out of trouble.