A venerable American institution, “The Greatest Show on Earth” is no more. After 146 years, Feld Entertainment, owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced the circus’s last performance will take place on Sunday, May 21.
It all began in 1875, when Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was persuaded to lend his name and financial backing to an already existing circus, which Barnum, “the Greatest Showman on Earth,” originally named “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.”
Entrepreneur extraordinaire, icon of American spirit and ingenuity, master of hype and self-promotion, and perhaps the most famous American in the world at the time, Barnum had begun his career forty years earlier when he purchased and paraded around Joice Heth, an elderly and ill black slave who, he claimed, was 161 years old and had worked as George Washington’s nurse. Among the first to understand and wield the power of advertising and the media – he is credited with coining the phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” – he would do almost anything to attract attention and generate business.
Barnum is best remembered for founding what became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; for promoting celebrated hoaxes and “freak shows” – including General Tom Thumb; the “original Siamese Twins”; and the “Fiji mermaid” – for offering $10,000 to the famous Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt to display her severed leg (she declined); for his unique innovations, including adding to previously static museum exhibits live acts and curiosities such as albinos, giants, midgets, jugglers, magicians, exotic women, and a menagerie of animals; and for coining the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” – which he never actually said.
He did, however, coin the idioms “Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages; “The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived;” and “Let’s get the show on the road.”
He was also an author, publisher, philanthropist, and sometime politician who served in the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport, and lost two Congressional elections. His brilliant business ideas, including founding America’s first aquarium, instituting the nation’s first theater afternoon matinees, and transporting his traveling circus by train, made him perhaps the world’s first “show business millionaire.”
Not as well known, however, are Barnum’s negative feelings about Jews.
For example, in one incident Barnum writes that he was called upon by “a portly quack Jewish doctor with keen, piercing eyes, jet black shining hair and the usual Israelitish countenance” who wanted to relieve his (Barnum’s) foot corns. Barnum grudgingly agreed to permit the “Jew doctor” to perform the procedure, through which he kept a “sharp lookout for some trick.”
As Barnum tells the story, the doctor pretended to remove “the seed of the corn” and fraudulently showed pre-planted material to his patient as evidence of the successful procedure; when Barnum discovered the sham, he kicked the doctor down the steps and warned others about “Jew doctors.”
What the New York Daily Graphic pithily characterized as “Barnum’s trouble with the Jews” began during his year as mayor of Bridgeport (1875), when he was accused of maligning the city’s Jewish community. The uproar began when the German-language newspaper Die Zeiting reported that Barnum accused Jewish saloonkeepers of violating the Sunday Law and that before a meeting of the Board of Commissioners he had referred to these alleged violators as “miserable Jews.”
Barnum, citing his “scores of Jewish friends around the world,” claimed he had actually said “miserable whiskey” and threatened to file a slander suit. An ad hoc committee of leading citizens heard testimony from witnesses present at the meeting and from Barnum himself and, though witnesses confirmed that Barnum had indeed referred to “miserable Jews,” the committee, in a highly controversial decision, relied on Barnum’s supporters on the Board of Commissioners who testified that the mayor had not scorned the Jewish people.
The committee published a formal opinion in which it concluded that “the expressions used [by Barnum] at said meeting did not allude particularly to Jews as a race, but to persons of all creeds who disobey the law.”
In the handwritten letter exhibited here, most likely written to his property manager, Barnum suggests he would take one-sixth less in rent payment rather than rent the premises to a Jew (the handwriting is faded because Barnum wrote the letter in pencil):
Please don’t forget to fix that Custom Water right this forenoon. It is but the fair and just thing that it go into the yard. No other place was ever talked of, and it would be useless to this lister who pays the tax unless it was put where she could use it. So much for the water.
The moment the water is finished and 25 cents worth of boards are nailed over rat holes in the front basement and 12-1/2 cents worth of labor bestowed upon that leaning yard fence, then the basement and little back room are ready to be let for $6 per month. Though rather than to have a Jew or too large a family of children [as tenants], she would rather let it to decent quiet folks for $60 per annum if necessary . . .
This letter is a particularly interesting manifestation of Barnum’s anti-Semitism because he frequently made unflattering references to the “moneyless Jew brokers” with whom he was involved in an unfortunate real estate speculation in Denver. He railed against the “Jew shysters” who were “injuring my property,” and he ordered that they be cut off and left to “float away and carry their stink with them.”
Barnum, was not, however, opposed to taking Jewish money. Thus, for example, in the April 13, 1866 New York Times ad shown with this column, Barnum shamelessly appeals to Jewish customers, including the use of Hebrew lettering and putting on a Jewish-themed dramatic production (“The Great Scriptural, Historical Drama . . . The Pillar of Fire…”).
Some have attempted to sanitize Barnum’s anti-Semitism by noting that he hired Kate Bateman to tour with him. Bateman became celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for her role in “Leah the Forsaken,’ in which she became the first actress to play a Jewish woman on the American stage. (1863). The plot involved a Jewish girl in 17th-century Germany and her unrequited love for a young gentile farmer, and Bateman became closely identified with the role of Leah and for the spinetingling curses she hurled at her faithless paramour.
However, the producers of the play purposely gave the role to Bateman because she wasn’t Jewish, thus presenting an acceptable “Jew” for the middle-class non-Jewish audiences. And Barnum, ever the showman looking to make a buck, could cash in on her popularity without actually having to hire a Jew.