Blog Roll, book reviews, Middle Grade, non-fiction

Book Review: Who Was P.T. Barnum? by Kirsten Anderson

Book Cover for Who Was P.T. Barnum? written by Kristen Anderson and part of the Who HQ Series

Who Was P.T. Barnum? by Kirsten Anderson, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi

I wonder how many people have been to a circus. I was excited about reading this one, as I’ve never been. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Circuses weren’t around much when I was a kid, and they were pricey compared to carnivals. I’d been to a few fairs in small towns, and loved the travelling amusement park that would set up all of its rickety rides and RVs for a week, once a year, in the local mall’s parking lot. You could revel in the rigged games and attractions, without having to spend an arm and a leg. When I imagine a circus, it seems like it would be a mashup of The Zoo and one of these carnival-type places, resulting in the parading around of animals (and humans), with a dressing of swindle.

Before there was Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, there was P.T. Barnum, informally called ‘Taylor.’ Who Was P.T. Barnum? affords us a look into the life of ‘The Great American Showman,’ as he was widely known – and likely named himself. Inheriting more than just his grandfather Phineas’ name, from a young age Taylor shared in his namesake’s trickster sense of humour, and fierce entrepreneurial spirit. He started his journey into business by selling refreshments in town and saved up the proceeds to purchase livestock at the age of 21. And so it went until he had a general store, sold lottery tickets, and even owned a politically focused newspaper named The Herald of Freedom.

Quote from P.T. Barnum: "If you hesitate, some bolder hand will stretch out before you and take the prize." with a yellow and red striped background to mimic a circus tent

As one of the original purveyors of fake news and media manipulation, Taylor had a penchant for advertising and knew how to drum up excitement for any idea he wanted to sell, whether it was based in reality or contrived. When a customer at his store tipped him off to a lucrative opportunity, it ignited what would be a lifelong endeavour into the exploitation of humans and animals alike, an undertaking that was all the more successful due to his talents of persuasion.

P.T. Barnum quote: "Without promotion, something terrible happens...nothing!" on a red and yellow striped background, to mimic a circus tent.

The impetus for this path was a woman named Joice Heth. Taylor was eager to ‘rent’ the enslaved, weak, and blind woman, who regaled audiences with songs and stories where she claimed to be 161-years old, and the former nanny of George Washington. He booked a theatre, advertised her amazing story all over the city, and wrote rave reviews for the show. With the exhibit’s newfound success, Taylor sent Heth on tour in New England, until her eventual death in 1836.

Newspaper advertisement for Barnum's first live exhibit, showcasing a 161-year old woman named Joice Heth
Newspaper Advertising the Joice Heth Show

Taylor had promised a curious doctor wanting to investigate her age, the rights to an autopsy of the miraculous woman. The merciless showman continued to profit from Heth’s death as he did her life, producing a public autopsy, which he thirstily charged admission to. It was proven that she was likely no more than 80 years old. Even though there was talk that Taylor had altered documents to assist with his trifling claims throughout the show’s run, he maintained that he knew nothing of her real age, and presented himself as shocked as anyone, when the news came out.

He made a handsome sum from these shenanigans, and off the back of Joice Heth, but more importantly to him, Taylor learned how a human exhibit could provide for his pocketbook. With this new model of entertainment being en vogue, from here he expanded to open The American Museum, which he eventually took on the road as the P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, before venturing under the big top in his 60s.

This HQ Series Biography explores some of Taylor’s more popular exhibits such as the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, and the highly deceptive Feejee Mermaid attraction. We learn how Taylor would move on to politics and write an autobiography that, like all of his ventures, he adeptly marketed producing mammoth sales. He even spent time doing seminars, where he promoted his self-help book entitled: The Art of Money Getting. If this is sounding a little Trumpian to you, you’re not alone.

An image of the encased Feejee Mermaid, with a sign reading: P.T. Barnum's 'Fiji Mermaid' on loan from [sic] Boston Museum

Overall, this middle-grade history book provides a lot of fascinating details about the inventive and highly ambitious Taylor, even if it chooses to leave out some of his more unappealing attributes. The beautiful sketches throughout are the perfect accompaniment to his story and shine a spotlight on the whimsy of his special brand of entertainment. Regardless of all this, I will hold back and rate this one 3.5/5 peaches, in reverence to authenticity, or the lack thereof.

Have a look at the crochet circus tent bookmark that I was inspired to make from reading Who Is P.T. Barnum?

Crochet Bookmark of a red and yellow striped circus tent with a yellow flag on top

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Who Was P.T. Barnum? by Kirsten Anderson”

  1. Oh, my! You happened to hit on a subject I love. I was able to attend one circus in my life (a very small one) along with plenty of carnivals set up in fields. I’ve read a good deal about this period of history, P.T. Barnum and circus life in general. I had no idea this one existed. Definitely going on my read list! Thanks for sharing,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s awesome you both read together. My parents instilled a love of reading in me from the time I was a kid with weekly trips to the library. As I got older, my mom and I often read and compared the same books. Such fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, I do too. And how great to read and compare books with your mom! I would love nothing more than to continue reading with him, for as long as he’ll let me. He is seven now, but I’m hopeful I have a few more years. 🤞🏻

      Like

    1. Hello Susan, thanks for such a wonderful compliment. I would say everything is a work in progress in this life, haha. Crochet is such an amazing hobby, I just love it! It’s fun to meet others that share in the same passions. I saw your beautiful book, what a treasure. And a wonderful legacy to one day leave for your family. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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