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.
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.
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.
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.
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.