Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Great and Only Barnum

"When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant." - P.T. Barnum

Candace Fleming has written an entertaining and award-winning children's biography of the showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum. While suitable for school projects, it's also a fascinating story for children (and even adults like me).

Fleming makes clever use of original documents to bring Barnum's story to life. The American Museum he created contained polar bears, the Feejee Mermaid, and the Siamese twins Chang and Ang. He combined real exhibits with humbugs (hoaxes) and let the public form their own opinion. His admission was so cheap (25 cents in 1842) that people from all walks of life could experience the wonders for themselves. Barnum is a man known mostly for his work with the circus, but that part of his career didn't even start until the last decade of his life.

Fleming does not shy away from discussing Barnum's flaws. He struggled with alcohol and he was distant from his family. He cared what people thought of him, so much so that he asked to have his obituary printed early so he could read it. He may have been larger than life, but he was also human as well.

Visitors to the American Museum expected to see this at the Feejee Mermaid exhibit.

But saw something similar to this instead.