P.T. Barnum – Mighty Huckster or Genuine Genius?

P.T. Barnum – Mighty Huckster or Genuine Genius?

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Liam Nolan tells the story of P.T. Barnum, the man Hugh Jackman portrayed in the smash-hit musical ‘The Greatest Showman’

He was the man who memorably said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And also said, “You can fool most of the people most of the time.” I wanted to make sure that my understanding of the word “huckster” was in line with what Americans understand the word to mean. So I went to the famous American Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
“Huckster”, it said: “one who sells or advertises something in an aggressive, dishonest, or annoying way.”


It sums up the central character of the Hugh Jackman film musical The Greatest Showman — P. T. Barnum. Or, to give him his full name, Phineas Taylor Barnum.


Barnum has been called many things. For example, “The 19th century impresario who found fame by exploiting circus ‘freaks’.”


He has also been called “Lord of the Hucksters”, “The Master Humbug”, “A professional b*********r with a penchant for loud rhetoric”, “King of the Conmen” and, of course, “The Greatest Showman”.


The Jackman film is fine entertainment, spectacular, and with a musical soundtrack that is enormously attractive. But there has been a wave of criticism about the movie’s inaccuracies, and about what it has glossed over; that it has airbrushed history. But Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a good story.


The first film about the showman’s life, The Mighty Barnum, was made back in 1934. A drawling-voiced beery-looking actor named, appropriately, Wallace Beery, played the lead. An Academy Award winner for Best Actor four years earlier, he was at the time the highest paid actor in the world.

The film came under the critical lash for being chronologically scrambled, and for depicting Barnum as a comic character.
“The true story got lost somewhere,” one critic wrote. “It should just be enjoyed as entertainment, and not a life lesson,” said another.


Is The Greatest Showman chronologically scrambled? Without a doubt. It was Barnum’s grandfather Phineas Taylor who taught him the tricks of getting money without doing hard work. P. T. didn’t like physical work anyway.
He was known as Taylor Barnum when he was learning the lesson that he later lived by — that there is no such thing as bad publicity, if the publicity is spun correctly.


There was a dark side to Barnum’s activities from his very first venture into the world of show business.
By the time 1834 came around, he was married with four daughters. Aged 25, he moved to New York where he got a letter from an itinerant showman in Kentucky, R. W. Lindsay, who said that he had under his control a freed slave named Joice Heth. Heth, according to Lindsay, had been wet nurse to America’s first President, George Washington. She was, Lindsay said, 161 years old! He offered her to Barnum.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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