- Before he was the owner of his own successful circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum worked the ticket booth and performed as a clown in a small circus. In 1871, he started his “Grand and Traveling Circus, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus.” P.T. Barnum grossed $400,000 his first year. He wasn’t afraid to use a little deception to bring in customers, and featured fake mermaids and bearded ladies, earning him the title “an all-American huckster.” One of Barnum’s promotions featured a “6-foot man-eating chicken,” which was in actuality nothing but a 6-foot-tall man munching on a chicken leg.
- At age 25, P.T. Barnum opened his first show which featured a black slave named Joyce Heth, reputed to be 161 years old, who claimed to have been George Washington’s nurse. Barnum featured the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, in his New York City museum of oddities. Chang and Eng, identical twins joined at the sternum, were born in Siam (now Thailand), hence the term Siamese twins.
- P.T. Barnum took on a partner names James A. Bailey in 1881, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus became known as the “Greatest Show on Earth.” The circus began using the railroad to transport the business from town to town, revolutionizing the industry. It took between 60 and 70 railroad cars to convey Barnum’s show on tour.
- Because P.R. Barnum wanted to know what folks would say about him after he was dead, the New York Sun published his obituary two weeks prior to his death. The tune Auld Lang Syne was sung at Barnum’s funeral.
FIVE BROTHERS FROM WISCONSIN
- A German-born harness maker named August Rungeling instilled the love of the circus in his seven sons. Five of the boys---Al, Otto, Charles, John and Alf---changed their surname to Ringling and went into the circus business. Brothers Henry and Gus joined them later. In 1887, spectators could watch the Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan and Congress of Trained Animals---quite a mouthful for their new exhibition. The first Ringling performance came about with the effort of the five brothers and 17 employees, who together sewed the tent, sold the tickets, provided the band music, as well as performed all the acts.
- Both Barnum and Bailey had passed on by 1906, and in 1907, the Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey circus for $400,000. The two shows operated separately until 1919 when they combined to become the now-famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The family sold the circus in 1967, but it still operates under the same name.
- Baraboo, Wisconsin is home of the Ringling brothers and a winter home of their circus. It is also home to the Circus World Museum, housing 200 vintage circus wagons.
- The circus tent used by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1921 to 1924 still holds the record for the largest circus tent in history. This magnificent canopy covered 91,415 square feet with a round top 200 feet across.
- The Greatest Show on Earth completed its final act on May 21, 2017. Ringling streamed the show on its website.