The Greatest Showman
Phineas Taylor Barnum takes to the stage again in 2017, some 182 years after his first debut as a showman in 1835.
Featuring Hollywood hotshot Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman takes certain creative liberties that would make the great charlatan himself brim with pride.
The movie itself stays fairly distant to the actual details of its biographical subject’s life. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t make subtle nods to Barnum’s exploits and schemes.
The Oddities We Don’t See
As a busy young man, Barnum went through a surfeit of careers, many of which are referenced by marquee signs piled in his apartment as Jackman returns home after losing his job as a clerk. He ran a newspaper, a general store, realty company, and helped popularize a lottery.
It was Connecticut’s ban on the lottery that cut off Barnum’s income—not a storm in the South China Sea—leading him to move to New York City. There, Barnum became a showman. While the film celebrates the odd, different, and, diverse by uplifting them in the spotlight, the truth of Barnum’s first “exhibit” carries little of that kind of modern sentiment.
He bought and displayed a blind and paralyzed slave named Joice Heth. Barnum’s show claimed she was 160 years old and had served as George Washington’s own nursemaid. When Heth died years later at about 80 years old, Barnum turned her dead body into an exhibit, charging people to watch her being autopsied by doctors.
Barnum eventually opened Barnum’s American Museum, the same one featured in the film, filling it with all manner of human oddities. Among them are many nods to real people who were featured by the real Barnum.
Front and center in The Greatest Showman is the bearded lady. Jackman finds her by chance, entranced by her uniqueness and beautiful singing. The real-life Barnum met his bearded lady when she was just one year old, and included her in his show for 36 years. The singing does have its roots in reality, however, as she was well known for her gracious manners and affinity for singing in later life.
Similarly, General Tom Thumb was found by Barnum when he was just four years old. Born Charles Stratton, Tom Thumb’s act proved one of Barnum’s most popular. By five years old, Tom Thumb would smoke cigars and drink wine for people’s amusement, and it was actually the little General that got Barnum invited to perform for Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln.
Chang and Eng
While much of Barnum’s early career is hard to describe as philanthropic, or racially progressive, he would eventually make a turn after the Civil War and support abolition. Some of his performers would not. The famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, appear acrobatically in the background of a few dance numbers, but after they left the Barnum show, they returned home to run a plantation with slaves.
The Swedish Nightingale
Jenny Lind was indeed a stunning singer who toured under the Barnum banner, but when she severed ties with Barnum, neither one lost any money. Both netted hundreds of thousands of dollars from her tour.
Known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy in the circus, Fedor Jeftichew suffered from hypertrichosis. Barnum invented a whole story about how Jo-Jo had been caught in a cave by hunters, and would even have him bark on stage for crowds.
The bearded man tattooed from head to foot had a real backstory even more interesting than the one Barnum made up for him. Barnum told people he was descended from a Greek noble, captured and tattooed by rebels. He was really born in Greece but was a pirate and sea trader for his early adult life. He spoke eight languages when he went to Burma as part of a French expedition to find gold. He was captured and tattooed as punishment for three months. He escaped his captors but was covered in ink everywhere except the soles of his feet. Eventually, he joined Barnum, making a small fortune before retiring in Greece.
James Hugh Murphy
Billed as the Irish Giant by Barnum in the movie, James Hugh Murphy was actually from Ireland and used the same moniker as 1700s giant Charles Byrne. Murphy wasn’t the only Giant Barnum displayed. When the men who found the Cardiff Giant refused to sell the specimen to his museum, Barnum had a copy commissioned and saved himself the trouble.
Barnum’s daughters in The Greatest Showman may have wanted his museum to have less stuffed oddities, but the real Barnum delivered the mermaid they asked for in his own style. The Fiji Mermaid is perhaps Barnum’s most famous forgery. A monkey torso sewn onto a fish, Barnum invited all manner of scientists and naturalists to inspect the artifact, daring them to call it a forgery.
Jackman’s performance ends with fire. What once stood as a bastion of protection for curiosity is destroyed—much like Barnum’s marriage in the movie—when a gang of racists and bigots starts a fight.
The origins of the real fire are much more mysterious. A Confederate group had tried to burn the museum before, but rumors and speculation point everywhere from insurance fraud to an orchestrated publicity stunt. Every person managed to escape alive, and many animals were rescued as well. Some animals managed to jump through windows and escape but were shot by police as they rampaged. The two whales kept in tanks inside were perhaps the most unlucky, boiled alive by the flames. Barnum lost all of his artifacts, including the Fiji mermaid—an event that pushed him toward partnering with the Bailey Circus.
Along with the Barnum tricks comes a whole host of Hollywood movie magic. It’s ironic to see CGI lions and elephants in Barnum’s circus on the big screen when the Greatest Show on Earth circus ended their use last year and was disbanded itself just a few months ago. Instead, we get horses painted to look like zebras. The movie keeps the audience from lingering on the actors as well, depriving us of the spectacle Barnum thrived on providing. This Barnum deceives us by hiding the true showman, flaws and all.