Entertaining biography explores twists and turns of Barnum's life

BIOGRAPHY: “Barnum: An American Life” by Robert Wilson. c.2019, Simon & Schuster $28. 352 pages.

Fool you once, shame on you.

Fool you twice, well, you weren’t paying attention then. You didn’t see that you were being duped, lied to, led to believe something that wasn’t. Maybe the hoax was cruel, maybe it was meant to be funny. Or maybe, as in the new book “Barnum: An American Life” by Robert Wilson, it was a way to riches.

Born in Connecticut on July 5, 1810, and named after his grandfather, Phineas Taylor Barnum grew up in a small village in which practical jokes were a social must. Everyone in Bethel participated in the tomfoolery and there was pressure to be a “good sport.” It was a lesson young “Tale” learned well.

He was a boy who hated “hand-work” but embraced “head-work” with enthusiasm, especially when it came to money. By age 12, he’d figured out how to profit through livestock purchases, a shrewdness that eventually led to lotteries and a series of small businesses, and that also taught Barnum the art of promotion. It was hustle that lasted until May 1834 when the Connecticut state legislature banned lotteries and Barnum quickly became broke.

He had a family then, and he took them to New York, where he set out to reinvent his life. Just over a year later, his personal revolution began, quite by accident.

That month, Barnum was offered an opportunity to display an elderly slave woman who was touted as having been George Washington’s nursemaid. Clearly, Joice Heth was not 161 years old, but Barnum convinced people that she was and, though controversial, crowds flocked to see her. Newspapers of the time estimated that Barnum made $10,000 on a thousand-dollar investment.

For the next many years, Barnum left his wife and family at home while he traveled the world, looking for new things for his collection. He bought a museum and a “mermaid,” toured Great Britain with a 5-year-old dwarf, and promoted a Swedish singer who captured American imaginations. By 1850, ready for another reinvention, he started thinking about a revolving show filled with animals and entertainment, one that would travel around the country.

When you think of P.T. Barnum, you may be inclined to think big, bigger, biggest. His personality was most certainly oversized but here, Wilson shows another side to the showman, one that’s decidedly more down-to-earth.

Indeed, in “Barnum: An American Life,” readers are told about the usual work of the famous man, but there’s another ring to the three-ring circus that was Barnum’s life. We also meet the man’s wife and daughters, the former being a woman to pity; and we come to understand the complicated relationships Barnum had with the people who made him rich. Speaking of complicated, we also learn what drove Barnum to be a showman, abolitionist, philanthropist and teetotaler.

For sure, “Barnum: An American Life” is a must-read for fans of the circus and sideshows of yore. It’s a book for historians, too, and if you’re a lover of good biographies, it would be a shame to miss it.

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