The Greatest Showman: The Last Great Con of P. T. Barnum

Helen Stanton |20 February 2018

Modern History | Cultural History | Disability History | Public History 

“The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena”: Barnum & Bailey Poster 1898-1899 [via Wikicommons].

Throughout history, storytelling has often bent the truth to create a better, more interesting story. The latest Hugh Jackman film ‘The Greatest Showman’ does just this. In its rags-to-riches musical fairytale, P. T. Barnum appears as a slightly flawed, but generally caring man who wants to prove to disabled people that they can be valued by displaying them in a circus ‘freak show.’ Unlike an omission that improves a story, this is blatant and flagrant twisting of history to offer a more pleasant and appealing story for the public.

In reality, Barnum was not a sympathetic character. He was a con man who used people—disabled or otherwise—for his own personal gain. The stories of those he used have, in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ either been omitted or twisted to allow the audience to sympathise with Barnum.

When one investigates the true history of his life, Barnum was not ‘the greatest showman’, and little of his impact on human lives was ‘great’. Early in his career, for example, Barnum bought an old slave called Joice Heth to display her as the supposedly 161-year old nurse of George Washington. When she died, Barnum staged a public autopsy, charging people 50 cents to watch it, profiting from her demise as he did from her life.

Though one might excuse the omission of Joice Heth’s story on the basis of limited time in the film, the film did not just omit the parts of Barnum’s life that were unsavoury. Actually, the film twisted his work beyond recognition to show him as the ‘saviour’ of people with disabilities, rather than the abuser and owner of them.

An example of this is the recruitment of people like Charles Stratton (a man with dwarfism, who played General Tom Thumb in Barnum’s circus) and Annie Jones (a woman with hirsutism who was replaced by the fictional ‘Lettie Lutz’ in the film). The film depicts both Stratton and Jones being recruited by Barnum as adults, who (in one of the more patronising sequences of the film) promises them that they will be not be seen as outcasts anymore. Barnum appears as their rescuer. In reality, both were bought by Barnum as children: Stratton was just 4 years old when he was purchased from his family, whilst Jones was bought at just 9 months old.

Moving away from the portrayal of Barnum, the film is still flawed in its portrayal of disabled people. There is a totally different approach when Barnum recruits people with and without disabilities. With disabled people, Barnum appears as a rescuer, whereas with the white opera singer Philip Carlyle (his fictional sidekick) the relationship is portrayed as a business proposition (he offers non-disabled partners a percentage of the show’s profits).

Whilst Barnum did purchase some of his so called ‘freaks,’ it is not true that all of the people with disabilities in his shows had little agency. Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins, were actually savvy business people. These two became a successful act outside of Barnum’s influence and they controlled their own business and marketed themselves.

Barnum was not the only showman to display and abuse disabled ‘freaks’. Freak shows were a popular form of entertainment in the United States, Great Britain, and across Europe, particularly in the Victorian era. Together with ‘Human Zoos,’ which displayed ethnic minority peoples, they satisfied the curiosities of the Victorian public. Materials in the National Fairground Archives held in Sheffield show the extent of this ‘othering’ as entertainment.

Despite hopes that this sort of entertainment was confined to the history books, ‘The Greatest Showman’ has once again conned the public, just like Barnum. Two hundred years on, the film mirrors Barnum’s tactic: distracting the public from a distasteful reality with a spectacle. This time, however, the distracting spectacle employs special effects and music.

‘The Greatest Showman’ could have been an empowering piece, instead it falls into the trap of romanticising the notion of the ‘Freak Show’ and allows the public once again to ignore the harsh realities of its past.

Helen Stanton is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She has been involved in conducting research into the impact of race on the ‘othering’ of specific peoples, including those in Victorian ‘freak shows’.