Circus S(p)in: P.T. Barnum

After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last show on Sunday, May 21. True to its promotional expertise, the circus streamed its final performance live on Facebook and YouTube. The circus dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth” succumbed to declining attendance, high operating costs, and prolonged battles with animal rights groups.

Well before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came under fire for alleged animal rights abuses—owner Feld Entertainment retired its touring elephants in May 2016—company founders violated the most fundamental of human rights. Both Ringling Brothers and Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, who operated separate circuses years prior to merging, have historical ties to slavery.

Starting in 1899, the Ringling Brothers exhibited George and Willie Muse, six- and nine-year old Black albino brothers. They were promoted as Eko and Iko, so-called “ambassadors from Mars.” It is unknown whether the circus kidnapped them or they were sold for a short-term arrangement, but their mother successfully negotiated their release in 1927. Sadly, the sons returned to the circus the following year to support their impoverished family. They wouldn’t retire until 1965.

In 1835, P.T. Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an elderly, blind, slave, to exhibit her as the 161-year-old former nurse of U.S. President George Washington. He displayed her for seven months across the Northeastern United States. When ticket sales dropped off, Barnum planted the even more preposterous news story that Heth was not alive, but controlled by ventriloquist. He continued the denigrating spectacle post-mortem. Barnum charged for admission to a public autopsy to verify her age. The doctor of course concluded that Heth was likely no older than 80 at death. Remarkably, Barnum convinced a news editor that the real Heth remained alive elsewhere, a claim he perpetuated in serialized articles for several months.

In the sanitized version of U.S. history, the circus transitioned seamlessly from human “freak shows” to exotic zoos, and then high-flying acrobatics. But a comprehensive narrative necessitates sociocultural context. Historians have rightfully explored the greater meaning of the circus in the American historical imagination and contemporary popular culture.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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