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The Old Showman’s Last Triumph
Near the close of a gaudy career, P. T. Earnum took the “greatest show on earth” to London. His scrapbook reveals the master of hokum at the top of his form
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
But tragedy followed. On the night of September 15, 1885, in St. Thomas, Ontario, Jumbo was struck by a freight train. Though the locomotive and two cars were demolished, poor Jumbo, alas, did not survive. The world was saddened, but Barnum was not exactly inconsolable. He proceeded to have Jumbo’s skeleton mounted and his hide stuffed, with the result (right) that he could now exhibit two Jumbos at once.
Long before Hollywood discovered Ben Hur, Barnum (and his collaborator the Hungarian impresario Imre Kiralfy) had realized the advantage of a pageant based upon imperial Rome--namely, that it combines the theme of Christian heroism with scenes of lip-smacking decadence. “Nero; or the Destruction of Rome” was no exception. “A grand show,” the London Mirror called it. “It surpasses anything of the kind ever attempted in this or any other country.” There was something in it for everybody, from a triumphal procession (above) and bacchanalian orgies through to gladiatorial contests and chariot races (right). To judge by his press notices, Barnum’s audiences had never before been exposed to anything at once so educational and so stupefying. “It is no mere artificial show,” rhapsodized the London Chronicle, “but a vivid and vast realization of life.”
Early in his career Barnum learned a lesson he never forgot: get the upper classes on your side and the masses will follow. When he had brought Tom Thumb to London in 1844, he had secured an audience for the midget with Queen Victoria; after that he had only to sit back and collect the receipts. Now in 1889 royalty came to his circus. The Prince of Wales came (the Princess came four times), bringing his young son who would one day be George V. (When Barnum asked the boy if he was going to stay until the end of the performance, he looked around cautiously and said, “Mr. Barnum, I shall remain here until they sing God Save Grandmother.”) Barnum seems to have appealed to aristocrats partly because he was a curiosity, but partly also because in his simple way he could be familiar without being insolent. For him the high point must have been the banquet in his honor with a guest list (below) filled with names from Burke’s Peerage and Who’s Who, among them Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Robert Peel, Henry Irving, and Oscar Wilde. His health was proposed by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who compared Barnum favorably with Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, since they were showmen too, but made their shows out of human misery instead, as Barnum did, out of innocent pleasure. Also included in the toasts was another group whose good will P. T. Barnum never allowed to go unremembered: the ever-helpful Press.