Jenny Lind: the Swedish Nightingale

By Gladys Denny Shultz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
"This Jenny Lind Business Will Ruin You!"

PHINEAS T. BARNUM would have been the first to admit that his was one of those success stories, from humble beginnings to fame and riches, in which the American public of the nineteenth century delighted. Son of an innkeeper and storekeeper in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum had started his own career as a storekeeper, with a side interest in lotteries, and had had his first business failure, a necessary ingredient for any true blue success story, before he was nineteen. He had then started a weekly paper, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut, where he developed the literary style which was to stand him in good stead in publicizing his later ventures. What he lacked in education he made up for in imagination, and while his prose was sprinkled with crudities, and frequently misspelled, it was fluent and never suffered from lack of vividness.

His first firm step up the ladder of fortune came in 1835, when after several experiences with traveling shows and circuses, he bought a wizened, crippled slave named Joice Heth and exhibited her about the country. Barnum's claim that she was a hundred and sixty years old and had been George Washington's nurse aroused considerable controversy in the newspapers, much of which Barnum himself instigated. Barnum, in fact, liked nothing better than to have the papers call him a humbug, so long as they spelled his name correctly. When Joice Heth died, and autopsy showed that she might be ninety years old but could not possibly be any older, Barnum made further publicity capital out of that.

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