April 5: P.T. Barnum Elected Mayor of Bridgeport – Not His Greatest Show

Today in 1875, Phineas T. Barnum was elected Mayor of Bridgeport at the age of 64.  Though internationally acclaimed as an entertainment impresario and well respected as a politician at the state level, Barnum’s short mayoral tenure  was not the greatest showing for a man still remembered as one of America’s most successful entertainers, entrepreneurs, authors, and philanthropists.

A summary of Barnum’s inaugural address as Mayor of Bridgeport, as reported in the Daily Constitution.

P. T. Barnum had first risen to fame through the success of his American Museum, which opened in New York City in 1841, 31 years before his mayoral bid.  The must-see attraction boasted oddities and curiosities of both certain and dubious veracity, from a working model of Niagara Falls to the alleged remains of a “Feejee mermaid”. Though Barnum cultivated a reputation of himself as  as a peddler of “humbugs”   –  exhibits that challenged observers to determine for themselves whether what they saw was real or a fake (and therefore a “humbug”)  –  he also had a highly moralistic side, born of his universalist religious convictions and a mid-life conversion to temperance, that is, complete abstinence from alcohol.  Politically, he was a champion for the moral reforms advanced by the 19th century Temperance Movement and  a passionate advocate for full citizenship for black Americans as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment. To advance these goals, Barnum ran successfully as a Republican candidate for the Connecticut state legislature in 1866, and ultimately served very effectively for four terms in the state House of Representatives.

In 1875,  Barnum decided to  run for mayor of his home town of Bridgeport, an office he  won handily after a month-long campaign.  But as the industrializing city’s mayor, the moralism that had won him kudos in the state legislature received an altogether different welcome.  His mayoral policies, which included very strict enforcement of liquor laws, shutting down the city’s gambling “hells” and brothels, reducing the size of city government, and providing forced employment for the city’s class of “loungers and loafers,” soon put him at all-out war with Bridgeport’s Democratic council, aldermen and their allies in the press. After only nine months, Barnum announced he would leave office at the end of his one-year term, saying, “No one can congratulate me on the event more heartily than I do myself.”

After his brief and not quite stellar mayoral stint, Barnum again successfully turned his attention toward producing entertainment for the masses.  In 1881, he merged his already renowned “Greatest Show on Earth” with the show of competitor James Bailey , creating “Barnum & Bailey’s Circus,” later Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which ran continuously until closing in 2017.  Barnum remained Bridgeport’s most famous and philanthropic citizen and continued to invest in his adopted hometown, donating land to create the city’s Seaside Park and becoming one of the founders of Bridgeport Hospital.  The city erected a monument to Barnum in Seaside Park after his death in 1891, and his “Institute for Science and History” in downtown Bridgeport, completed after his death in 1893, is now open to the public as the Barnum Museum.

A statue of P. T. Barnum, cast in 1887, is part of the memorial to him in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park.

Further Reading

P.T. Barnum, Life of P. T. Barnum, Written By Himself, Including His Golden Rules for Money-Making, Brought Up to 1888, via Google Books

Gregg Mangan, “P. T. Barnum: An Entertaining Life,” connecticuthistory.org

About P. T. Barnum,” The Barnum Museum