April 5: P.T. Barnum Becomes Bridgeport’s Mayor – 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 rose 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”. Barnum cultivated a reputation for being a peddler of “humbugs” – exhibits that challenged observers to determine for themselves whether what they saw was real or a fake (and if fake, a “humbug”). But 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. He also was an ardent 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 served very effectively for four terms in the state House of Representatives.

In 1875, wanting to see his temperance policies implemented in the city he loved. Barnum decided to run for mayor of his home town of Bridgeport, an office he won handily after a month-long campaign. As the industrializing city’s mayor, however, the moralism that won him kudos in the state legislature received an altogether different welcome. His mayoral edicts, 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 “loungers and loafers,” soon put him at all-out war with Bridgeport’s Democratic council, aldermen and their allies in the press. Barnum’s tenure as mayor was marked by unending, contentious, dispute. 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 not quite stellar mayoral stint, Barnum once again turned his attention toward producing entertainment for the masses. In 1881, he merged his already renowned “Greatest Show on Earth” with the show of his competitor James Bailey , creating “Barnum & Bailey’s Circus,” – later Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – which ran continuously for 137 years, closing in 2017.

Barnum remained Bridgeport’s most famous and philanthropic citizen. He continued to invest in his adopted hometown, donating land to create the city’s Seaside Park, becoming one of the founders of Bridgeport Hospital, and building the Barnum Institute of Science and History, today’s Barnum Museum, as a lasting legacy to the city’s cultural and scientific achievement. To honor the man who had been a much better citizen than a mayor, the city erected a monument to Barnum in Seaside Park after his death in 1891.

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