This weekend, I took the family to see The Greatest Showman at the cinema. It was an amazing film, filled with catchy songs, old-school glamour and variety, themes of love and inclusion and a smidgen of what my son calls "peril". It also got me thinking about the real P.T. Barnum. How much of what we saw in the film was actually based on his life and how much was artistic licence?
Now, there is no shortage of sources through which to find out. Countless biographies of Barnum have been written and at least one autobiography which he published in 1855. There's even a museum dedicated to his life and works. These reveal, not unexpectedly, that the film is roughly 50/50 based in truth and artistic licence. Jenny Lind, for example, really was known as the "Swedish Nightingale" and toured America with Barnum but there is no evidence of her falling for him and ending the tour as a result. Similarly, business partner Philip Carlyle and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler are pure invention but the other members of Barnum's troupe are all based on real people. There is a great blogpost on the History vs Hollywood site which sets out these parallels and inconsistencies brilliantly.
This blog, however, is all about family history research. Most of the time when trying to find out about our ancestors, we genealogists don’t have the luxury of reading an autobiography written by the people we are researching. Instead, we have to rely on more standard records – church registers, census returns, military service sheets, newspaper reports – to reconstruct their lives. But these records are not to be disparaged. They may not always reveal the personal thoughts and individual dreams of our ancestors in the way something written by them may do. Nevertheless, together they can paint an incredibly rich picture of how they lived and what they achieved.
So what might these ordinary records tell us about the extraordinary life of P.T. Barnum? Here are a just a few snippets.
Connecticut birth registers show that Phineas Taylor Barnum was born to Philo Barnum, a tailor and shopkeeper, and his second wife, Irene Taylor in Bethel, Fairfield County, in 1810. Barnum was one of 5 siblings and also had several half-siblings from his father's first marriage. His father died in 1828 but his mother lived on for another 40 years. Barnum's application for membership of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution traces his ancestry to his maternal grandfather who fought in the American War of Independence. The fact that he applied for membership at all might also suggest his own patriotism and desire to be a part of the most revered parts of contemporary American society.
Extract from the 1860 US Federal Census for Fairfiled, Connecticut (NARA via ancestry.co.uk: Roll M653_74, Pg 939)
Barnum also appeared on several US census returns, each of which shows his growing family and his developing profession. This entry from the 1860 census of Connecticut shows Barnum with his wife, Charity, who appears in the film, and their youngest daughter, Pauline, who does not. Connecticut birth records show that Barnum had 5 children with Charity, three daughters who survived and a daughter and a son who died in early childhood. Charity herself died in 1873 at the age of 65 and Barnum remarried to Nancy Fish, a 24 year old from Blackpool, England, the following year.
It could be argued that all the information offered by the genealogical sources might also be found in his autobiography. This may be, but these sources shouldn't be underestimated. Where autobiographies can be coloured by the image the author wishes to present about themselves, censuses and other records are independent, primary sources, collected for statistical purposes. The information they contain was never meant to be published within the lifetime of the subject so, theoretically, they should be less biased. The conclusions we might infer from these sources, therefore, might actually be quite different from the picture Barnum chose to present of himself to the media.
Finally, even without the autobiographies, aspects of Barnum's unusual life would still be traceable in the standard range of records in which most of our ancestors appear. This includes not only names and dates but flashes of the fascinating personality behind these facts.