PT Barnum Museum: Discover Wonders Of The Greatest Show On Earth | Stanton House Inn

1920s circus adRemember the Barnum & Bailey Circus?


Most remember this as the most important contribution from PT Barnum to American culture.


Elephants, lions, tigers, and all.


But PT Barnum got his real start in museums. And after several calamities, his last museum, the PT Barnum museum, persists in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut.


Despite still more calamities.


Read on for the details about one of the most unique attractions in Connecticut


Plus: PT Barnum, his museums, and the latest tragedy to befall the PT Barnum museum of today.

bridgeport ct visitors guide map 1 PT Barnum Museum: Discover Wonders of the Greatest Show on Earth
Map design by Stanton House Inn with elements from Flaticon


PT Barnum: The Man

Phineas Taylor Barnum, or P.T. Barnum was the most remarkable businessman and entertainer in nineteenth-century America. His story is a fascinating exploration of nineteenth-century history, across the spectrum:

  • Social
  • Commercial
  • Political
  • And industrial history

PT Barnum himselfAnd it began long before he established his famous circus in 1872. P.T. Barnum began the “Greatest Show On Earth” when he was 61 years old and a well-known entertainer. The circus was meant to be a retirement project.


Barnum was committed to the intellectual and cultural advancement of society and advocated for the pursuit of freedom and choice. He was responsible for introducing Jenny Lind, a well-known Swedish opera singer, to the United States. He paid her what was at the time an astronomical sum of $1,000 per performance, though he made significantly more from the transaction.


No one could say PT Barnum wasn’t a capitalist.


This Victorian era Renaissance man held many titles:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Museum owner
  • Business leader
  • Politician
  • Urban developer
  • Community benefactor
  • Philanthropist
  • Temperance advocate
  • Abolitionist
  • Lecturer
  • And author


Barnum was arguably the most well-known person in the world in the nineteenth century. He corresponded frequently with notable people from all over the world, among them:

  • Mark Twain
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • Queen Victoria
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ulysses Grant
  • And Thomas Edison


An icon of American ingenuity, marketers still study his work in promotion.


One of the best examples was his work promoting his American Museum in New York City.

PT Barnum’s American Museum

Over the lifetime of the American Museum, millions of people clocked to the intersection of Broadway and Ann Street to witness Barnum’s grand attraction.


The sprawling, ramshackle building near the modern World Trade Center Plaza was a mix of a modern history museum, live theater, freak show, and a wax museum.


Exhibits at the American Museum included:

  • Live exotic animals
  • Seashells
  • Fossils
  • Waxworks depicting historical scenes, current events, and famous people


The museum had both supporters and detractors. But there was no argument that the exhibits served as a portal to fantastic, unbelievable, and bizarre worlds.


It was so renowned during its two and a half decades of operation that it was even a target of attempted sabotage during the Civil War.

Exhibits at the American Museum

P.T. Barnum used his museum to introduce what he called, “living curiosities” to the public, both real and imagined.

Live animals

The most unique aspect of the American Museum was its aquarium, the first of its kind. PT Barnum paid at great expense to deliver two whales to the museum. A system pumped water from the East River into the tanks in the basement for these very sad whales to eke out a meager existence.


But more live animals, which PT Barnum collected on his exotic travels, joined the menagerie: birds, reptiles, insects, and animals as large as giraffes.

FeeJee Mermaid

That said, his most famous exhibit was the Feejee Mermaid. Anyone who sees this in person can confirm that it was the top portion of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish.


But it’s more famous for the brilliant promotional campaign PT Barnum used. He paid for articles promoting the FeeJee Mermaid, some claiming it was legitimate, others a fraud.


The conflicting pieces encouraged readers to visit the museum to see for themselves. And they did. In droves.


Barnum’s most famous adage is that “a sucker is born every minute.” He would have loved that saying, though they were not the exact words he used. He more accurately said, “The American people like to be humbugged.


And the FeeJee Mermaid was one of his best examples.

Human Attractions

Tom Thumb with his benefactorThis being the nineteenth century, perceptions of what was exploitative were still evolving.


And PT Barnum certainly falls on the side of exploitation.


Some of the most famous human attractions at the American Museum were:

  • Anna Swan, the Nova Scotia Giantess
  • And Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins


And yet most famous of all was Charles Sherwood Stratton, stage name: General Tom Thumb. A distant relative of Barnum, he had been working with him since the mid-1840s. Stratton was a charming performer who delighted such prominent celebrities as Queen Victoria.

The American Museum’s First Disaster

At around noon on July 13, 1865, a fire broke out at the museum.


Pandemonium broke out as the rickety wooden building went up in flames. Panicked patrons and performers rushed to the exits, as did the living attractions.


Remarkably, no humans died in the fire. In fact, firemen rescued many wax figures, thinking they were alive.


The same can’t be said for the animals, however. Most that jumped out of windows were shot by waiting police in a macabre scene on the street. Others that couldn’t run, like the poor whales, met terrible fates.

Aftermath of the first PT Barnum Museum

The New York Times swore that the museum was irreplaceable. And yet PT Barnum started a new one within the year.


Which also burned down shortly afterwards.


And by then, PT Barnum had started his famous circus.

The Modern PT Barnum Museum

PT Barnum Museum, in downtown Bridgeport, CTAfter a long career of combining education and entertainment, PT Barnum cast a vision of the Barnum Institute of Science and History. He hoped that it would be a lasting legacy to celebrate American cultural and scientific achievements.


His final project, Barnum poured his energy and resources into the museum. Barnum designed the terracotta and stone building as a science and history institute. He approved the final plans for the museum just three weeks before his death on April 7, 1891. The PT Barnum museum opened about two years later as one of the best Fairfield County museums.


It wasn’t until much later that it became a museum in his honor.


The PT Barnum Museum houses over 60,000 artifacts related to P.T. Barnum, Bridgeport, and nineteenth-century America. This historic building is also on the National Register of Historic Places.


P.T. Barnum, a driven and optimistic businessman, forever changed the entertainment industry. People from all over the world can learn about Barnum, be moved by his life story, and experience the joy he worked so hard to spread at his final museum, which is a perpetual “open house.”


Sort of. More on that later.

Exhibits at the PT Barnum Museum

The museum gallery, currently located in the People’s United Bank Gallery behind the famous Museum building, contains a few extraordinary surprises. It includes items belonging to P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb, as well as Bridgeport history.


The P. T. Barnum Museum’s oddities collection includes:

  • A 1,000 square foot miniature circus
  • A replica of his original FeeJee mermaid
  • Pa-lb, a real unwrapped mummy
  • A preserved elephant

Is the PT Barnum Museum still open?

exterior of the PT Barnum MuseumAfter over a hundred years of operations, Hurricane Sandy and the damage it caused forced the PT Barnum Museum to close its doors.


The museum spent the following decade gathering funds to update and refurbish the building and museum.


And as of this writing, they’ve begun the work!


You can still see the magnificent Victorian structure from outside (assuming there’s no scaffolding).


As I mentioned before, some items are on display in an exhibit behind the museum, including items from Stratton’s collection. The FeeJee Mermaid and many more of the most famous pieces are in storage until the museum reopens, however.


But seriously, you’re not missing much with that FeeJee Mermaid. It really is just a monkey sewn onto a fish.


Restaurants near the PT Barnum Museum

Right across the street from the PT Barnum Museum is Joseph’s Steakhouse, if you’re hungry. It’s one of the best restaurants in Bridgeport, CT, though there are obviously a ton of other options nearby.


More things to do in Bridgeport, Connecticut

seaside park in bridgeport ctAmong the many things PT Barnum did was serve as mayor for Bridgeport, his adopted hometown.


Some of the major Bridgeport attractions that exist thanks to him include:





Some other fantastic nearby Connecticut museums include:






Or hit up Mongers Market on a Sunday to pick up a curio or two for your own collection.


And if you’d like to visit the homes of other unique and eccentric Connecticutians, be sure to checkout:





And for all the best attractions, activities, and things to do in Bridgeport, Connecticut, be sure to read the full guide!

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