P. T. Barnum, The Showman | Only in New England
Photo/Art by John SchmelzerThe first thing of note P. T. Barnum accomplished was getting thrown in jail. As a young newspaper editor, he accused merchant Seth Seelye–a prominent citizen of Barnum’s own hometown of Bethel, Connecticut–of usury and spent two months locked up for libel. Upon his release he was hardly repentant: He orchestrated his own parade to welcome himself back to town.
As state heroes go, Barnum is a complicated one. He’s often credited as the father of modern marketing, which may or may not be a compliment. He built much of his fortune on hoaxes. If you believe the billing, during his career he featured the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington, a petrified giant, and the remains of a mermaid (which ended up being a monkey sewn to a fish). Yet at the same time, Barnum displayed attributes you wouldn’t mind seeing in your own child. In business, he was a determined and innovative pioneer. In life, he was a generous philanthropist, a supporter of emancipation, and a surprisingly honest politician. He was also loved (mostly). Patricia Rist of the Bethel Historical Society explains why. “He gave Americans what they wanted,” she says, “which wasn’t always the truth.”
So in honor of Barnum’s 200th birthday on July 5, Bethel has commissioned a life-size statue of the great showman. Past memorials to Barnum have almost as colorful a history as the man himself. His grave was almost immediately robbed (unsuccessfully), and a statue of him in Bridgeport survived being trampled by Barnum’s own circus elephants before being installed at Seaside Park (truly, they never forget). So the elephants will be kept far from the new sculpture on September 26, as the people of Bethel throw Barnum one more welcome-home parade, bringing their favorite son full circle to the lawn of the library, which, fittingly, resides in Seth Seelye’s old home.