Hugh Jackman'S Role As P

His path lớn fame & notoriety began by exploiting an enslaved woman, in life và in death, as entertainment for the masses


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Hugh Jackman in "The Greathử nghiệm Showman." 20th Century Fox

Some five decades into his life, Phineas Taylor Barnum from Bethel, Connecticut, had remade himself from his humble beginnings as an impoverished country boy into a showman—indeed the “greakiểm tra showman,” as the new musical about his life would say—of his generation.

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Thanks lớn a combination of brilliant kinh doanh tactics & less-than-upstanding business practices, Barnum had truly arrived, & with his book Humbugs of the World, in 1865, Barnum wanted to lớn inkhung you, his audience, that he hadn’t achieved his rags-to-riches success story by scamming the public.


Barnum"s career trafficked in curiosities, which he served up lớn a public hungry for such entertainment, regardless of how factual or ethical such displays were. His legacy in show business stretched from the American Museum to "Phường. T. Barnum"s Gr& Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan và Hippodrome" (the predecessor of “Ringling Bros. and Barnum và Bailey” circus) near the end of his life. Each were full of bigger-than-life ideas marketed to an audience interested in mass, & often crass, entertainment.

As it was “generally understood,” Barnum wrote in the book, the term humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances—outside show—novel expedients, by which to lớn suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.” And Barnum wanted to lớn make it clear such a practice was justified. “here are various trades and occupations which need only notoriety to insure success,” he claimed, concluding no harm, no foul, so long as at the kết thúc of the day customers felt like they got their money’s worth.

Growing up in the antebellum North, Barnum took his first real dip inlớn showmanship at age 25 when he purchased the right khổng lồ “rent” an aged blaông xã woman by the name of Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington.

By this time, Barnum had tried working as a lottery manager, a shopkeeper và newspaper editor. He was living in Thành Phố New York City, employed at a boarding home page and in a grocery store, & was hungry for a money-making gimmick.

"I had long fancied that I could succeed if I could only get hold of a public exhibition,” he reflected about his life at the time in his 1855 autobiography, The Life of P..T. Barnum, Written by Himself.

With Heth, he saw an opportunity to lớn strike it rich. Though slavery was outlawed in Pennsylvania & Thủ đô New York at the time, a loophole allowed hyên to lớn lease her for a year for $1,000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale.In a research paper on Barnum và his legacy misrepresenting African peoples, Bernth Lindfors, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, aptly sums up significance of that dark transaction as the launching point of Barnum the showman— someone who “began his career in show business by going inlớn debt to buy a superannuated female slave sầu, who turned out to lớn be a fraud."

It’s a story that The Greademo Showman, which presents Barnum as a smooth-talking Harold Hill-type lovable bé, doesn’t address. Hugh Jackman’s Barnum would never be a person comfortable purchasing an enslaved woman to lớn turn a tidy profit. “Rewrite the Stars,” indeed, khổng lồ quote a tuy vậy from the new movie.

As Benjamin Reiss, professor and chair of English at Emory University, & author of The Showman & The Slave, of Barnum, explains in an interview with Smithsonian.com, Barnum’s legacy has become a sort of cultural touchstone. “The story of his life that we choose to lớn tell is in part the story that we choose lớn tell about American culture,” he says. “We can choose khổng lồ erase things or dance around touchy subjects và present a kind of feel good story, or we can use it as an opportunity lớn look at very complex and troubling histories that our culture has been grappling with for centuries.”

That begins with Heth, Barnum’s first big break. It was while on tour with her when he observed a public hungry for spectacle. “Human curiosities, or lusus naturae—freaks of nature—were aý muốn the most popular traveling entertainments of the late eighteenth & early nineteenth centuries,” Reiss explains in his book, but by the time Barnum went on tour with Heth, there was a shift. “y the 1830s the display of grotesquely embodied human forms was for some populist carnivalesque entertainment & for others an offense lớn genteel sensibilities,” Reiss writes. So while the Jacksonian press in Thủ đô New York, “the vanguard of mass culture,” covered Heth’s shows breathlessly, he found while following Barnum’s paper trail that the more old-fashioned New Engl& press bristled at the display. As the newspaper the Courier wrote cuttingly:

“Those who imagine they can contemplate with delight a breathing skeleton, subjected to the same sort of discipline that is sometimes exercised in a menagerie lớn induce the inferior animals to lớn play unnatural pranks for the amusement of barren spectators, will find food khổng lồ their taste by visiting Joice Heth.”

Still, with Heth, Barnum proved himself capable of being nimble enough to lớn dip and swerve, playing up different stories of her to appeal to lớn different audiences across the northeast. Heth, of course, was not alive sầu in George Washington’s time. Whether Barnum believed the fable frankly doesn’t really matter. While he later claimed he did, he wasn’t above making up his own myths about Heth khổng lồ attract people khổng lồ see her; he once planted a story that claimed the enslaved woman wasn’t even a person at all. “What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously constructed automaton,” he wrote.

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When she died in February 1836, rather than let her go in peace, Barnum had one more act up his sleeve: he drummed up a final public spectacle, hosting a live autopsy in a Thủ đô New York Saloon. There, 1500 spectators paid 50 cents khổng lồ see the dead woman cut up, “revealing” that she was likely half her purported age.

After Heth, Barnum found several other acts to lớn tour—notably the coup of getting the world-famous Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale,” to travel across the Atlantic to make her critically và popularly acclaimed American debut with him—until he became the proprietor of the American Museum in December 1841 in New York.

At the American Museum, more than 4,000 visitors poured per day khổng lồ browse some 850,000 “interesting curiosities” at the price of 25 cents a trip. The nhái & the real commingled in the space, with imported, exotic live sầu animals mixing alongside hoaxes lượt thích the so-called Feejee mermaid, a preserved monkey’s head sewn onto lớn the preserved tail of a fish.

Most uncomfortably, in the museum, Barnum continued to present “freakishness” in the size of “living curiosities.” One of the most popular displays featured a man billed as “a creature, found in the wilds of Africa...supposed to lớn be a mixture of the wild native African và the orang outang, a kind of man-monkey.” The offensive poster concluded: “For want of a positive name, the creature was called ‘WHAT IS IT?’”

In truth, WHAT IS IT? was an African-American man named William Henry Johnson. Before coming khổng lồ the show, he served as a cook for another showman in Barnum’s Connecticut hometown. Similar racial othering permeated the rest of Barnum’s “living curiosities,” from the “Aztec” children who were actually from El Salvador, lớn the real, but exoticized, “Siamese Twins,” Chang & Eng.

As James W. Cook, professor of history and American studies at the University of Michigan, argues in The Art of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum, it was because of the “bipartisan mass audience” he built through such displays, which preyed on ideas of African inferiority and racial othering, that Barnum then decided to lớn throw his hat into the political ring.

During his successful run for the Connecticut General Assembly in 1865 something changed, however. Suddenly, Cook writes, Barnum “began lớn express a novel sympathy và regret about the subjugation of African-Americans—or at least to lớn approach civil rights matters at the end of the Civil War with a new, somewhat softer vision of racial paternalism.” During a failed run for Congress, he even “confessed” during a campaign speech that while living in the South he had owned slaves himself, actions he since regretted. “I did more,” he said. “I whipped my slaves. I ought lớn have sầu been whipped a thous& times for this myself. But by then I was a Democrat—one of those nondescript Democrats, who are Northern men with Southern principles.”

It’s a powerful speech, but how much of his remorse was spin is hard khổng lồ say. “With Barnum you never know if that’s part of the act or the contrition was genuine,” says Reiss. “People change & it’s possible he really did feel this, although throughout his career as a showman there were many episodes of exhibiting non-Trắng people in degrading ways.”

With Heth at least, as Reiss says, he clearly viewed her as an opportunity & a piece of property at the beginning, something he bragged about constantly early in his career. But after he gained growing respectability following the Civil War, the story he so proudly boasted about changed.

That"s because, when you break it down, as Reiss says, “he owned this woman, worked her for 10 lớn 12 hours a day near the over of her life, worked her lớn death & then, exploited her after death.” This history becomes, suddenly, an unsavory chapter for Barnum và so, Reiss says, there’s a shift in how he relays the story. He observes that his “narration gets shorter and shorter, more & more apologetic lớn the end.” Barnum’s later retelling rewrites history, as Reiss says, it “makes it seem lượt thích he didn’t quite know what he was doing và this was just a little blip on his road to greatness. In fact, this was the thing that started his career.”

Today, Barnum và his career arguably serve sầu as a Rorschach chạy thử for where we are, và what kind of humbug tale we are willing lớn be sold. But if you’re looking clear eyed at Barnum, an undeniable fact of his biography is his role marketing racism to lớn the masses. “He had these new ways of making racism seem fun and for people to engage in activities that degraded a racially subjected person in ways that were intimate & funny & surprising and novel,” says Reiss. “That’s part of his legacy, that’s part of what he left us, just as he also left us some really great jokes và circus acts & this kind of charming, wise-cracking ‘America’s uncle’ reputation. This is equally a part of his legacy.”

Rather than explore such dark notes, The Greakiểm tra Showman is more interested in spinning a pretty tale, a humbug, if you will, of a magnitude, that Barnum himself would likely tip his hat lớn.

But as the late historian Daniel Boorstin put it in his critical text, The Image, perhaps this revisionary storytelling shouldn’t be a surprise khổng lồ those paying attention.

“Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum"s great discovery was not how easy it was lớn deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”