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The Mermaid, Woolly Horse, Ploughing Elephant were merely used by me in advertising to attract attention.” From ”The Selected Letters of P. T. Barnum, edited by Arthur H. Saxon, to be published by the Columbia University Press.

HAS P. T Barnum, the famous 19th century showman, circus owner and Bridgeport resident, been misunderstood all these years? Was he so imprisoned in the con man legend of his own making that in the end it obliterated his real character, even into history?

Arthur H. Saxon, a noted circus historian who lives near Fairfield Beach, believes so. He came to this conclusion after spending the last three years collecting more than 3,000 letters that Phineas Taylor Barnum had sent to friends and business associates.

Rather than suggest that Barnum was out to make his fortune by duping a gullible public, Mr. Saxon is now convinced that Barnum was the exact opposite: a sensitive and tolerant individual with a sense of mission who believed in giving the public a good laugh for only pennies, and fought hard for unpopular, progressive causes such as women’s rights, freedom for slaves and against the machine dominated politics of his day.

”As I read through these letters I began to see a totally different person, not at all what seemed to come through from his autobiography or even the popular biographies that have been written since,” Mr. Saxon said.

Using these letters as a base, Mr. Saxon then started frequenting libraries, private collections and companies with which Barnum had conducted business, to gather examples of Barnum’s jottings that might contain clues to the real personality and philosophy of the man.

The search became so widespread that, ”hardly a week goes by any more when I don’t receive additional letters,” said Mr. Saxon, whose house has become a showcase of circus memorabilia. A miniature, antique red and white carousel sits on the coffee table in the living room. A framed poster of ”Barnum,” the Broadway show, hangs nearby on a wall. There are oil paintings of circus scenes and photographs of Mr. Saxon at the circus.

There is not a whit of evidence, suggested Mr. Saxon, that Barnum ever said anything as callous as, ”There’s a sucker born every minute.”

”There’s no contemporary account of it,” said Mr. Saxon, ”or even any suggestion that the word ‘sucker’ was used in the derogatory sense in his day. Barnum was just not the type to disparage his patrons.

”I’ll admit, he loved a good show; a hoax. But the whole idea was that the audience would get a laugh out of being taken in and consider it part of the entertainment, rather than feel cheated. Barnum was not even above being duped himself and turning it to his advantage.”

As an example, Mr. Saxon tells of the cherry colored cat. ”In probably the most reliable version,” said Mr. Saxon, ”a woman writes to Barnum asking him to give her $25 for her cherrycolored cat. Crackpots were always writing to Barnum with curiosities like a three legged chicken or a genuine mermaid.

Even Barnum’s overt attempts at doing good were often misunderstood, insisted Mr. Saxon. He tells how Barnum has always been accused of desecrating the old Division Street Cemetery in Bridgeport,
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obtaining special permission from the State Legislature to dig up the bodies and then use the prime parcel of land for speculative building.

”What everyone forgets,” said Mr. Saxon, ”is that in keeping with the more general 19th century thinking, there was a movement to get bodies out of the center of all the growing cities for hygienic reasons. In this case, pigs were rooting up the ground. Washerwomen were spreading clothes out to dry on the headstones.

”It was better to use land on the outside of the cities for graves and turn the old cemeteries into land for homes. Barnum was even willing to donate individual plots in the new cemeteries for people who couldn’t afford their own. But the idea of his being responsible for all those bodies being dug up and dragged out of town makes such a good story everyone forgets the rest.”

The letters also show that Barnum, a man who married twice and had four daughters, was a fervent advocate of women’s rights, he said. Barnum supported Olympia Brown, understood to be the first woman to be ordained in the Universalist Church, as a minister for his parish.

Barnum insisted that the controversial suffragist, Lucy Stone, speak in Bridgeport, and offered to put her up at his family’s mansion, Mr. Saxon said.

”I once stepped into Tripler Hall (in New York City),” Barnum wrote to a friend in April 1855, ”for the purposes of seeing Lucy Stone. I had never seen her, she was speaking on women’s rights. And I became enchained to the seat and remained there until she had finished. Can it be done?”

Barnum also endowed a museum of natural history at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., filling it with animals from his circus and shows. There was even evidence, said Mr. Saxon, that Barnum helped the Smithsonian Institution build some of its natural history collection and was involved in the creation of the National Zoo in Washington.

”Especially later in life,” said Mr. Saxon, ”Barnum started to take himself very seriously. He became Mayor of Bridgeport and a Representative in the State Legislature. There was even talk by the Republicans in the Prohibition Party of running him as a Presidential candidate. He was so well known you could write to P. T. Barnum, America. I have an envelope which is addressed just that way from a minister in Scotland.”

The letters also show that Barnum became a well known champion of the temperance movement, making speeches and touring on behalf of temperance, having given up drinking by pouring all his wines on his front lawn one day.

Perhaps most poignant of all, suggested Mr. Saxon, are indications that late in life Barnum tried desperately to soften the publicly held view that he was nothing but a con man. For example, the letter quoted above was written on Jan. 27, 1860 to an English publisher about to issue a biography of Barnum as ”a celebrated American charlatan and fraud.”

But the legend persisted. Even the Barnum depicted in the Broadway show, added Mr. Saxon, was pure myth. The idea of Barnum’s having a tempestuous love affair with the singer Jenny Lind was totally out of character, he said.

”Besides, Jenny was one of the great 19th century prudes,” said Mr. Saxon, adding this footnote to history with a casual flip of the hand.

Yet it is a strangely fitting epitaph for Barnum, a supreme master of the art of illusion, that the myth remains so much more believable than the man. ”But sad,” Mr. Saxon said.
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