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Famous Last Words: P. T. Barnum

Famous Last Words: P. T. Barnum

At last! A fresh corpse to be laid to rest in that cobweb-choked crypt of a project named ‘Famous Last Words’. Today we’ll be celebrating 19th century circus entrepreneur, enthusiastic hoax-pusher, master humbugger and showman par excellence Phineas Taylor Barnum.

P. T. Barnum was born for the business of show. He embraced all that was gilded and gaudy and glitz, flash and razzmatazz ran through his very veins. He was also a natural at the business bit. Early endeavours included a successful variety troupe, ‘Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater’ and a takeover of Scudder’s American Museum, swiftly remonikered to put Mr. Barnum’s name up in lights. A widely attributed (though wildly inaccurate) quote from contemporary sources offers a fairground mirror reflection of this predatory entrepreneur.

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

‘Suckers’ came from war and wide to visit the attractions at Barnum’s American Museum. Why wouldn’t they? Heck, it was the only place you could see the the world’s tiniest human, ‘General Tom Thumb’ and a mysterious beast known as the ‘Feejee Mermaid’. More credulous visitors may have spotted that ‘General Tom Thumb’ was really a diminutive toddler trained to knock back claret, smoke gigantic cigars and perform dead-on impersonations of Napoleon dressed in a perfectly-tailored military uniform. All for ‘two bits a gander’! Talk about value! Other punters (especially holidaying taxidermists) may have noticed that the ‘Feejee Mermaid’ was nothing more than a sackful of stuffed animal remains stitched together to resemble the aquatic creature of legend.

The success of Barnum’s freaks, geeks and allied oddities lead to rapid expansion of his museum and fuelled great public desire for his strange attractions to tour the nation. ‘P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome’ was established in 1871 and set P. T. Barnum on his way to becoming king of the circus and the impresario behind the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. There’s nothing wrong with a little humbug, especially if one lives up to one’s own hype.

P. T. Barnum died on 7th April 1891 from the effects of a stroke suffered during a performance a year earlier. His extensive tour of this mortal coil ended with the words:

“How were the circus receipts in Madison Square Gardens?”

The pieces below hopefully capture some of that P. T. Barnum humbug. The font in use this the very 19th century ‘Laudanum’ (named after the very 19th century pastime) and a heavily modified (even dafter?) version of ‘Daft Brush’. The freaky, checkerboard backgrounds started life as ‘circus folk’ images from the Everett Collection’s entertainment archive.


I love how  the neatly set Laudanum contrasts with the messy, hand-rendered look of the elephant lettering. Who else could make such a contrast work? That, my friends is an example of Barnum humbuggery at its most blatant.


The hobo clown that comprises the background to this version looks truly terrifying. Orange you glad I gave him the freaky checkerboard treatment?


This peculiarly gunky colour-scheme was inspired by elephant snot. Yep, I once saw an elephant sneeze all over its keeper. Always mine your childhood memories for design inspiration.

A big, freaky thank you for reading this post. Please share your views in the comments section if you’re left slack-jawed and agog at this cabinet of curiosities. I’m especially keen to hear any deathbed diatribes my readers deem worthy of inclusion.

That’s it. Show’s over folks. Pack up the tent and hose down the freaks. ‘Famous Last Words’ will be back in town soon with another dose of  humbug, razzmatazz and sights that impress only the most credulous punters in the crowd.

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