Phineas Barnum (1810-1891), American hustler, huckster, and entertainer, is best known for Barnum and Bailey’s circus, billed as “the greatest show on earth.” Robert Wilson’s elegantly written Barnum (Simon & Schuster, $28) spotlights Barnum’s humbugs and hoaxes prior to the circus days, such as the former slave, Joice Heath, he passed off as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid; the Fejee Mermaid, which was part fi sh, part monkey skeleton; and his long tour with five-year-old Charley Stratton dubbed “the little general” and renamed Tom Thumb. Barnum also constructed an Oriental Villa in Connecticut which ultimately burned to the ground, and lectured on temperance reform and money-making, in spite of his own spectacular bankruptcies. Wilson, the author of two previous biographies and editor of The American Scholar, resists the urge to editorialize but his meticulous research speaks for itself. Ultimately, Barnum emerges as complicated, vain, and selfserving, and in the words of one contemporary journalist, "Barnum appears to be a vain elderly man on the best possible terms with himself."
Barnum by Robert Wilson