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Phineas Taylor Barnum and His Elephant

From Barnum's autobiography.

This story is meant to be read aloud. Read it as if you are announcing a circus act, mostly in a loud and excited voice. But when you get to the parts that are in parentheses, read it in a lower voice, as if you're the showman telling the crowd exactly how you managed to bamboozle them.


He was the greatest showman in America! He was a man who was know and loved everywhere, the most famous person in the United States in the nineteenth century! He was the man who created "the greatest show on earth"! He was a man named Phineas Taylor Barnum.

P. T. Barnum was a showman, the greatest showman of all time, a man who put on shows of strange and wonderful things in his giant Museum in New York City!

(Of course he made lots of money in the process.)

P. T. Barnum exhibited the very first live hippopotamus ever seen in North America! His museum was known for its amazing and incredible animals. He exhibited the amazing Feejee Mermaid!

(True, the Feejee Mermaid was actually a fake that had been glued together. But at least he later admitted that it was a fake.)

It was P. T. Barnum discovered Jenny Lind, the greatest singer of the day, the woman who was known as "The Swedish Nightingale" because of her beautiful voice. And it was P. T. Barnum who brought Jenny Lind all the way from Sweden to North America!

(But more than anything, Barnum was an expert at the art of making money. He made lots and lots of money, so much money that he was able to give away lots of money to his church, to help found Tufts University, to help stop drinking.

(He had a two-part secret for making money. First, give the public good value. Second, get all the free advertising that you can! Here's an example of how Barnum gave good value, and got free advertising for his fabulous American Museum....)

P. T. Barnum brought thirteen elephants farthest Asia to North America. He exhibited them in New York and all across the North American continent.

(Of course, he made huge amounts of money in the process).

At the end of four years, he sold all the elephants, except for one elephant that he kept to use on his farm in Connecticut. Yes, P. T. Barnum brought the elephant to his farm, and he figured out a way to hitch a plow to the elephant. Then he hired a man to plow a corner of his farm, a six-acre plot of land that lay right next to the main line of the New York and New Haven Railroad.

(Now the man who was in charge of the elephant was not really a farmer. No, instead of farming, he had a different job. He had a time-table for the railroad, and every time a passenger train was due to pass by, he made sure the elephant was busily engaged in drawing the plow, right where all the passengers could best see.)

Hundreds of people each day rode the train right past Barnum's elephant. As you can imagine, they were amazed and astonished! Barnum was using an elephant to draw a plow! Reporters from all the New York newspapers came to write stories on this amazing spectacle. People wrote letters to Barnum from far and wide, asking his advice on how they, too, might use an elephant to draw a plow on their farms!

(Barnum responded to all these letters, saying: "Now this is strictly confidential, but for goodness sake, don't even think of getting an elephant, they eat far too much hay and you would loose money. I'm just doing it to draw attention to my museum in New York.")

Pictures of Barnum's elephant pulling the plow began to appear in newspapers all across the United States, and even overseas in Europe. People came out to Connecticut on purpose just to see Barnum's elephant at work. They would say, "Why look at that! That's a real elephant drawing that plow! If Barnum can use an elephant on his farm, he must have all kinds of animals at his Museum, so I'm going to go to the Museum as soon as I get to New York!"

(Then one day, an old farmer friend of Barnum's came to visit and see the elephant at work. By this time, that six acre plot of land beside the railroad had been plowed over about sixty times. The farmer watched the elephant work for a while, and then he turned to Barnum and said, "My team of oxen could pull harder than that elephant any day."

("Oh, no," said Barnum, "that elephant can draw better than your oxen, that I guarantee."

("I don't want to doubt your word," said his farmer friend, "but I would like to know just what that elephant could draw better than my oxen!"

("That's easy," said Barnum. "That elephant can draw the attention of twenty million people to Barnum's Museum.")

With twenty million people coming to his museum, Barnum made even more money!

P. T. Barnum is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalists, precisely because he wasn't perfect. He didn't always tell the truth, but at least he later admitted when he tried to fool people. He made lots and lots of money, but he made sure to give lots of his money away to help other people. He gave money to poor people, and he gave money to help people stop drinking, and he built parks that everyone could use, and he gave lots of money to his Universalist church. I like P. T. Barnum because I know I'm not perfect. But even though I make mistakes perhaps like Mr. Barnum I can help make the world a better place.