New England on a Pedestal

106. The Connecticut Showman

July 19, 2022 Doug Farquharson Season 1 Episode 6
106. The Connecticut Showman
New England on a Pedestal
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New England on a Pedestal
106. The Connecticut Showman
Jul 19, 2022 Season 1 Episode 6
Doug Farquharson

We travel to the shores of Long Island Sound in Bridgeport, CT to find an entertainer, a showman, and a politician. 

Show Notes Transcript

We travel to the shores of Long Island Sound in Bridgeport, CT to find an entertainer, a showman, and a politician. 

Hello Friends and welcome to the newest episode of the New England on a Pedestal podcast. I am your host, Doug Farquharson.  As you know, it’s been a little while since we last published new content. It’s been a busy and hectic last few months around here and unfortunately, the podcast got shuffled down the list of priorities. I am very happy to say that it’s back on top and will hopefully stay there! So, if you have returned after listening to previous episodes, thanks for sticking with us! And if you’re a new listener, welcome!

Podcast hosting sites usually provide a variety of statistics that help the creator to see who and where their listening audiences are, and to show how many downloads or “listened to episodes” there have been. They can show which platforms people listen on and what kind of devices those folks use. Most of New England on a Pedestal’s stats are not that surprising to me. Apple iPhone and Window computers are the top devices. Spotify is the top platform currently, followed by various web browsers and Apple Apps. It’s no surprise that most downloads are in the United States and a large percentage of those are in fact, in the New England area. A big surprise to me is that in the number two spot of countries where people have listened to us is Germany and in fact Frankfurt is the number one city overall for downloads! Wow! So, hello to you my German friends and thank you for listening! Also, a shout out to my friends Down Under in Australia! I know at least one of you has spent some time in New England and I hope this podcast brings back some fun memories! New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland, Brazil, and France are on the list too. And in the US of A, we’ve reached listeners in several states outside of New England including North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, New York, California, Virginia, and Tennessee. Pretty cool if you ask me!

I think that for being a new podcast, we are doing pretty good and have over 400 episodic downloads thus far and are climbing for that 500 mark. While that may not seem like a lot compared to the big guys who get thousands of downloads per episode, you must get to 500 before you can get to a thousand! So, please share this podcast with friends, family, coworkers, anyone really and help us grow! Please subscribe to us through your favorite podcast platform and consider leaving a review for us. That will actually help us reach more listeners and expand our audience. As you know, we can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Stitcher, Amazon Music, Goggle Podcast, Buzzsprout, and many others. Consider giving us a shout out on your social media platforms, too. Anything at all that will help get the word out and get us in front of more people! I really appreciate it! Thank you!

Episode 6 takes us to The Nutmeg State, also known as The Constitution State, more formerly known as Connecticut. We head down Interstate Route 95 to the shores of Long Island Sound to the most populous city in Connecticut, Bridgeport and we find ourselves on the Huckster Heritage Trail, or more specifically, at one site along that trail. In Seaside Park, at the intersection of Iranistan Ave and Soundview Dr, we find ourselves gazing at a stately seated figure holding a book in his hand and overlooking the ocean waters in front of him. The statue sits atop a large pedestal with inscriptions on its various faces which include a Latin verse, and dates of his birth and death. This is an appropriate location for the statue commemorating the life of this man as he donated large portions of the land this park now covers to provide the people with a place to enjoy open space and beautiful ocean views. He was a man of means, a man of charitable works, a politician, an entertainer, a businessman, a figure who was considered larger than life. The type of man movies are eventually made about.

Originally created in 1887 by Thomas Ball, the statue was not displayed here until two years after the subject’s death in 1891. Ball was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts and raised in the Boston area where he worked in various museums. He was a painter, a wood carver, a singer, a musician, and a sculptor. He is known for several statues of George Washington and has works displayed in New York City’s Central Park and Boston’s Public Gardens. I think Tommy Boy might be worthy of his own episode someday. We’ll see!

So, you ask exactly who does this statue portray? Stick around and find out!

Our story begins in nearby Bethel, CT which sits approximately a half hour north northwest of Bridgeport by car. Our subject was born here on July 5th, 1810. His father died when he was just 15 and he shouldered the responsibility of providing for his mother and five siblings with a variety of jobs. He got his first taste of notoriety as the publisher of a local newspaper in Danbury, CT when he was arrested three times for libel. At nineteen, he married a local woman and several years later they moved to New York where he found his vocation as a showman. He persuaded some investors to purchase Scudder’s American Museum, a private New York City building that was filled with conventional, if not boring exhibits of taxidermy and wax figures. He transformed it into a display of the odd and the unusual from around the world. He is quoted as saying “This is a trading world and men, women, and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature.” He set about providing for this want throughout the rest of his life.  He searched the world over for the bizarre, the strange, and the curious, be it living or dead, animal or human, real or fake. He was a master of publicity and the outrageous. If he were alive today, he’d probably be a top internet and social media influencer and we’d be watching him on reality TV and infomercials galore! He is also credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” However, after doing several internet searches, I cannot find any actual evidence of him saying or writing this sentence. We are of course talking about none other than Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as PT Barnum.

To his critics, he was nothing more than a shyster, lining his own pockets at the expense of others. However, he was also quite the philanthropist. For instance, he was instrumental in founding the Bridgeport Hospital in 1878 and served as its first president. In some ways, he was ahead of his time. He paid Swedish opera star Jenny Lind an extravagant sum of money nightly as he brought her around the country on a tour. He lectured against slavery and trumpeted basic human rights. Which would seem to be the opposite of how he treated some of the people in his various attractions and traveling shows. However, one could also argue that he gave them a steady income, work, a place to live where otherwise they may well have been cast aside by society. As with anything, I suppose it depends on the lens one views history with and on which side of the show one is on.

PT owned and ran a variety of business in his youth including a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation and a lottery. In 1829, he started The Herald of Freedom, a newspaper in Danbury, CT. He editorialized against the elders of several local churches which led to the arrests for libel I mentioned above and spent a couple of months behind bars as a result. After selling off his store and paper, he began his career as a showman by parading around an elderly woman purported to be the nurse of George Washington, who was claimed to be over 160 years old. Upon her death, he even charged people an admission to see her autopsy where it was proved she was no more than eighty years old, and it had all been a hoax. His first variety troupe was called Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater and he had some success with it. However, his finances were hit hard by the Panic of 1837. It was in 1841, when he persuaded investors to purchase the museum I mentioned and began to transform it. He brought in new exhibits, increased its visibility, improved the building, and made it bigger. He added a lighthouse lens on the roof to attract attention at night. He painted large animal murals in between the upper story windows and placed flags along the roofline to attract the eyes of passersby during the daytime. He added a garden with walking paths on the roof and launched hot air balloon rides from it. He had exhibits of live and stuffed animals, a constant stream of curiosities including albinos, giants, little people, magicians, jugglers, exotic women, dioramas of famous battles, models of cities, and all manner of curious and strange things from around the world.

Around this time, well, around 1842, he acquired the Fiji Mermaid from a museum in Boston. It was basically the skeleton of a monkey with a fishbone tail. After the mermaid hoax, he started displaying Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb. Barnum displayed a number of Native American performers as well. He eventually toured Europe with his traveling show and garnered the attention of various royalty throughout the continent. Through these contacts he was able to acquire many more oddities and curiosities. As his wealth grew, he purchased other museums in America and grew his collections. It was on his tours of Europe that he met the above-mentioned Jenny Lind. Her talent and his astute marketing skills meant that during her tour of America, the pair made astronomical amounts of money.

Barnum is credited with bringing the theater more to the mainstream and making it family friendly. What was once viewed as a den of sin, he moved to wholesome entertainment and moral plays. He became a teetotaler after his Europe trips. For my younger listeners this basically mean he gave up drinking and as a result joined the temperance movement which wanted to abolish alcohol. So, a lot of his theater productions revolved around those themes. He is often credited with making matinee shows popular to attract families and to reduce the worry of crime and thieves when going to the big city theaters. He went on to sponsoring all manner of contests: dog shows, beauty contests, baby contests, poultry and livestock contests, and many others. He started the Illustrated News, a pictorial newspaper in 1853 and penned an autobiography in 1854. It was praised by Mark Twain but bashed by British Examiner as trashy and self-serving.

In the 1850s, he began investing in the Bridgeport area, hoping to make it an industrial and prosperous area. However, several companies failed, and more investments soured on him and he hit very hard times. His critics railed against him. Despite all this, his old friend Tom Thumb, who had gone on to tour on his own, came to him and the pair set off on another European adventure. PT also went on the lecture circuit, mostly with the temperance movement. After several years of this, his fortunes rebounded, and he regained control of his namesake museum. He expanded it again and added America’s first aquarium. He added many new oddities and curiosities to the growing collection and caught the attention of the President, Abraham Lincoln. He began to champion the Union cause and added displays and shows of support. It is said that a Confederate sympathizer started a fire that burnt his museum to the ground. He rebuilt, but that too was lost to fire. As a result, Barnum retired from the museum business around 1868.

Most of us probably know him best as a circus man. He was already sixty when he first got into the circus business. Originally, it was basically his museum traveling around and setting up shop in various towns and cities. It was known by a variety of names over the years. He then partnered with James Baily and eventually the circus was known as Barnum and Baily’s, a name I knew well as a kid. Well, actually, I knew it as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily’s Circus. The two big circuses had merged sometime after his death. Anyway, back to where I was. They were very innovative in the circus business. They were the first to have three rings, among the first to travel by train and most likely the first to own their own train. Given the lack of decent roadways back in their day and the abundance of railroad tracks throughout the country, this was a solid and shrewd business decision. While he hired many professionals to run the various circus chores and tasks, he used his marketing and advertising skills to promote the business into a giant of a circus.

He authored many books. Some were autobiographical. Some detailed many of his adventures. Others called out mediums, seers, and spiritualists who he felt were fakers and charlatans who took advantage of people for profit. However, he viewed his own hoaxes as being fair game if people were being entertained and diverted from worse things going on in their lives. Some might consider that a double standard, I suppose.

Barnum had a political career as well. He served in the state legislature for several terms. His political stands mainly focused on race, slavery, and sectionalism in the years leading up to the Civil War. He also championed better transportation services for the state’s citizens. He was elected mayor of Bridgeport in 1875 and over saw many municipal improvements to the water supply, gas street lighting, and enforced liquor and prostitution laws.

He was also a philanthropist, but believed in “profitable philanthropy.” As I said earlier, he helped found a hospital. He made significant donations to Tufts University. He donated large tracts of his land to become public parks. He believed in doing good but it was better if he could also make a profit somehow from it.

He died of a stroke at the age of 81 and is buried in a cemetery in Bridgeport that he designed. Tom Thumb is buried nearby. They are also part of the Huckster Trail. The Thomas Ball statue had been stored with the circus for several years and it wasn’t until 1883 that his various business partners had it installed in the park. Clearly this statue depicts him as a stately politician and businessman, a view he no doubt held of himself.

There is another PT Barnum statue in CT that depicts a slightly different view. It is in Bethel, his birthplace and was unveiled in 2010 for the 200th anniversary of his birth. The pose for this statue was chosen by the people of Bethel. Sculptor Dave Gesualdi shows Barnum wearing a coat and bowtie, his arms raised like a ringmaster acknowledging a cheering crowd, waving his top hat as he walks forward. It is intended to show the positive outlook of the townspeople and a young ambitious man heading out into the world to make his fortune. Some think he’s walking away and saying “See ya later, suckers!” It stands outside the public library on Greenwood Avenue. 

Like many people, famous or not, Phineas Taylor Barnum was different things to different people. And I think that is shown if you view both of the statues we discussed. Which is more accurate? Maybe they both are. Maybe it depends on when they were cast. 1887 vs. 2010. Maybe it depends on our views of politicians and entertainers. Looking through the lens of when he was alive, I think most people would look favorably on his life and accomplishments. Did he do some things that wouldn’t fly today? Sure. But I’d venture to say that if he was alive today, he’d still be bringing new and exciting oddities and curiosities to us all and we’d be gobbling it up as a distraction to the rest of the world.

Our story took us to CT this time and later this month I’ll be in CT again. Every summer for quite some time now, there has been a Shakespeare in the Park production in Hamden, CT at the Town Center Common on Dixwell Ave. The Berserker Theatre Company produces these shows that are free to the public. Usually, put on in July each year, they have an evening show on Friday, two performances on Saturday, and a matinee on Sunday. PT would be proud of that! This year’s production is Hamlet and runs from July 29th through the 31st, 2022. If you’re in the area, bring a lawn chair or blanket and maybe a snack and beverage of your choice and enjoy the show! I’ll be there for a performance or two, so if you see me, say hello!

The concept behind our podcast is simple. Travel around our six-state area, find some interesting statues, and discuss them. We are always looking for more fun and unique subject matter, so shoot us an email at and tell us about a favorite or odd statue, monument, or memorial that you know about. If you have additional information or maybe a correction about something we have already shared, please send it our way and we’ll likely add it into a later episode. Let us know what you think so far. We can be reached via email at That’s New England on a Pedestal all one word at F A R Q I E dot com.  Go to Facebook and like the New England on a Pedestal page. Follow us on Instagram. Leave us a comment or review on social media or on your favorite podcast player.

While I do the lion share of the work on this little endeavor, from research and writing to recording, editing, and publishing, I certainly have had some help along the way. And I want to acknowledge Alec, Bekka, Jason, Sam, Jake, and of course the lovely Gail. Thank you for all your help and encouragement!

As Phineas said, “the show must go on,” so join us in episode 7 as we venture to another New England state and dig into more local history. Until next time, be safe, be well, and keep discovering!