When Barnum Took Manhattan

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SINCE 1766 St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Vesey Street has been one of the best-known and most revered landmarks in Lower Manhattan, associated with events from George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 to the destruction of the World Trade Center just behind it in 2001.

For almost a quarter of a century in the 1800s it shared the intersection with another extremely popular, and not altogether welcome, landmark. Opposite the church, in more ways than one, was P. T. Barnum’s American Museum.

Today New Yorkers may think of Phineas Taylor Barnum only when the circus comes to town. But for almost 60 years he was one of the most celebrated figures in the city. He entertained and amused tens of millions here. When he died in 1891, The Washington Post called him “the most widely known American that ever lived.”

There’s no statue in any of the city’s parks, no Barnum Square, almost no visible sign of his once ubiquitous presence in Manhattan. But in a city where marketing and advertising are major industries, a city that has revitalized itself as a center of amusements and entertainments in recent years, who can deny that P. T. Barnum’s spirit of humbug lives on?

“His lasting legacy is how he managed to take something simple and make it extraordinary,” Kathy Maher, executive director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., said as we visited some sites of his most famous and infamous exploits in Manhattan. “He was a genius in promotion. People ask me what he would be today. He would be Disney and Donald Trump combined.”...

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