‘The Greatest Showman’: Cruel, Racist History Goes Unmentioned in Flick

Published by PETA Staff.
3 min read

The Greatest Showman—a musical biographical drama that tells the cleaned-up story of Barnum & Bailey Circus creator P.T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman—omits a lot of sordid facts. As if a movie about a man responsible for over a century’s worth of captured, beaten, and deprived animals weren’t distasteful enough, this film leaves out some critical information while romanticizing a person who exploited any living beings he could get his hands on—from animals he kept caged and trained through pain and fear to African Americans and people with disabilities alike. To top it all off, he thought of his customers as suckers.

Barnum bought African Americans and grossly exploited them.

In his book Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, author Michael Daly states that Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an African American woman with a disability, who was billed as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington (yes, seriously): “She was a human being, but an African-American one and therefore subject in slave states to being bought and sold no differently than an elephant, only cheaper.”

“The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World Joice Heth” circa 1835.

Barnum reportedly bought Heth for $1,000 and easily made $1,500 a week from exhibiting her. When she died, Barnum announced a public autopsy. Some 1,500 people paid 50 cents each to watch a surgeon dissect her (and she was determined to have been no more than 80 years old).

To further illustrate his racism, Barnum was also a minstrel-show performer who, while in blackface, sang “plantation melodies.” And he managed black performers who were forced to degrade themselves for white audiences.

He got rich by exploiting other people’s physical disabilities.

Barnum’s exhibits included a caged human being with microcephaly who was billed as “the connecting link between man and monkey” with the tagline “What is it?”

He also exhibited conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker—and even displayed his own distant cousin who had dwarfism and was 25 inches tall as “General Tom Thumb.” Daly notes, “Tom Thumb was a sensation and would end up responsible for 20 million of the 82 million tickets Barnum would sell in his various enterprises in his lifetime.”

Barnum essentially founded American circus cruelty.

He chartered a ship to steal elephants from their homes and families in Sri Lanka. Nine elephants, including one calf, were forced into a cramped ship hold for four months—without any fresh air or being able to take a single free step. One elephant reportedly died on board.

His circus used a horrific “burning method” to handle elephants, which consisted of sticking a hot poker up their trunks. He was also known to make them cry out in pain with blows from a bullhook—the very same sharp metal-hooked weapon that’s still used today to abuse animals.

Somehow, Barnum once acquired two living beluga whales and imprisoned them in a water tank in the basement of his New York museum. Unsurprisingly, both died within two days.

Despite the good news that computer-generated imagery was used in the film instead of live animals (which we applaud), this movie romanticizes someone who relentlessly and cruelly exploited living beings—and we’re against it.


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Although the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has finally shut down after so many years of animal abuse—made possible by P.T. Barnum—we’re still battling the legacy of cruelty that’s been left behind.

Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum 1851.

Stand with PETA and help shut down all circuses that exploit animals. Don’t be one of Barnum’s suckers!

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind

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