Animal Crackers

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In fact, Bart Barnum acknowledges that his real name is Robert Failing and that his father was James Failing. (He says he uses Barnum as his last name because he thinks "Failing" is an "ugly name" with negative connotations.) Property records show that he is indeed the owner of Barnum House.

But he denies allegations that he is not who he claims to be. "I fit into the Barnum family somehow, but I've never bothered to investigate exactly how," he says, describing the connection as "distant" but at the same time maintaining that he is P.T.'s great-great-grandson. "I just kind of steer clear of that. It can get awfully complicated."

One person who's not confused is Pat Gregory. As the great-grandniece of Helen Barnum Buchtel and one of the most well-recognized descendants of P.T. Barnum living in Colorado, she says she has never spoken to Robert Failing and that neither he nor his mother, whom Bart calls Christine Barnum, is related to the Barnum or Buchtel families.

Gregory's mother's cousin, Leila, was the daughter of Helen Barnum Buchtel, and Gregory, who lives in a Denver retirement community, has the family heirlooms to prove it: an oil painting of "Iranistan," a colossal, pink Moorish-style mansion that Barnum built in Bridgeport (it burned down long ago); a portrait of Helen Barnum Buchtel as a child; and a champagne cooler and toothpick holder bearing P.T. Barnum's crest and initials. And while the Barnum museum has called Gregory to ask for these items, she's not giving them up. She's proud of both her Barnum and Buchtel lineages and says family tradition calls for mothers to pass the paintings on to their eldest daughters; Gregory got them from her mother, Barbara Buchtel, and intends to pass them on to her own daughter.

The Barnum Museum's Fisher says that while the museum would indeed like to have the items, he is glad that Gregory has them instead. "At least they'll stay in the family," he says.

Then again, the Barnum museum's version of the family tree doesn't include William Buchtel or anyone from the Barnum/Buchtel lineage, including Gregory. "It's not really acknowledged," Fisher says, explaining that second marriages are often left out of official family histories.

Fisher also says he can find absolutely no sign of a Bart Barnum or a Robert Failing -- acknowledged or unacknowledged. He also has no record of Barnum House. Although the Barnum Museum has very little information relating to Colorado, if P.T. had ever converted a carriage house here into a home for himself, either the museum or the Bridgeport Public Library (which share a massive Barnum collection) would have a record of it, Fisher says.

"One of the things about P.T. is he wasn't shy about marking his spots," says Fisher. And "Barnum was very meticulous about inventorying the content of his homes and identifying his purchases."

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Bart is not a Barnum and that P.T. Barnum didn't live in Barnum House, Denver's librarians and parks department employees aren't the only people Bart has "humbugged," says Ida Uchill. The house was once listed by the state as a tourist attraction, and Uchill says she heard that the Colorado Historical Society used to give tours of the house and pay to rent it for afternoon teas and other functions. (A spokeswoman for the society says there is no record of these tours or teas, at least not within the last fifteen years.)

Bart himself says he no longer likes to make much of his family connections. "When I was younger, I used to get kind of a kick out of being in the limelight," he says. "Now I'm content just to pull in my horns and stay in my little hole."

Yet as recently as last summer, Bart spoke for several minutes about the history of the Barnum area and his connection to the family during a bus tour of west Denver parks that was hosted by Carolyn Etter, who was co-manager of the Denver Parks and Recreation Department from 1987 to 1991. Etter says she had no idea Bart Barnum was really Robert Failing; she adds that he was quite knowledgeable and told wonderful stories.

The parks department's Murayama, who was on the Barnum House tour that Mitchell arranged, says she thought the house was interesting and that Bart was entertaining. And she was surprised when she found out that Mitchell believes Bart to be bogus. "If he is an impostor, I can't imagine why he is doing it," she says.

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Megan Hall