Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

P.T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute" -- and that's especially true in Denver

"There's a sucker born every minute," P.T. Barnum supposedly said

That includes all those suckers who still believe the stories about how Barnum, the founder of the Greatest Show on Earth, which rolled into town yesterday, called Denver home over a century ago.

The Greatest Show on Earth was originally called P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Menagerie, Caravan and Circus, and survives today as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which will offer ten days of performances starting tomorrow -- and is already inspiring a PETA sideshow regarding the treatment of its elephants.

Barnum, a world-famous showman, coined the terms "Siamese Twins" and "Bearded Lady" and invented the concepts of the three-ring circus and modern marketing. In one famous hoax, "suckers" handed over their hard-earned money for a glimpse of an African-American woman named Joice Heth, who Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington. When ticket sales started to falter, Barnum changed the story, claiming that Heth (who was actually eighty) was a machine made of whale bone and leather. The exhibit's popularity soared once again.

Barnum was also a wheeler-dealer, making money by buying up land and building hotels around the country. In 1871, he bought a 765-acre tract near what was then Denver, part of which is now the Barnum neighborhood. But Barnum was the sucker in that deal: Instead of the elegantly landscaped area he had been promised by the Chicago businessmen who sold him the land, it was a giant mud puddle. Barnum sold off some of it and turned the rest into Barnum Town, which Denver later annexed. And Barnum never lived on any of it, according to this 2001 Westword cover story, which took the show out of the showman.

But local legend still has Barnum housing his circus entourage, including his famed elephants, in Barnum Town -- and there's even a photo that allegedly shows an elephant pushing a circus train up Boreas Pass to Breckenridge.

As Barnum said -- or did he? -- there's a sucker born every minute.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun