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The Master Showman


P.T. Barnum served as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and two terms as a state legislator. He founded a hospital and brought gas lighting to the streets of Bridgeport. But he is best known as a showman. On this date in 1835, Barnum began his showmanship career when he put an elderly woman on exhibit. Barnum claimed she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse. People paid to see her. Barnum promoted hoaxes and oddities such as the Feejee mermaid and General Tom Thumb. He opened America’s first aquarium. But he is best known as the King of the Circus. In 1875, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut.

The railroad made it possible for circuses to travel. The first circus to visit North Dakota was the W.W. Cole Circus in 1883. Two more small circuses came to the state the following year. But the best was yet to come. In 1888, P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth was scheduled to arrive in Fargo.

Three months before the circus came to town, an agent traveled the railroad route to make sure the bridges and tunnels were big enough to accommodate the circus train. Excitement grew in Fargo as a booking agent came to reserve hotel rooms, obtain the necessary permits, and make arrangements for food. Ten days before the show, Fargo citizens awoke to the sound of a steam calliope playing circus music as the advertising crew arrived. They put up posters on every available wall. Some of them traveled on horseback throughout the countryside distributing flyers to every home, church, and business. Fargo citizens eagerly anticipated the big show.

The circus was, indeed, the Greatest Show on Earth. It required 64 train cars, and when all set up, it sprawled over five acres. The main tent was large enough for three rings. People flocked to the performances and filled the tent to capacity. It was the talk of the town for months.

Even after Barnum’s death in 1891, the Barnum and Bailey circus continued on. During an 1897 return to North Dakota, a storm hit when men were putting up the main tent in Wahpeton. Lightning hit the center pole, and three workers were killed. They were buried in the Wahpeton cemetery, and money was raised for a memorial.

Ten years later, in 1907, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Barnum, P.T. The Life of P.T. Barnum, as Written by Himself. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Ericksmoen, Curt. “North Dakota has enjoyed the circus for 130 years.” The Bismarck Tribune. 16 June, 2013.

Kunhardt, Phillip B., Jr., Phillip B. Kunhardt II, and Phillip B. Kunhardt. P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman. New York: Knopf, 1995.

The Greatest Show on Earth. "http://www.ringling.com/ContentPage.aspx?id=45831§ion=45825" http://www.ringling.com/ContentPage.aspx?id=45831§ion=45825 Accessed 30 April, 2015.