Barnum’s Plowing Elephants


2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

One of Barnum’s crazier stunts: after the construction of his mansion Iranistan in the late 1840s, he brought in some elephants which he had workmen hitch to plows and pretend to plow fields behind the house. In doing so, his aims were more publicity oriented than agricultural. He lived within sight of the railroad which brought passengers from parts north to New York City. In his autobiography, Barnum wrote that his hope was that people would see the elephants and come to the conclusion that if his homestead was so fabulous, his American Museum must be many times more so. The gambit was nothing more than advertising. He freely admitted that the cost of feeding the elephants for outweighed their value as work animals. When he’d figured the stunt had played itself out, he sold the pachyderms to Van Amburgh’s circus.


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