The Greatest Showman was released in theatres on December 20th, 2017, and has thus far earned revenue of $174,037,209. If you haven’t seen it, the storyline goes as follows: “Inspired by the imagination of P. T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business & tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.” This, however, is nothing like the true story. In reality, P. T Barnum was known not only for his fabulist ways, but also for holding exotic animals captive, and dressing up caucasians as indigenous peoples for profit. However, one of his most abominable yet successful hoaxes involved the purchase (through payment of $1,000 to a fellow showman) and exploitation —throughout her life and death—of an elderly black woman who was allegedly 161 years old. So although the movie praises P. T Barnum as an innovator and a voice for the marginalized, we must look past the curtains at what history could not distort.
Hugh Jackman as P.T Barnum in The Greatest Showman (Source: The Atlantic)
Barnum began his career as a showman in the mid 1830’s when he purchased Joice Heth, an elderly woman who he advertised as being 161 and the nursemaid of George Washington. According to R.W Lindsay, Heth was a slave owned by George Washington’s father who was sold at the age of 54, to his sister-in-law. Upon the birth of George Washington in 1732, Heth returned to the Washington family to serve as a nurse for the infant. Beginning in 1935, Barnum toured with Heth, advertising her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World”.
Advertisement for Joice Heth (Source: Mount Vernon)
Throughout the tour, P.T Barnum raked in an exorbitant amount of money and fame, while Heth was treated unscrupulously. Barnum worked her to the bone, presenting her 6 days a week for up to 12 hours at a time. Heth attracted many rumours and abstract observations, including a Boston newspaper’s claim that she was a robot rather than a human being and that her skin was made of whale bone and old leather. Heth was, in reality, roughly 81 years old, and when she died in February of 1936, Barnum presented what would be the most horrific show of his career.
Barnum capitalized on her death to its full extent, charging the public for tickets to her autopsy. There, a physician confirmed she couldn’t have been more than 82 years of age, and her story had been fabricated from thin air by P.T Barnum. According to the showman, over 1,000 people were in attendance.
(Source: Bethel Historical Society)
In my opinion, although I could never fully enjoy the movie because I know the full story, the film was admittedly entertaining in its own right. The Oscar-nominated anthem “This Is Me” by broadway star Keala Settle expresses the journey of self-love and acceptance that the bearded lady went through as the movie progresses: “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down/ I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out/ I am brave, I am bruised/ I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.” To the average viewer these lyrics are nothing other than inspiring, however they are unmistakably contradicted by P.T Barnum’s legacy and lose their worth because of this.
Keala Settle as The Bearded Lady (Source: Goldderby)
No doubt, however, this issue goes way past a fabled film and leads to a grander question: If we don’t fully include all details —good or bad— of history, how will we be able to know who we are as a society? History is all we have to judge our species in the past and prepare our species for the future. The catastrophe begins with cutting the faults out of a showman’s story in order to maximize box office sales. Then, the denial of large events that occurred in the past, until fully discrediting all forms of press and information sources, and claims of “fake news” appearing everywhere. Without being able to trust the information being given to us, we won’t be able to properly live our lives and make informed decisions on any matter.
We as a society ate up what The Greatest Showman gave us: about two and a half hours of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron dancing along with a wildly entertaining plot. However it is the distortion of truth that will be humanity’s downfall. We can see the high-flying amazements that circus magnate Barnum unleashed, but we also must be shown the gruesome steps he took to achieve those feats . It is through the display of every aspect of history that we can fully identify who we are as individuals, as a nation and as a global society.