Is The Greatest Showman a true story? The movie musical is many things - but historically accurate isn’t exactly one of them. It’s necessary to look beyond the film in order to get to know the real P.T. Barnum and the circus he created.
The musical claims to tell the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s rise from rags to riches in antebellum America. According to the film, Barnum was an orphaned child whose head was full of dreams. As an adult, he married his childhood sweetheart and did all that he could to give her the life he thought she deserved. After losing a boring, uninspiring office job, Barnum decides to take the plunge and pursue an extraordinary career: he purchases a museum and recruits outcasts to be a part of his show. It becomes wildly popular, and he fulfills his dream of living a life of success, wonder, and entertainment.
To be fair, it gets some basic details correct. Barnum was born in Connecticut in 1810, and he spent much of his life chasing down the American dream. In his case, that meant establishing an entertainment network through his American Museum - which included a so-called “freak show” that exhibited actual human beings as objects of curiosity, oddity, and terror - and, eventually, his famous circus. By the time he died in 1891 at the age of 80, he had been many things: promoter, entertainer, businessman, politician, abolitionist, teetotaler, and writer.
But Barnum’s larger-than-life story, in all its complex glory, doesn’t completely make it into the film. The Greatest Showman's accuracy is mediocre at best, and the film ignores his sins, manipulates his relationships, and simplifies the long trajectory of his rich life. Among the many errors is the film's depiction of the relationship between P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind and its unwillingness to engage with the undeniable racism in Barnum's past. The film may be good entertainment, but it’s also bad history.
What The Film Portrays: When Barnum strikes on the idea of starting a museum with "living curiosities" - i.e., people with unique features or disabilities - he holds open auditions to round out his cast list. He also tracks down a handful of star performers, like the Bearded Lady and General Tom Thumb.
What Really Happened: P.T. Barnum owed his first success in show business to a slave woman whom he "leased" in 1835 when he was 25 years old (slavery was technically illegal in northern states at this time). Joice Heth was an elderly woman, and he promoted her as George Washington's 161-year-old mammy. He brought the old woman on tour, even though she was unwell, had difficulty moving, and was completely blind. Though Barnum displayed her for many hours at a time, Heth herself never received a penny of the money made off her. After she died in 1836, Barnum subjected her body to one final indignity: he convinced no less than 1,500 people to pay to watch Heth's autopsy.
What The Film Portrays: P.T. Barnum first meets the singer Jenny Lind in London, and he is immediately taken with her. He builds a professional relationship with her that comes dangerously close to being intimate, especially after Lind declares her feelings for him.
What Really Happened: Jenny Lind, the so-called "Swedish Nightingale," was the Adele of her age. Yet, the film reduces her to a symbol of decadence and beauty that threatens to seduce Barnum away from his principles, his family, and his performers. In reality, she had a successful career. While she did apparently break the heart of several significant men of the 19th century - including Hans Christian Andersen and Felix Mendelssohn - P.T. Barnum was definitely not one of them. Her goals for her American tour were strictly philanthropic - she was raising money for a school in Sweden - and she didn't particularly like Barnum. She married German pianist Otto Goldschmidt in 1852.
What The Film Portrays: One of the most moving, commanding characters in the film is Lettie Lutz, known as the "Bearded Lady." When Barnum is on the hunt for unique acts, people, and curiosities to bring to his American Museum, he first hears Lutz's singing voice and follows it to a laundry room, where he finds an adult woman with a beard. Though she is reluctant to join Barnum's show, he manages to convince her. She is one of many so-called "freaks" in the film, whose outsider status is marked on their bodies.
What Really Happened: "Lettie Lutz" never existed - Barnum's famous Bearded Lady was actually a woman by the name of Annie Jones. Barnum didn't find her in a laundry room, either. She attracted attention when she was born covered in hair in Virginia in 1865. He actually started exhibiting her when she was only one year old. Though Barnum paid her parents $150 a week for the privilege, the young Jones did not get a say in how her body was displayed. She spent much of her life as an attraction and died when she was only 37, in 1902.
What The Film Portrays: The whole world seems to be against P.T. Barnum - even his in-laws. His wife Charity is a privileged, angelic young woman from a ridiculously wealthy family who lives in a mansion by the sea. Her father in particular grumbles about losing his daughter to the poor and good-for-nothing P.T. Barnum. Becoming a successful showman is Barnum's way of sticking it to the man and proving his father-in-law wrong.
What Really Happened: Charity wasn't the rich girl that the film makes her out to be - she was actually a "tailoress" when Barnum first met her. So it wasn't her well-to-do family that was turning its nose up at Barnum's offer of a dollar and a dream - it was actually his own family. As Barnum himself recounted, "My good mother and some other relatives feared that I was not looking high enough in the world" when he decided to marry Charity. The couple married in New York City in 1829 without any of Barnum's family present.