Hey there tatfans and I hope you are all well. It’s been a bit of a slow news week in the world of wrestling since my last column, not much has happened. Nothing TAT-worthy anyway. So I am going to write a little bit about two men, and how they can be compared: Vince McMahon and P.T. Barnum.
From 1841 to 1868, Phinnius T. Barnum, the eldest of five children, owned and operated his worldwide known, Travelling Circus of Freaks. He was a multi-millionaire many times over, his name was well-known and much maligned throughout the world; many a person tried to cast doubts over the authenticity of Barnum’s product. However his legacy continues; together with his mentor and future partner, James A. Bailey, he founded the Bailey & Barnum Circus, that still lives on today in grand splendour.
Barnum started out as the owner of a fruit and veg stall in his home town of Bethel, Connecticut, when he was 15. The money was never great and Barnum found that no matter how hard he worked, or how many hours he put in, that his family was always just living above the poverty line. Barnum then quit his job and became the editor of a locally circulated magazine.
The mid 19th century was a dangerous time for people who wanted to print their views in the public sector. If people did not agree with you, or took offence to what you were saying, it was not uncommon for editors and writers to be horse-whipped or shot. So Barnum carried a gun, he was armed at all times. This security allowed Barnum the privilege to become very outspoken and forthright in his views, and he quickly earned a reputation for being so blunt, and so frank that he was arrested and served 60 days in a local prison.
All Barnum wanted to do was to create something that aroused people’s interest in mass numbers and, of course, at the same time would make him a wealthy man. And he had his first stroke of luck when he met Joice Heth.
Heth was a very old, and a very, very frail black woman. Barnum wasn’t interested in how old Heth was but how old she looked, and she looked very, very old indeed. Barnum wasted no time in advertising Heth as 167 years old and charged people to see her. As the interest grew he later added that she was the aide to President Washington, still a massive hero, who had died 37 years earlier.
Barnum’s little industry grew and grew, and to cut a long story short his stable of freaks grew and grew, and he flogged Joice Heth to the public for a profit, until Heth’s death just six months after she had been advertised. Most importantly, a doctor who studied Heth’s body post-mortem calculated that Heth was no older than 80, and had been lucky enough to have lived until that age, given her poor health. But the public didn’t care, they believed in Barnum’s Freak Show.
During the early years, Barnum himself participated in his own product. He would black his face out and perform with his negro jugglers, or he would be the ringmaster showcasing his freaks as they became freakier, and freakier and freakier. As the popularity grew, and the money flowed into Barnum, his tented shows were not just full of freaks, but clowns, jugglers, music, dancers and animals. The golden age of the circus was born and Barnum was the centre of it.
During Barnum’s life, and after it, the critics have been pouring water thick and fast over Barnum’s product. They have proved that the freaks were fake, that Barnum had been conning them all along, or if he wasn’t conning the public, that he was conning the disfigured people he made stars of.
It’s quite likely that despite shelling out all this money to see “freaks” and being conned, the public suspected that these freaks may not be what they were cracked up to be at all. That they suspected Barnum’s Circus to be staged, to be embellished, but they still flocked to see it, wool-over-their-eyes or not. Fans of Barnum were not going to see an exhibition about disfiguration, they were going to see a show, and indulge in the very essence of humane theatre: escapism.
P.T. Barnum will forever be remembered as a great man, as a pioneer who expanded the frontier of entertainment by showcasing things we had never seen before, and on a global scale. But so did Vince McMahon; but will he be remembered for his vision and success, as well as his ruthless streak, because all great men are remembered when they are ruthless? Rockerfeller, Churchill, Speilberg, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Achilles; these are among the most maligned and critised men of their age, but they were also one of the most feared and ruthless men in their field, and they have been cherished in death.
So will the same legacy befall McMahon? Who knows? I personally doubt it. But what I do know is that the man is the closest thing we have to P.T. Barnum alive today. The WWF, and then WWE is staged in order to look real, and McMahon has never quite managed to shake that stigma off his back, and this will influence the way he is remembered in years to come.
But if Barnum will be remembered as a great man despite the public knowing his freaks were staged, and the scientists proving this; why will the same thing affect McMahon in a negative way?
Because McMahon blew the enigma of his shows, he told the public how it was all done. He admitted it was staged, and he has never recovered. A magician never reveals how he does his tricks, and that’s what makes them magic.
People know David Copperfield can’t really make elephants disappear, and when he performs his tricks he knows that you know that he can’t really do the trick either. So why do people still flock to see him? Because they want to believe that he can, and that is the magic right there.
The second David Copperfield tells you how he makes an elephant disappear is the second that people think they know better than him, and that is the mistake that McMahon made.
We’ll remember McMahon for how he deserves to be remembered; but whether its in a positive or negative light is up to the fans to decide.
Thanks for reading,