On this day in 1891, the famous showman, P.T. Barnum, passed away at the age of 81. Though critically ill, Barnum requested that the New York Sun run his obituary so he could enjoy reading it before he died. The newspaper obliged with a front-page headline that trumpeted, “Great And Only Barnum — He Wanted To Read His Obituary — Here It Is.”
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum knew hard work from an early age when his father died, leaving the 15-year old lad to support his mother and five siblings. The young Barnum showed early signs of showmanship (and con artistry) when he promoted a woman named Joice Heth as George Washington’s 161-year old nurse. He later admitted it was a hoax—after earning $1500 a week.
Barnum went on to open a museum of oddities in New York, showcasing “General Tom Thumb,” a doll-sized child whose height eventually topped out at 33 inches. Later Barnum went into state politics. His biggest claim to fame was founding the circus that bore his name at the age of 60. In 1881 he teamed up with James A. Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus—the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Barnum denied that he was a charlatan. He called himself a “humbug” who sold spectacle, illusion and the opportunity for viewers to figure out his deceptions. Barnum left behind a dubious reputation.
Reputations, good and bad, have a ripple effect. The Psalmist declared that the integrity of a righteous person is the formula for a blessed household, strong descendants and a positive reputation that will endure forever. What makes someone righteous? According to the Bible, it isn’t passive niceness, but an active pursuit of godliness. The righteous are gracious and overflow with compassion. They love justice and treat others fairly. Twice the Psalm mentions the generosity of the righteous—they lend freely and “scatter their gifts abroad to the poor” (Psalm 112:5, 9).
Are we striving for importance or significance? The former involves making a living; the latter involves making a life.