June 2nd: P. T. Barnum’s First Show

Quick, name the greatest entertainer in American history!

Tom Thumb shown here at actual size. Who’d you come up with, George Carlin, James Brown, Steven Spielberg, Lucille Ball? All very good suggestions, but I believe the title belongs to one Phineas Taylor Barnum. On this day in 1835, P. T. Barnum staged his first show in New York and presented Joice Heth, a 161-year old who had served as nursemaid to George Washington. You probably aren’t surprised to learn this was a blatant lie, Heth was actually 80 at the time and was born long after Washington had stopped teething. Of course, the fact that none of it was true didn’t stop Barnum from promoting the hell out of it, and the public ate it up.

Over the course of his career, Barnum’s American Museum and international tours would introduce the public to a mix of hoaxes (a “mermaid skeleton”), human curiosities (the 3-foot tall Tom Thumb, seen at right with Barnum), and genuine educational material (the Museum played host to performances of Shakespeare plays and housed the first aquarium in America).

When Barnum entered the circus business, one of his main attractions was Jumbo the Elephant. I think it’s safe to say that the 6 and 1/2 ton Jumbo was the biggest alcoholic to ever walk the earth, in size at least. It’s said that Jumbo and his handler would split a large bottle of whiskey every night while on tour. The liquor was mainly used to help the big guy deal with toothaches caused by an insufficiently fibrous diet, but the elephant developed a fondness for whiskey. In fact, some reports claim the elephant would drink a daily average of two gallons of the stuff.  So, it’s only appropriate that the history’s largest lush has a cocktail named after him:

The Jumbo

  • 1 and 1/2 ounces Whiskey
  • 1 and 1/2 ounces dry vermouth
  • 3/4 ounces sweet vermouth
  • Two dashes of bitters

Shake well with cracked ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish the drink with a lemon twist or maraschino cherry, although I suppose a peanut would be more appropriate.

Tomorrow: A hit poem in which the protagonist strikes out.


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