Here's Who Inherited P.T. Barnum's Money After He Died

The family and friends of P.T. Barnum surrounded his bed as he breathed his last. The "Great Showman," as The New York Times called him, had been entertaining for nearly 60 years. First with his Manhattan museums, then through the traveling show featuring the opera singer Jenny Lind, and finally with his circuses. But now he was dying at his Bridgeport, Connecticut mansion after a series of strokes and a damaged heart, according to "Barnum: An American Life." Barnum left behind an estate worth nearly $4.3 million, the equivalent of more than $145 million in 2023, per "Animal City: The Domestication of Urban America."

Among the people at Barnum's deathbed that evening of April 7, 1891, were his wife, Nancy Fish; two of his daughters, Helen and Caroline; and his grandsons, Herbert and Clinton Seeley, who would inherit the bulk of Barnum's estate. Although Barnum's daughter Helen was present at her father's death, she wasn't included in his will, according to "P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man."

(one) party boy grandson

It didn't take Herbert Barnum Seeley long to run through his share of the inheritance. According to The San Francisco Examiner, he burned through $2 million in a single year. Among his extravagant expenditures, Herbert spent $28,000 (more than $1 million in 2023) on a bachelor party for his brother Clinton held on December 19, 1896, at a posh Manhattan restaurant. The 17-course meal included risque performances by several dancers, including Ashea Wabe (better known as Little Egypt), who had become famous after she introduced America to belly dancing a few years earlier, per the New England Historical Society.

The police raided the party, and the ensuing scandal ended with Herbert being indicted for causing a public nuisance and conspiracy to induce the dancers to commit a crime, per The New York Times. Nothing came of it. Herbert continued burning through his money and in 1904 ended up in an Arizona jail for writing a bad check for a gambling debt. He died at age 43 in 1914.

 His brother Clinton fared better. P.T. Barnum left Clinton one-ninth of his estate and on top of that gave him $25,000 (almost $1 million in 2023) with the provision that Clinton officially go by Barnum so that the showman's name would live on, per The Boston Globe. Clinton lived to be 90 and before his death in 1958 had become a banker and philanthropist, per the Associated Press.

[Featured image by Benjamin Falk via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled]

Barnum's wife and daughters

To his wife Nancy Fish Barnum, P.T. Barnum bequeathed an annuity of over $2 million in 2023 dollars, among other assets, per The Boston Globe. Nancy, who was his second wife and 40 years his junior, married twice more after his death. Per "Irving Wallace: A Writer's Profile" and "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Connecticut History," she ended up a French countess and an intimate of Empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III.

Barnum's daughter Helen had moved to Denver, Colorado after divorcing her first husband, and although this was considered scandalous at the time, P.T. Barnum stood by her. While Helen wasn't included in his will, he gave her a New York City residence and a cattle ranch in Colorado, among other assets, per "P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man." Helen's two daughters from her first marriage were listed in the will and received one-third of the "residue of the estate," per The Boston Globe. Barnum's oldest daughter, Caroline Thompson, also received a large inheritance. When she died in 1911, her estate was valued at more than $32 million in 2023, per The New York Times

P.T. Barnum also left parts of his vast fortune to help continue running his Barnum & Bailey circus and to various organizations and institutions, from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to Tufts University. He also left money to his staff, including the equivalent of nearly $17,000 in 2023 to his valet.