It's par for the course for biographical movies to mess with the truth to some degree. Sometimes changes are simple. Often, events get compressed together so they take place over a few months -- or years -- rather than decades. Sometimes things take place out of order, or character relationships are modified to add to the drama. These people are making movies, after all.
Considering that P.T. Barnum himself never let the truth stand in the way of a good show, it's probably not all that surprising that The Greatest Showman, the new musical starring Hugh Jackman as the famous promoter, plays fast and loose with the truth in its own way. Here are several events depicted in the new movie that didn't really happen, starting with:
Barnum Uses Sunken Ships As Collateral
Once P.T. Barnum has the idea to build his museum of curiosities, he has to get the money necessary to build it. In the film, this is done by using the deeds to trade ships as collateral to secure his bank loan. Barum commits fraud here, as not only does he not own the ships, but he lost his previous employment due to them all sinking in the South China Sea. In reality, Barnum secured the credit he needed by convincing a businessman to give it to him after he exposed another company's stock issuing scheme. Barnum had actually been in the newspaper business prior to being a showman.
Barnum Meets Tom Thumb and The Bearded Lady As Adults
Once Barnum goes looking for real-life attractions for his museum, he tracks down the people who will be become Tom Thumb, and the Bearded Lady. In the case of Charles Stratton, it's specifically mentioned that the short man is in his twenties, while Lettie Lutz is clearly also an adult. The reality is that the movie has them joining P.T. Barnum decades late. Tom Thumb had been part of Barnum's museum since the age of four, and the Bearded Lady had begun her career as The Infant Esau at the age of one.
Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler Fell in Love
While The Greatest Showman is all about the life of P.T. Barnum, one of the strongest parts of the film is the multicultural romance between Barnum's partner Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). This may make it more than a little disappointing that not only did the two never fall in love, the reason they didn't is because neither character actually existed. Both are completely made up creations of the film. Neither is even based on a real person or persons. The entire thing is a P.T. Barnum-style false reality
Jenny Lind And P.T. Barnum's Personal Relationship
P.T. Barnum really did bring "The Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, played in the film by Rebecca Ferguson, to America and they toured the country together. However, there was no romance, or even a rumor of a false one, that took place during the tour. For what it's worth, The Greatest Showman isn't the first fictionalized version of Barnum's life to include the idea the two had some sort of infatuation with each other, but it isn't the case. Lind and Barnum did separate during the tour, but it was actually because Lind didn't care for Barnum's incessant promotion. She completed the tour with different managers, and the show was a massive hit.
The Museum Fire Is Started During A Brawl
P.T. Barnum's museum did burn down, in fact, it burned down twice, once in 1865 and then again in 1868. In The Greatest Showman, the fire is started by protestors who hate that Barnum is bringing attention to people they consider to be freaks, who then end up brawling with the members of the circus. In the skirmish, one of the protestors grabs a lamp and sets the building on fire. The truth is that the cause of the fires was never determined. It's certainly possible one of the fires was intentionally set by somebody who didn't like Barnum, but if there had been a mob prior to the blaze, that would have been recorded by history.
P.T. Barnum Was A Hero Of The Marginalized
Ok, let's talk about the elephant in the room, and I'm not talking about Jumbo. The Greatest Showman portrays P.T. Barnum as somebody who was a hero and ally of people who society had left behind. Unfortunately, that's not really the way it worked. Barnum's first "curiosity" is not a character in the new film. Joice Heth was an elderly slave who Barnum actually purchased and passed her off as the 160-year-old nurse to George Washington. When she died, at about half that age, Barnum sold tickets to her public autopsy in order to "prove" her advanced age. There's a lot of evidence that the person Hugh Jackman plays in the movie never really existed. When can we see that version of this movie?