P.T. Barnum’s widow married in NY Greek church

P.T. Barnum was the greatest showman of the 19th century. Today, he’s most closely associated with the circus that bears his name, but in his own day, he was much more than a circus organizer. In an era before blockbuster movies, Barnum was the closest you could get to a larger-than-life Hollywood producer. He was impossibly famous, and impossibly rich.

By 1874, the 54-year-old Barnum was a household name. He’d only been in the circus business for a few years, but before that, he had owned the Barnum Museum, the biggest attraction in New York City. It was, in short, at the height of his powers when the widowed Barnum married 24-year-old Nancy Fish, an English girl and the daughter of one of Barnum’s longtime friends. Here’s how the New York Times tells the story 20-odd years later (8/8/1895):

She was the daughter of a Lancashire, England, cotton miller named Fish. In 1858 Mr. Barnum lectured in Manchester, England, and after the lecture Mr. Fish called on the great showman to tell him that his success in life was due to his reading of Mr. Barnum’s autobiography, which fired his ambition to make money. When Mr. Fish built a new mill, his daughter christened the engine “Barnum.”

After the death of the first Mrs. Barnum, Mr. Fish visited America. His daughter’s letters so delighted Mr. Barnum that, as he put it, he fell in love with her before he saw her. They were married in 1874. The bride was half the age of her husband.

The couple remained together until Barnum’s death in 1891. Four years later, in 1895, Nancy Barnum remarried. She had been engaged in a very discreet courtship with Demetrius Callias Bey, a Greek from Turkey. Callias had supposedly made millions in the olive business, but there were rumors that he actually had no money at all. In any event, he was handsome, and according to one story (which may or may not be true), the pair met when Nancy was visiting Egypt and happened to fall off of the Great Pyramid, whereupon Callias caught her. The couple was married on August 7, 1895 at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in New York City, with Fr. Agatheodoro Papageorgopoulos officiating.

At least, that’s according to the New York Times the following day. I’m inclined to believe the report, although the Boston Globe passed this along (by way of the Knoxville Daily Journal, 8/13/1895):

The minister who married Mrs. P.T. Barnum to her wealthy Greek lover Wednesday is named Rev. Agathedorus Papageorgepouto, according to the New York Journal, Priest Archimandrite Paisius Ferentinos, according to the New York World, and Agathodoros Papageorgopoulus according to the New York Herald. It would have delighted Mrs. Barnum’s late husband to get either of those names to put among his curiosities.

Fr. Paisius Ferentinos, mentioned above, was the former priest of Holy Trinity, New York’s other Greek church.

The name of the officiating priest notwithstanding, the marriage between Nancy Barnum and Demetrius Callias Bey didn’t last long. A little over a year later — September 22, 1896 — Callias died of liver disease in Constantinople. His wife was on a brief visit to America at the time, and after learning of her husband’s death, she left the United States for good. Two years later, in Paris, she was married for a third time, to a French nobleman. The marriage was apparently pure business — the baron got some of Nancy’s money to pay his debts, and Nancy got to call herself a baroness. Nancy’s real love, it seems, was her departed Greek husband. When she died in 1927, she was cremated and then buried, not next to P.T. Barnum, but to Demetrius Callias Bey.

In the grand scheme of things, the story of Nancy Barnum and Demetrius Callias Bey isn’t all that significant. It is, however, an early example of an Orthodox-related story that made its way into newspapers across the United States. And the marriage of Barnum and Callias has always struck me as a sort of distant forerunner to the union of another famous American widow to a wealthy Greek man — Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee. In writing it, I relied on both contemporary newspaper articles and on the book P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon (1995), 329-330.]