In the ""Prologue"" to this lengthy biography of ""The Prince of Humbug,"" Saxon declares that his purpose is to portray the private man behind the public image of the 19th-century's preeminent showman. To a large extent, he succeeds. While many of the anecdotes recounted here--Barnum's promotion of Jenny Lind, his presentation of the diminutive Tom Thumb to an enthralled Queen Victoria, his purchase of ""Jumbo"" from the London Zoo and the resulting flap among British animal lovers--will be familiar to many readers, Saxon's investigat ions into the showman's personal letters and ledgers, his daughter's diaries, and court, municipal, and church documents yield countless insights into the less-well-known crannies of Barnum's life. Of particular interest are the pages devoted to his gradual conversion from slave owner to dedicated abolitionist, of his commitment to the tenets of Universalism and teetotalism, and of his political career as Connecticut legislator and Bridgeport mayor. If there is one area that seems underexcavated, however, it is the relations between Barnum and each of his two wives. Both women--Charity Hallett, whom he married in 1829, and Nancy Fish, who became his wife 45 years later--suffered a series of emotional crises during the marriages. Though Saxon points out the parallels between the two wives' mental states, he seems unwilling to speculate on the causes. A delight ful depiction of scalawaggery and bunkum at its most flamboyant.