The Hoaxes of P.T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) described himself as the "Prince of Humbug," an epithet he more than earned during his long and illustrious career. Barnum is best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name (and for the animal crackers which are named after him), but before the circus he was the proprietor of a New York museum, and it was this museum that initially made him rich and famous.

Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) wrote the following paragraph about Barnum in 1847. It nicely captures the eclectic, enterprising, and outrageous spirit of the Prince of Humbug as a museum proprietor:

"If the whole world of animated nature—human or brute—at any time produces a monstrosity or a wonder, she has but one object in view—to benefit BARNUM. BARNUM, under the happy influence of a tallow candle in some corner or other of Yankee land, was born sole heir to all her lean men, fat women, dwarfs, two-headed cows, amphibious sea-maidens, large-eyed owls, small-eyed mice, rabbit-eating anacondas, bugs, monkies and mummies. His domain extends even to the forest, and he claims exclusive right to all wooden legs lost, as estrays on the field of battle, and, as a matter of course, to the boots in which they are encased."

Barnum's career as a showman was marked by a variety of sensational publicity stunts, hoaxes, and plain-old false advertising which he used to attract visitors to his bizarre exhibits. His promotional techniques often tested the boundaries of what the emerging nineteenth-century middle class was willing to accept, but he was somehow able to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. An indication that people viewed him as a kind of lovable con-artist is the fact that the phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute," will forever be attributed to him, even though he was not the one who said it.

His money-making schemes included a series of relatively small-scale humbugs. For instance, he boasted that one of the attractions at his museum was the "Great Model of Niagara Falls with Real Water." Sounds cool, but it was just an 18-inch miniature model through which a trickle of water recirculated. Then there was his so-called "Captain Cook Club"—supposedly the actual club that killed Captain Cook, though it looked suspiciously like a mislabeled Indian war club. And who can forget his "This Way to the Egress" sign? Curiosity seekers, thinking the 'egress' was some kind of unusual exhibit, followed the signs to it until they came, eventually, to a door that led them outside. Then they had to pay admission to get back in. These were his small-scale humbugs. He is also remembered for some grander hoaxes that are listed below:

The 161 year old, former nurse of General George Washington goes on tour.
Thousands flocked to see the great beauty from the sea, only to find the 'incarnation of ugliness'.
It was advertised as being free, but Barnum, of course, had a way to make money off it anyway.

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