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The Hoaxes of P.T. 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.

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." What his visitors found, however, was just an 18-inch miniature model through which a trickle of water recirculated.

Then there was his so-called "Captain Cook Club." It was supposedly the actual club that killed Captain Cook, though it looked suspiciously like a mislabeled Indian war club.

Perhaps his most famous leg-pull was 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. Some of his more elaborate hoaxes are listed below.
Tom Thumb’s Baby
The most famous performer managed by P.T. Barnum was the diminutive Charles Sherwood Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb. 19th-century audiences were enthralled by the sight of him parading around dressed as Napoleon. On February 10, 1863 Tom married Lavinia Warren, a woman equally small in size. The two then toured together through Europe as husband and wife. To complete the scene of domestic bliss, Barnum often had Lavinia pose holding a baby. It was claimed that this was the child of Lavinia and Tom, but in fact it was simply an orphaned baby Barnum had provided them with. Because of her size, Lavinia was incapable of having a baby of her... More…
The Free Grand Buffalo Hunt
Posters that appeared around New York City in the summer of 1843 advertised a "Grand Buffalo Hunt" that would take place across the river in Hoboken on August 31, 1843. For the entertainment of the crowd, which would be protected behind thick double-rail fencing, cowboys would pretend to hunt and lasso a herd of wild buffalo imported from New Mexico. Best of all, the event would take place free of charge. The organizer of this event was the showman P.T. Barnum, and naturally he had a scheme to make money from it. He had secretly cut a deal with the operators of the Hoboken ferry, so that he would receive half of their net receipts. The more... More…
The Feejee Mermaid, 1842
The exhibition at P.T. Barnum's New York museum of the body of a mermaid supposedly caught near the Feejee Islands generated enormous excitement. Huge crowds waited to see it, lured by ads showing a beautiful, bare-breasted creature. What they found inside was a small, wizened, hideous creature, that was actually the head of an ape stitched onto the body of a fish. The mermaid is remembered as one of Barnum's most infamous humbugs. More…
Joice Heth, 1835
Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention. When the public's interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead a mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.