American Showman & Notorious Hoaxster
American Showman & Notorious Hoaxster
Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) is often attributed as the source of the saying, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
There’s no evidence that he actually coined the phrase, but long before the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Showman” had already built a reputation on tricking the public out of their money with his hoaxes and sideshow gaffs like the Feejee Mermaid, the Cardiff Giant and Jumbo the elephant.
P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb
“This is a trading world and men, women, and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature.”
– P.T. Barnum
Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, 1858
PT Barnum is best known today for his role in the Greatest Show on Earth when he partnered with James Anthony Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1880. But decades earlier, Barnum had already established himself as a peddler of oddities and absurdities with the purchase of a natural history museum in New York in 1841.
Barnum’s American Museum opened the following year, on January 1, 1842.
The so-called “dime museum,” which referred to lowbrow institutions of cheap entertainment in the 19th century, included a zoo, wax museum, lecture hall, theater and freak show.
Within its walls the American Museum housed exotic birds and animals, an aquarium containing beluga whales, the trained bears of Grizzly Adams, a working steam engine made entirely of glass, wax sculptures of Tom Thumb and the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng, the Feejee Mermaid, scraps of cloth from the jackets of Revolutionary War heroes, taxidermy specimens, a flea circus, a fortune teller, a phrenologist, Ned “the learned” seal, the “Nova Scotian Giantess” known as Miss Swan and much more.
At its height, the museum saw as many as 15,000 visitors a day.
On July 13, 1865, a defective furnace caught fire and quickly burned the museum to the ground.
Visitors still inside the museum attempted to save items, such as the wax figure of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in petticoats, by throwing them out the front windows onto the street below.
Davis was subsequently carried away and hanged from a lamp pole near St. Paul’s Churchyard.
A cage full of anacondas and pythons was tipped over, scattering the huge snakes across the floor. To the alarm of the panicked crowds, the snakes began making their way downstairs toward freedom.
The glass panes of the whale tank were broken in hopes the water would flow out and help quell the blaze.
“The whales were, of course, burned alive,” The New York Times reported the following day.
Likewise, the “Man-Eater,” as it was known, also suffered a cruel, though apparently apathetic death.
“True to its taciturn habits,” the newspaper wrote, “the alligator failed to make the slightest attempt at escape.”
30,000 people filled the streets to watch the “scenes exciting, serious, and comic” as the building burned.
While thieves ran off with items pilfered from the building, looters stole wine, boots, coats and Panama hats from nearby shops. Pickpockets worked their way through the crowd, a pair of brothers even making off with a gold watch.
In the end, PT Barnum’s American Museum and most of its extensive collection was reduced to ash.
“The only curiosities reported to have been saved beside the fat woman,” The New York Times reported, “were the live seal and a case of rare coins.”
“Granting the innumerable sensations with which the intelligent public were disgusted and the innocent public deluded, and the ever patent humbuggery with which the adroit manager coddled and cajoled a credulous people, the Museum still deserved an honorable place in the front rank of the rare and curious collections of the world.”
– The New York Times, July 14, 1865
P.T. Barnum’s first hoax came about in 1835, when he bought an aged African-American woman named Joice Heth whom he presented to the public as a 161-year-old nursing mammy who had cared for George Washington as an infant.
“Joice Heth is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World!” posters claimed. “She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father of Gen. Washington) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of this Country, ‘she raised him’. Joice Heth was born in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years.”
During her 7-month stint as a traveling exhibit, Heth would sing a hymn and tell stories about “little George.”
Upon her death in February, 1836, Barnum arranged for Heth to have a public autopsy. It was carried out by Dr. David L. Rogers, who determined the claims of Heth’s age were a hoax. Barnum claimed the cadaver on the autopsy table was not Heth, but eventually admitted it was a Hoax.
In her book Medical Apartheid:The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on African Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington writes that Barnum had pulled out Heth’s teeth to make her appear older.