P.T. Barnum was many things – showman, philanthropist, abolitionist. He was also famous for the pranks and swindles he pulled on paying audiences. To celebrate his birthday, we look back on some of his best hoaxes.
Barnum’s career as a showman started with a hoax in 1835 when the former grocer brought an African-American slave to Manhattan and put her on display as “absolutely the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in this world!” How so? Barnum claimed the woman was actually the 161-year-old nursemaid of none other than President George Washington. Despite being blind and half-paralyzed, the woman sang hymns and told amusing stories about “little George.” To prove Heth was the real deal, when she died in 1836 Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy. More than 1,500 people showed up. The surgeon informed them she was probably not much over 80.
The Feejee Mermaid
The first to exhibit a ‘real’ mermaid was likely American sailor Captain Samuel Barret Eades, who sold his ship in exchange for the body of a mermaid supposedly captured off the shores of Japan by a merchant from the Dutch West Indies. Captain Eades exhibited the object between 1823-1825 but would go broke when his specimen was proven a fake. This didn’t dissuade Barnum. In 1842, he got his hands on a mermaid via Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum and, before exhibiting it, offered every newspaper in New York an ‘exclusive’ story about the specimen, even providing a woodblock illustration. The papers were duped and each one of them ran the story, resulting in a tidal wave of free publicity. Barnum opened the exhibit and crowds flocked to see the mermaid and listen to the accompanying lectures by Dr. J Griffin, a naturalist with the British Lyceum of Natural History. Only three problems – 1) Dr. Griffin was actually a Barnum hire named Levi Lyman, 2) The British Lyceum of Natural History did not exist and 3) the mermaid body was actually the head and torso of a baby monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered with paper-mache. The current day whereabouts of the Fiji mermaid used by Barnum are unknown – likely it was a victim of the fire that destroyed Barnum’s American Museum in 1865.
Free Grand Buffalo Hunt In 1843, Barnum advertised that he had imported a herd of wild buffalo all the way from New Mexico, along with real-life cowboys to lasso and hunt the big animals for the audience’s delight. Best of all? The event would be FREE. But of course, as one whose stated aim was to “put money in my own coffers” Barnum had a scheme. He cut a deal with the Hoboken ferry operators giving him a percentage of all the ticket sales for those taking the boat to the island where the exhibition was to be held. Some 24,000 people came to see what ended up being a handful of scrawny, malnourished buffalo Barnum had bought for a mere $700. The animals grew frightened by the crowd and ran away, easily breaking through the flimsy barriers Barnum had erected to rein them in.
The Cardiff Giant
This is another hoax Barnum did not originate but one he took to a whole new level with his marketing skills. In 1869, workers digging a well at the farm of William Newell in Cardiff, New York came upon the petrified body of a 10-foot-tall man. Newell put up a tent and charged 25-cent admission to view the miraculous discovery – which was actually a statue carved out of gypsum, the brain child of Newell’s cousin George Hull, who’d been inspired to enact the hoax by the Biblical passage Genesis 6:4, which spoke of giants once walking the earth. Newell sold his gypsum giant to showman David Hannum for the handsome fee of $23,000. When Barnum offered Hannum $50,000 and was rejected, he decided to build his own giant and put it on display, calling his the real Cardiff giant and accusing Hannum’s of being fake. Papers ran with the story, allegedly prompting Hannum to quip, “There’s a sucker born every minute” (a line often misattributed to Barnum). Hannum sued Barnum, but a judge said unless the giant itself agreed to testify, he was unwilling to hear the case.
Tom Thumb’s Baby
Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, was the most famous performer P.T. Barnum managed. Standing less than two and a half feet tall, he accompanied Barnum on a successful tour of Europe that included two appearances before Queen Victoria. In 1863, Stratton married fellow dwarf Lavinia Warren and soon after P.T. Barnum announced the happily married couple were with child. In truth, Lavinia was unable to bear children, but that didn’t stop Barnum from photographing them with one. When the child grew too large, Barnum would borrow other children for photo shoots featuring the diminutive family.