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Phineas Taylor Barnum

“The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes — or pretends to believe — that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true and that the only way to decide which, is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges extant, a first rate investment, and by all odds the most respectable disguise that a lying or swindling business man can wear. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race…. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is.”

— P.T. Barnum, in The Humbugs of the World

American legend P.T. Barnum is better known for saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” A charmingly appropriate legacy, that, since it wasn’t he who said it.

But the story of how that quote came to be associated with him shows how Barnum came to be known as “The Prince of Humbugs.”

In our Archæological Forgeries section, you can read about the Cardiff Giant. A three-thousand pound hunk of gypsum in the form of a ten-foot-tall man that was “discovered” on a farm in Cardiff, New York in October, 1869.

Barnum avidly followed the news of the Giant’s discovery and the speculations about its origin, and thought it would make a fine addition to his own exhibits. He told the owner of the farm on which the Giant was found that he’d be willing to pay $60,000 (U.S.) to be able to exhibit the Giant for three months. No dice.

By 1871, Barnum was exhibiting the Cardiff Giant anyway — only it was his own Giant. He’d had a replica carved, reasoning that a forgery of a fraud was no crime. He even went so far as to claim that the original, owned by a group of investors headed by David Hannum, was a fake and that the new sculpture was the “real” Cardiff Giant.

Hannum sued, but lost — and was quoted as saying of the crowds lining up to see Barnum’s phony phony: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” So that’s how the quote got associated with Barnum.

But it’s easy to understand the confusion. Barnum was, after all, a man whose career in show business got started with him purchasing and then exhibiting a woman named Joice Heth, who claimed to be the 161-year-old childhood nurse of George Washington.

His gift for catching the public eye was unrivaled. Irving Wallace, in his biography The Fabulous Showman, tells this story of how Barnum created a buzz for his Museum:

One day a plump beggar came by for a handout. Instead, Barnum offered him a job at a dollar and a half a day. He handed the puzzled beggar five ordinary bricks. “Now,” said Barnum, “go and lay a brick on the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street; another close by the Museum; a third diagonally across the way… put down the fourth on the sidewalk in front of St. Paul’s Church, opposite; then, with the fifth brick in hand, take up a rapid march from one point to the other, making the circuit, exchanging your brick at every point, and say nothing to anyone.… [A]t the end of every hour by St. Paul’s clock show this ticket at the Museum door; enter, walking solemnly through every hall in the building; pass out, and resume your work.”

The beggar moved off with his five bricks, and began his idiot’s play. Within half an hour, more than five hundred curious people were following him. In an hour, the crowd had doubled. When the brick-toting pied piper entered the Museum, dozens bought tickets to follow him. This continued throughout the day for several days, and Barnum’s business showed a satisfying increase.

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum


The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant

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On This Day in SnigglerySeptember 1, 1957: September Morn, the most talked about dirty picture in America, goes on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (See September Morn for more info)