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 named after him), but before his circus career he was form any years an internationally famous museum showman. His early career was marked by a variety of outrageous publicity stunts and hoaxes, which he used to attract attention to his bizarre exhibits. His promotional techniques often tested the boundaries of what the emerging middle class was willing to accept, but he was somehow able to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. People viewed him as a kind of lovable, con artist. The phrase There’s a sucker born every minute will forever be attributed to him, even thug he was not the man who originally said it.
Joice Heth was a frail, elderly black woman whom a young Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of General George Washington. Heth was the first exhibit that Barnum ever promoted, and in doing so displayed all the marketing skills that he would later become famous for. She immediately drew huge crowds of people eager both to witness her grate age and to hear her stories about raising Washington (who had been dead for over thirty-five years). When the public’s interest in her started to wane, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was not a person at all, but was actually a mechanical robot cleverly designed to look like an old lady. This claim played off the popularity of another exhibit touring America at that time, the Great Chess Automaton. Barnum continued to display her until she died on February 19, 1836. But even in death Barnum found a way to exploit her. He allowed a public autopsy to be performed on her body in order to verify her age. Unfortunately for Barnum the doctor who performed the autopsy declared that she could not have been older than eighty.
The Feejee Mermaid
In August 1842 a traveling English naturalist named “Dr. J. Griffin” arrived in New York City. He had with him a spectacular curiosity – a mermaid supposedly caught near the island of Feejee. The body of the mermaid was put on display in Barnum’s museum, and enormous crowds turned out to see it. Barnum hyped the exhibit by running advertisements in the major newspapers that showed a beautiful naked figure. The actual exhibit, however, was not alluring. It was a small, taxidermically preserved creature with the withered upper body of a monkey and the dried tail of a fish. One critic described it as the “incarnation of ugliness.” The genius of the exhibit was that there was absolutely nothing new about the mermaid. Before it arrived in New York City, it had previously been displayed in Boston for months by another museum without attracting any comment. But when Barnum applied his marketing magic to it the mermaid became an overnight sensation. “Dr. J. Griffin” was part of the deception. He was actually Levi Lyman, one of Barnum’s cronies.
The Feejee Mermaid was lost when Barnum’s museum burned down during the 1860s. A similar mermaid, which some claim to be the original specimen but which is probably not, is owned by Harvard University and is located in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The Free Grand Buffalo Hunt
New York City papers advertised that a free buffalo hunt would occur on August 31, 1843. The ads declared that dangerous wild buffaloes had been captured in New Mexico and transported in for the show. They were being kept behind thick double-rail fencing in an enclosure in Hoboken. Twenty-four thousand New Yorkers, enticed by the allure both of wild beasts and a free show, paid six cents each to take the ferry across the river to Hoboken, where they were met by a herd of malnourished, feeble, very tame buffaloes, hardly the dangerous beasts they had been promised. Barnum, who had secretly engineered the entire “free” show, laughed all the way to the bank, since he had cut a deal with the ferry operators to pocket half their net revenue for the day.
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