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What is a Humbug?

Two actors appear as stars at two rival theatres. They are equally talented, equally pleasing. One advertises himself simply as a tragedian, under his proper name - the other boasts that he is a prince, and wears decorations presented by all the potentates of the world, including the "King of the Cannibal Islands." He is correctly set down as a "humbug," while this term is never applied to the other actor.


Why? Not because he cheats or imposes upon the public, for he does not, but because, as generally understood, "humbug" consists in putting on glittering appearances - outside show - novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.


An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a "humbug,"' but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a "humbug." He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an outre manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.

P.T. Barnum--"Humbugs of the World"

Barnum was the self-titled "Prince of Humbugs." He was masterful at putting on (as he calls them) "glittering appearances and novel expedients" to attract the public's attention. There are small but crucial differences between hoax, humbug, and out-and-out fraud, and Barnum tread dangerously close to transgressing at times. Still, Barnum was in the business of entertainment, and he always managed to deliver entertainment value to his customers. Even those who were tricked had to admit they had a good time in the process, and that it was worth the money they had paid.


Scroll down to find out about some of Barnum's best and most famous Humbugs. This list is by no means complete!

Joice Heth, 161 year old slave and Nanny to George Washington

Read the supposed autobiography of Joice Heth
Joice Heth archive at the Lost Museum

In 1835, Barnum displayed Joice Heth, a 161 year old slave woman who was (supposedly) the nanny to George Washington. This was a big hit for quite a while, and Barnum took Joice Heth on tour. When sales began to flag in Boston, he wrote an anonymous letter to the newspaper, claiming that Heth wasn't a person at all, but a whale bone and India rubber automaton. This caused a Joice Heth furor again, as the people who had seen her previously wanted to see if they'd been taken in, and the people who missed her needed to see for themselves what the hubbub was all about. Heth died of natural causes in 1836. Barnum staged a public autopsy, and it was discovered that Heth could not have been more than 80 years old. Barnum went one further, and then suggested that Heth was still alive, that the woman that died was not the real Joice Heth. This was Barnum's first foray into show business, and he proved to be a natural promoter. In his autobiography, Barnum claimed that he believed Joice Heth to be exactly what he said, and that it was he who was deceived.

The Fejee Mermaid

Fejee Mermaid Archive at the Lost Museum
Read more about the Fejee Mermaid

The Fejee Mermaid was brought to Barnum's attention by Moses Kimball, fellow showman from the Boston Museum. A clever fabrication of a creature that had a fish's body and tail with the breasts of an orangutan and the head of a baboon, the Fejee Mermaid seemed like an astonishing curiosity. Barnum leased the attraction from Kimball, and then proceeded to put on some "novel expedients." He hired Levi Lyman (who had helped Barnum exhibit Joice Heth) to pose as a Dr. J. Griffin of the London Lyceum of Natural History. "Griffin" gave a series of lectures, which resulted in phenomenal box office business. Mermaid fever swept over New York, and the mermaid was displayed at Barnum's museum for over a month. The mermaid continued to bring in crowds as it toured around the United States until it arrived in South Carolina, where the crowds were incensed by the obvious falseness of the mermaid and its display partner, an actual duck-billed platypus. The mermaid was shipped back to Barnum's museum, to sit on a high shelf in Barnum's office. In later years, Barnum admitted that he was "not proud" of his Mermaid antics. Despite his regrets, it made his fortune. By the end of Mermaid fever, Barnum was the most famous showman in America. The Peabody Museum (at Harvard) owns a mermaid, but it is unclear as to whether it is Barnum's, or one of a number of replicas exhibited by rival showmen.

The Museum Gets a Facelift

When Barnum became proprietor of the American Museum, the building was rather plain. Barnum aimed to change all that. One night, after the museum had closed, Barnum had a series of oval paintings installed in between the windows of the museums upper floors. Ostriches, bears, eagles, kangaroos, peacocks-- the paintings all promised amazing sights on the inside. Barnum also added a large revolving light (New York's first spotlight) that lit the streets below, as well as fireworks, a rooftop garden and fountain, and giant illuminated balloons. By transforming the building from drab to droll, Barnum helped sales enormously-- Barnum estimated that it added close to 20% in sales per day.

The Brick Man

Barnum knew the power of mystery. An unemployed man came to his museum and asked Barnum for a job. Barnum handed the man five bricks and instructed him to solemnly place the bricks in various places around the outside of the museum. As he went from spot to spot, he was to replace the brick at each spot with another one that he was carrying. He was to answer no questions, speak to no one, and seem to be deaf and dumb. Once an hour, he was to enter the museum, walk right next to the ticket taker, seem to pay the fee, and then proceed through the museum and out the door. A crowd began to form, watching the man and wondering what he was doing. Many of the crowds followed him into the museum just to see what was going on. In fact, the police had to ask Barnum to stop the man, because the crowds that he was creating were stopping traffic.

Niagara Falls

Barnum's Museum was known for its wonders. So when Barnum advertised that he had imported at great expense a working model of Niagara Falls, people rushed to see the amazing spectacle. They were a little disappointed when they discovered that the model they had been looking for was 18 inches tall! However, all of the other interesting wonders at the museum made up for this temporary setback.

Free Music

Barnum offered free music from the Balcony of his museum. But he purposely hired bad musicians. He wanted people to move into the Museum, where they could take refuge from the awful music. This philosophy is continued to this day at fast food franchise places like McDonald's, which keeps the interior restaurants artificially bright so that people will be less inclined to dawdle. Barnum invented it!

The Grand Buffalo Hunt of Hoboken (FREE!)

In 1843, Barnum bought a herd of scrawny buffalo, and arranged for a FREE display of Buffalo hunting in Hoboken NJ on August 31, Over 24,000 people from New York came to see the fearsome buffalo, and were a little surprised to see some underfed docile animals milling about. The laughter and jeering of the crowds frightened the uncooperative buffalo, who broke through the protective fence and escaped into New Jersey's swamplands. Barnum had kept his name off all the advertisements, but had made secret deals with the ferry companies and the concession stands. He ended up clearing over $3000 for the single day.

The Wooley Horse

Read more about one of Fremont's expeditions

Noted explorer John C. Fremont had captured the public's attention with his Sierra expeditions. Barnum wanted to capitalize on Fremont's success. He had bought a small maneless horse with wooly hair. Barnum displayed the creature as an extraordinary nondescript (or new species) that seemed to be part deer, camel, horse, buffalo, and sheep. People flocked to see this new specimen which was supposedly direct from California. Barnum later said "The public appetite was craving something brought from Col. Fremont. The community was absolutely famishing. They were ravenous. They could have swallowed anything, and like a good genius, I threw them, not a 'bone', but a bon-bon, and they swallowed it in a single gulp."

General Tom Thumb

See General Tom Thumb's Grave
Read a Sketch of the Life of Tom Thumb Online

General Tom Thumb (born Charles Stratton) was a midget who literally increased Barnum's fortune immensely. Barnum met Stratton when he was five years old, and came upon the idea of displaying him as General Tom Thumb. Barnum billed the boy as a prodigy of the age of 11 (when he was only 5) and taught the boy to dance and jig and recite poetry and snippets of plays. Stratton did such a great job that he wowed the throngs at Barnum's Museum, then on tour around the United States, and even all of Europe. He performed several times before President Lincoln, Queen Victoria of England, Queen Isabella of Spain, King Leopold of Belgium, and many other royal and important personages. In 1863, Stratton married another midget (Lavinia Warren) at Barnum's mansion in Bridgeport. Their wedding was celebrated throughout the United States (they were guests of honor at a reception hosted by President and Mrs. Lincoln.)

Jenny Lind "The Swedish Nightingale"

Swedish Nightingale Archive at the Lost Museum
Jenny Lind Exhibition at the New York Historical Society

Smarting from his reputation as a Humbug man, Barnum had the idea to bring some high culture to the United States. In 1849, Barnum contracted with Swedish opera singer to come to the United States and give 150 concerts for the amazing sum of $1000 per concert (an unheard of sum in those days.) And Barnum had never heard her sing! When Jenny Lind asked him how he could hire her without hearing her, Barnum replied "I have more faith in your reputation than in my musical judgement." Barnum's uncanny ability to gain publicity paid off, and when Jenny's ship arrived in New York harbor (September 1850), she was already a superstar. 30,000 people came to meet her boat, and not one of them had heard her sing!. Rather than selling seats in the usual manner, Barnum auctioned off the first few seats. Jenny-mania was so extreme that the first man to purchase the Jenny Lind tickets in New York (hat maker Genin) ended up making a national name for himself and garnishing huge amounts of publicity. In Providence, RI, one man paid $650 for the pleasure of hearing Jenny sing. Jenny gave a total of 93 concerts in the states. Barnum paid her double the contracted salary, plus all the expenses, and still cleared over $700,000 in profits. He had convinced Americans that they needed to hear opera.

What Is It-- The Birth of the Pin Head

Read About the What Is It Exhibit

Just months after Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species" (1860) Barnum began to exhibit William Henry Johnson, a New Jersey native who was a mildly retarded black microcephalic dwarf. The public had a great interest in evolution, and Barnum touted Johnson as "The Missing LInk."

"Is it a lower order of man? Or a higher order of monkey? None can tell"

Johnson, who became known as Zip the Pinhead, started out at $1.00 per day, but was so popular with audiences that Barnum was soon paying him more. Barnum and Johnson became good friends. Johnson became one of the most famous freaks in the world, and displayed himself up until his death in the 1920's.

The Cardiff Giant - "America's Greatest Hoax"

Read About the Cardiff Giant
See where the Cardiff Giant currently resides
Find out what Barnum DIDN'T say

The Cardiff Giant was not originally a Barnum humbug. George Hull of Binghamton, NY, a cigar-maker, was the original perpetrator. In 1869, workmen dug up a petrified giant in Cardiff, NY that appeared to be from the biblical race of giants. The body was over 10 feet tall and weighed nearly 3000 lbs. Hull and conspirator/brother-in-law Stub Newell displayed the body before an amazed public. Sales were phenomenal. The hoax worked so well that Barnum attempted to buy the Cardiff Giant from Hull and Newell for $60,000. When they wouldn't sell, Barnum created his own Cardiff Giant (made of wood) and declaimed Hull's as a hoax. Hull took him to court, where the judge found for Barnum (after all, it turned out it was a hoax-- and there were no monetary damages to be had for telling the truth.) Paradoxically, this whole incident resulted in one of Barnum's most enduring claims to fame. Read the above links to find out what!

Jumbo The Elephant

Read More About Jumbo (
See Jumbo's Monument in St. Thomas Ontario
See a photo of how big Jumbo actually was

To meet P.T. Barnum, call 401-351-2596 or email: