In 1835, the legendary showman P.T Barnum made his debut. He exhibited what he called “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world,” an elderly black woman names Joice Heth. She was 161 years old. He announced through pamphlets and many forms of advertisements that she was the “most ancient specimen of mortality.”
This New York exhibition was so successful that Barnum put her on a tour of New England where she would tell the public about tales of little George and the Washington Family.
Eventually, interest waned, but Barnum was prepared. He planted a letter in a Boston newspaper that claimed Joice Heth was a fraud, “a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numberless strings, ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator.” It was a brilliant ploy – now people couldn’t wait to see whether Heth was real or some kind of robot!
Barnum went on to orchestrate several entertaining hoaxes over the years. There was one that involved the famous “Cardiff Giant.” George Hull, an upcoming huckster, came up with a brilliant idea. He buried a huge figure of a man carved out of gypsum on a farm that belonged to his cousin.
And then, he claimed that he was inspired with a debate he held with an evangelical preacher, who insisted that giant men once roamed the earth, just as the Bible had described. A year later, Hull had arranged for the body to be “discovered.”
Huge crowds paid to see the Cardiff Giant. Some claimed that they could not help but feel that they were in the presence of a superior being. But there was controversy over the legitimacy of the statue – skeptics claimed that it was a complete fraud, while others argued whether it was an ancient statue or a fossilized human being.
Barnum, “Prince of Humbugs” discovered that he was faced with a new rival. And that his rival had discovered a brilliant way of generating cash. Barnum quickly made his move. He offered a large sum to buy the Cardiff Giant, a clear winner, but it was too late, since Hull sold the giant to new owners. But that didn’t deter Barnum, who simply had another statue carved and called it the real Cardiff Giant. The controversy surrounding Hull’s statue lent much credibility to Barnum’s claim that it was fake.
Soon, the crowds flocked away from Hull’s statue and towards Barnum’s.
The original investors tried to sue Barnum, but a circuit court judge refused to stop Barnum from essentially out-competing his rivals. One of the investors of the original Cardiff Giant said, after seeing the long line of people waiting to see Barnum’s copy, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
The irony is that Barnum stole credit for that memorable line, too.