P.T. Barnum: A Hoax for a Better Tomorrow

You know, people have the wrong idea about P.T. Barnum.

Many think he’s the one who coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That’s not true. In fact, in relation to Barnum, that phrase was actually used by David Hannum — get this — as a jab against Barnum and his customers.

No, Barnum was actually an all right guy.

Yeah, he was an entrepreneur out to make a buck (even wrote a book called “The Art of Money Getting”). He perpetuated hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant and the Feejee Mermaid. He ran sideshows and did everything he could to get eyes on his exhibits. But he also fought against what he called “fraudulent deceptions,” like ye olde mediums and spirit photographers.

Point being, while Barnum enjoyed hyping up hoaxes and entertaining people with weird claims (which I believe were implicitly fake), he did not stand for outright frauds seeking to deceive others for money.

Barnum’s American Museum


In fact, Barnum’s hoaxes and weird claims were actually his way of drawing attention to his American Museum, where visitors could find both the strange and the educational. “I don’t believe in duping the public,” he once said, “But I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”

Feejee MermaidOpened on January 1, 1842, the American Museum featured a theater, an aquarium, dioramas, exotic animals and scientific exhibits, alongside the weirder freak shows and wax figures. People arrived with the promise of seeing the Feejee Mermaid or the Bearded Lady or other curiosities, but were also exposed to more legitimate displays and entertainment.

It was all in good fun, and regardless what Barnum’s customers arrived for (the Feejee Mermaid, for example, was actually just a baby monkey sewn to a fish and covered with papier-mâché), they at least came away with something of value. Entertainment, education. A quick laugh.

All told, the museum drew in 38 million customers before it unfortunately burned down in 1865, an outstanding accomplishment for the time.

Nowadays you can explore a virtual (albeit outdated) recreation of it online.

Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from P.T. Barnum, it’s this: there’s nothing wrong with a good hoax now and then.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.