Friday, 4 November 2011

Taking Advantage of Idiots, Volume 1: PT Barnum

Welcome to the first installment in a new series of posts entitled "Taking Advantage of Idiots".  I'm a firm believer that if you're an idiot, you probably deserve to be taken advantage of (I'm talking about the people who open emails from strangers and are surprised when they get a virus on their computer, or people who believe everything that they read on Facebook).

In honour of this, I would like to discuss P.T. Barnum, a man who definitely took advantage of many, many idiots in his time.

P.T. Barnum became famous in the 1800s for founding the circus that would eventually become Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He travelled the US with his side show and circus, and he may have been the first "show business" millionaire (but he did not coin the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute", despite rumours to the contrary).

Barnum also was famous for his hoaxes.

The first, in 1842, was the Feejee Mermaid. Supposedly the mummified remains of an actual mermaid, this was really the head and torso of a monkey sewed to the body of a fish (with some paper mache thrown in for good measure).
Around the same time he also claimed that Charles Sherwood Stratton (or General Tom Thumb) was the "Smallest Person Who Ever Walked Alone". Of course, he forgot to mention that Charles (or "Tom") was actually only 4-years-old, not an adult.
There's also the story of how Barnum advertised an exhibit as an Egress (which, of course, means exit), duped people into paying an additional fee to see the exhibit, and leading them out of the museum entirely. Brilliant.

I know that side shows were horrible. But it was the 1800s, and from what I've read Barnum treated his performers quite fairly; under Barnum's management, Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb) became a very wealthy man, living with in luxury until his death at the age of 45.

So let's give a toast to P.T. Barnum, who may not have said it, but surely he felt that there really is a sucker born every minute.