P.T. Barnum was a master of deception and entertainment, who knew how to attract the public’s attention with his sensational shows and exhibits. He was not only a circus impresario, but also a museum owner, a politician, a lecturer, and an author. He claimed that he was not a fraud, but a humbug, a term he defined as “putting on glittering appearances—outside show—novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.”
One of his most famous humbugs was the “6-Foot-Tall Man Eating Chicken,” which he displayed at his American Museum in New York in 1856. The museum was filled with curiosities and freaks, but this attraction was the most amazing of all. People paid a few pennies to see a creature that sounded impossible and horrific: a giant man devouring a chicken. But when they entered the room, they saw nothing but a tall man seated at a table, gnawing on some chicken wings.
Barnum knew that people would be disappointed, but also amused by his clever trick. He also knew that they would spread the word about his show, creating more publicity and curiosity. He used this strategy of creating hype and controversy throughout his career, exploiting the public’s interest in the unusual and bizarre.
Barnum’s humbugs were not limited to his museum and circus. He also promoted various individuals as wonders of nature or history, such as Joice Heth, an elderly black woman whom he claimed was 161 years old and George Washington’s nurse; General Tom Thumb, a dwarf whom he presented as an aristocrat and a celebrity; and Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer whom he turned into a sensation in America.
Barnum’s methods of marketing and entertainment have influenced many aspects of modern culture, from show business to politics to the internet. He was a pioneer of mass media and mass consumption, who understood the power of emotions and storytelling. He once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he also believed that people needed something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours. He gave them what they wanted: humbug.