In 1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum was down on his luck and anxious to find an “amusement” that would attract paying customers. One lucky day a stranger came into the shop where Barnum worked and told him that he possessed half-ownership of a “curiosity”: a woman named Joice Heth who, the stranger claimed, was the 161-year-old slave who raised George Washington.
Barnum examined Heth and the stranger’s “proofs” about her age and provenance and, convinced of her seeming veracity, bought Heth from the stranger. Barnum, being “a student of human nature” as well as a natural showman, “spared no reasonable efforts” in drawing a crowd to see Joice Heth’s performances, in which Heth recounted tales of George Washington’s childhood. Barnum explained that he was “aware of the great power of the public press” and used it in any way he could, including flooding the city “with ‘posters’ setting forth the peculiar attraction which ‘the nurse of Washington’ presented,” and paying off editors to write up the story of Joice Heth in the most dramatic way possible.
Barnum’s advertising strategy depended on “getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about the ‘rare spectacle.’” His advertisements had one goal above all others: They were “calculated to extort attention.” His tool was hyperbole. While P.T. Barnum is often remembered as the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus — “The Greatest Show on Earth” — Barnum’s story is more broadly about America’s fascination with hyperbole and humbug.
Hyperbole is the rhetorical term for “excess” (Greek hyper “beyond” + bole “to throw,” to overthrow or throw beyond). Aristotle thought of hyperbole as a kind of metaphor, a comparison between a known thing and an unknown thing. In comparing something that is unknown to something that is already well understood, audiences would make sense of new information by using associational logic (a key form of Greek thought). Yet Aristotle thought that because hyperbole relied on excessive exaggeration, it was a special kind of metaphor that took advantage of associational logic to distort reality. Therefore, those who used hyperbole abused the power of metaphor and demonstrated a “vehemence of character.”
In the 18th century, Joseph Priestley also saw hyperbole as a kind of metaphoric comparison that “exceeds the truth.” Priestley thought that hyperbole was justly used as part of the sublime, as an attempt to use words to describe the ineffable when “no expressions literally true sufficiently answer his purpose.” However, he thought that there were only a very few circumstances in which hyperbole could be used “with propriety.” Mostly, Priestley thought that hyperbole was unjustly used to appeal to “persons of little reading” who were particularly attracted to the “very extravagant” or the “marvelous and supernatural.” Hyperbole drew attention to itself, for the sake of merely drawing attention. For Priestley, hyperbole was like candy: It appealed to the very young, but it was too sweet for older people with more refined taste.
According to these accounts, hyperbole could only be used justly when an accurate description was beyond the power of human speech. All other incidences of hyperbole were an attempt to take advantage of the uninformed by misrepresenting what was not well understood.
But Barnum relished hyperbole precisely because it was the best way to reach the masses.
For a time, Barnum writes in his 1855 Autobiography, ticket sales for the Heth show were great and business was good and he was happy. He was sure to keep up “a constant succession of novel advertisements and unique notices in the newspapers,” which kept “old Joice fresh in the minds of the public, and served to sharpen the curiosity of the people.” However, disaster soon stuck.
As Barnum tells the story: “A Visitor” wrote to one of the local papers and claimed that Joice Heth was not actually the 161-year-old former slave of George Washington as had been claimed, but was actually what the hip school kids of the 1750s had started to call a humbug. Joice Heth, “A Visitor” claimed, was a hoax.
Specifically, “A Visitor” believed that Heth was “not a human being,” but was “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs, ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator.” Barnum, “A Visitor” charged, was nothing more than a ventriloquist, and all of the conversations that audiences had had with Heth about George Washington were “purely imaginary” and “merely the ventriloquial voice of the exhibitor.”
The attack on Heth didn’t hurt Barnum’s show; it made it bigger. Barnum would recall that “hundreds who had not visited Joice Heth were now anxious to see the curious automaton; while many who had seen her were equally desirous of a second look, in order to determine whether or not they had been deceived.” Barnum claimed that the automaton controversy led to even greater curiosity and even greater ticket sales.
Joice Heth passed away in early 1836, ending Barnum’s show but not the nation’s curiosity over Heth. Barnum took advantage of that interest, arranging another Heth show: 1,500 audience members paid 50 cents each — double what audiences had paid to see her alive — to watch as Dr. David L. Rogers conducted an autopsy on her body. According to the February 25, 1836, edition of The New York Sun, Dr. Rogers concluded that Heth’s “wonderful old age was a wonderful humbug.” While she was, in fact, a real person, she was nearer to 80 than to 160 years old.
But Barnum had the last word. He planted a story with The Sun’s competitor, The New York Herald, on February 27, 1836, which claimed that the Heth humbug story was itself humbug. In fact, reported The Herald on “good authority,” Heth was not dead at all, but alive and well in Connecticut.
To be clear: 1) The story about Joice Heth was a humbug, she was neither 161 years old nor the former slave of the Washington family; 2) the story about Heth being an automaton was a humbug; and 3) the story refuting Heth’s autopsy results was yet another humbug. Barnum’s story of Joice Heth was at least three layers of humbug deep.
By 1855, when Barnum published his Autobiography, he was world famous as an entertainment promoter: His American Museum, and shows featuring Heth, Tom Thumb, Feejee Mermaid, and the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, all had made Barnum famous and rich. Barnum’s “celebrity was his life’s work and his prize possession. He bragged about it, sued people over it, threatened to kill it, but most of all, he reinvented it,” according to one account of Barnum’s influence on American life. His Autobiography was his self-promotion vehicle; he constantly embellished, revised, and expanded it. Barnum’s goal in his Autobiography was to portray himself as the world’s most tricky and entertaining fellow.
Historians can’t seem to find primary-source evidence to support Barnum’s recollection of the exposé of Heth-as-automaton newspaper story, but the rest of this seemingly tall tale of American curiosity and humbug checks out. As Barnum explained in his 1866 book The Humbugs of the World (which did not include his Joice Heth humbug), a humbug was a legerdemain, a slight of hand.
Why did Barnum’s hyperbole and humbug excite American audiences in the 19th century? For the same reason that it excites Americans today: We love to be amused and we love excess, and so we reward showmen with our attention. Some have said that we’re “amusing ourselves to death” and that we live in the “society of the spectacle.”
We’re especially attracted to hyperbole during times of great transition, when things are confusing and reality can be more easily distorted. Barnum knew this too: His “A Visitor” exposé/humbug relied upon the nation’s curiosity about the emerging technology of machinery, new commercial uses for India rubber, and new Northern concerns over the abolition of slavery.
Today is another time of great transition, and America’s showmen-leaders know it. During an election interview with NBC in 2016, Donald Trump said he had enjoyed being compared to P.T. Barnum. “We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country,” he said.
Ask yourself: Was Barnum and Bailey’s circus literally the “greatest show on Earth”? Of course not. That’s nonsensical hyperbole — “the greatest” can’t be proven or quantified. But in a supposedly classless society like ours, confident appeals to American greatness via hyperbole attract audiences. Americans are much more likely to describe their hamburger or pizza as absolutely “the world’s greatest” rather than as “probably” the best. Such exaggeration is a humbug, of course, but it’s also hyperbole: It compares the known (American hamburgers or pizza) to the unknown (the other hamburgers and pizzas of the world) and tells naive Americans that theirs is best.
And we shouldn’t forget that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Barnum has been credited with that phrase, but probably never said that. Of course, there’s a humbug that says he did.
Originally published on Zócalo Public Square.
This article will appear in our March/April 2017 issue of the Post.
It had to be an exceptional wedding to earn an entire column of space in the Post. But the ceremony that took place at New York’s Grace Church 150 years ago deserved the coverage.
The groom was Charles Sherwood Stratton, known to the U.S. as General Tom Thumb. His bride was colleague Lavinia Warren. Both were less than 3 feet tall.
The event had been developed and promoted by the great showman P. T. Barnum. He had invited the city’s rich and powerful to witness the marriage of the two most popular members of Barnum’s American Museum. The church was overflowing. Outside, the crowd was so large, the bride and groom’s carriage had trouble drawing up to the doors.
But while Barnum had generated the publicity that drew the crowds that filled Broadway, the wedding was Stratton’s idea. He had met Warren when she came to work as Barnum’s newest attraction and had fallen in love with her. Knowing that another member of the museum, Commodore Nutt (3 feet tall), was also pursuing her, Stratton quickly proposed so that Warren could accompany him on the museum’s next European tour.
After the ceremony, the couple traveled to Washington D.C., where the 2-foot-10-inch Stratton had the opportunity to shake hands with 6-foot-4-inch President Lincoln.
Stratton was 25 years old at the time and had been working with Barnum for 18 years. He was just 4 years old when Barnum had met him and hired him from his parents for $3 a week with a $50 signing bonus.
He instructed the child to mimic the manners of a Victorian gentleman. He also taught him comic routines, which he would perform in costume at Barnum’s American Museum.
The museum was a combination of a zoo, theater, wax works, art gallery, and rifle range. It also exhibited curious celebrities like the elderly black woman said to be George Washington’s nanny, Siamese Twins Chang and Eng, along with several giants, albinos, three morbidly obese brothers, and what was claimed to be the embalmed remains of a mermaid. This irresistible combination drew 15,000 visitors to the museum every day.
When Barnum introduced Stratton as Gen. Tom Thumb to New York audiences, he boosted the child’s age to 11 years to make the child’s shortness even more remarkable. And, knowing that Americans had a “disgraceful preference for foreigners,” he told the public Stratton was an Englishman. He was a huge success.
But after the novelty wore off and Barnum saw ticket sales dip slightly, he packed up the group to tour America and England. Stratton joined the group and was a star from his first performance, even appearing before the royal family several times.
To modern ears, Stratton and Barnum’s story may sound like a classic tale of exploitation—an obscure, disadvantaged child put on display in a freak show. But this working relationship was different. What began as a business arrangement between 4-year-old Stratton and 32-year-old Barnum became a friendship. Barnum took care of his star and paid him well. By the time he retired, Stratton was wealthy enough to own a fashionable house in Manhattan, a yacht, and a custom-built cottage on a Connecticut island.
When Barnum went bankrupt from bad investments, Stratton stepped in with financial help. He also suggested they both return to Europe for another tour, which proved so profitable that Barnum was able to pay off his creditors and restart his business. Eventually, the two men became business partners.
Stratton and Warren lived together as husband and wife for 20 years. By the time he died at the age of 45, he had grown to 3 feet 4 inches tall. The cause of his lack of growth is unclear, though one researcher has pointed out that Stratton was the product of a marriage between first cousins, in a family with a history of dwarfism.
What is remarkable about Stratton is not his height, but his spirit and talent. Right from the start, he eagerly took to the stage and displayed a talent for acting, mimicry, singing, and dancing.
When performing, he would appear in several costumes and recite monologues as a Scottish highlander, then a scholar, a sailor, and finally, paying tribute to another great, short man, as Napoleon. He would also sing, dance, and perform a comic dialogue with a ‘straight man.’ In addition, he appears to have had the ability to improvise. At the end of his act, he would sometimes invite audience members to call out questions, to which he would give humorous replies.
He showed his quick wit when Barnum took him to dinner with a newspaper editor. When Stratton was placed on the dining room table after the meal, he deliberately kicked over a glass of water. When asked why, he replied he had been afraid of falling into it and drowning.
He performed regularly, usually alone on stage, for decades, at the museum and at theaters across America, Britain, Europe, and Japan—all from the age of 4 years old.
Read the original 1863 column on Stratton’s charming New York wedding here.