June 2, 2007
First Tour by P. T. Barnum & Co.
On this day in 1835, P. T. Barnum and his company began their first tour of the United States.
There are so many excellent stories about Barnum's chicanery, that it's difficult to pick just one. Still, I think the story of the Cardiff giant is worth telling. The story doesn't start with Barnum, although he ultimately plays a significant part.
The story starts with paleontologist George Hull of Birmingham, New York, who decided to pull an elaborate hoax in 1868. There was an evangelist in the area who had been preaching about "giants in the earth" for some time and Hull had just about had enough of him. He recalled a gypsum quarry he had seen two years earlier in Fort Dodge, Iowa, that contained an unusual granite containing dark blue lines that resembled the veins in a human body. Hull traveled back to Iowa, and hired some quarry workers to cut him a slab that measured approximately 12 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet.
Hull had the granite slab shipped to Chicago, where he hired a stone cutter, Edward Burghardt, and his assistants to carve a giant, looking as though he had died in great pain. The result was fantastic -- the giant was twisted in apparent agony, clutching his stomach. The sculpture was done in considerable detail, even including "pores" to the giant's skin, formed with a needlepoint mallet. When finished, sulfuric acid and ink were rubbed over the figure to "age" it.
Hull then shipped the figure to Cardiff, New York, to the farm of William Newell, one of Hull's cousins. Newell and his son buried the giant in complete secrecy, and left him there for the time being.
About six months later, a major fossil find was discovered on a farm near Newell's. The area received publicity in papers all over the country.
About six months after that, Hull sent word to the Newell's that it was time to "discover" the giant. Newell hired two workers to dig a new well for him and showed them where he wanted it. Surprise! What should they find but a giant, turned to stone!
The publicity was astounding. Newell erected a tent around the giant and charged people 25 cents to come in and view it. Later he changed the price to 50 cents. Controversy was hot: some claimed it was really the fossilized remains of a giant, and others believed it was only an ancient statue. Nobody thought it was a hoax.
Newell sold a two-thirds interest in the giant to a Syracuse syndicate, headed by a man named David Hannum. The syndicate rented an exhibition hall and raised the admission charge to $1 a head. At this point, Barnum sent a representative to view the giant.
Barnum wanted that giant badly. He offered Hannum $50,000 for it. Hannum refused.
Still, Barnum didn't waste time haggling with Hannum. He built his own giant. Then he added it to his exhibit, and announced that Hannum had sold him the Cardiff giant, and that the giant that Hannum was currently exhibiting was a fake.
Hannum was furious. He brought a suit against Barnum, charging him with slandering him for calling the "real" giant a fake.
When the trial came to court, George Hull came forward and told the true story of the Cardiff Giant. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be judged guilty of slander, since Hannum's giant was a fake.
Incidentally, it was David Hannum, not Barnum, who uttered the famous quote, "There's a sucker born every minute." He was applying it to all those poor fools who were going to see Barnum's fake giant. Somehow Barnum ended up getting credit for the quote, but he never denied making it. It seems it thought he could use all the publicity he could get.
Photo: P. T. Barnum, Daguerreotype by Matthew Brady Studio, Public Domain