PT Barnum’s "The Humbugs of the World" (1865)

Phineas Taylor Barnum, as photographed by Matthew Brady

I am absolutely mesmerized by this book that I printed out from The University of Illinois’s Digitized book of the week site. (bookmark that right now) The full title is absolutely fantastic and says it all- “The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages”. Barnum debunks “humbugs” that plague us still: spiritualists (paging turdmaster general John Edward), shameless and wily advertisers (then a new phenomenom), placebos, religious fakers, etc.
I’m looking forward to getting back to this one and then on to his other works. His writing is holds up surprisingly well and in true populist spirit, appeals to those who are know they are being scammed but want to see how the trick is done. Every page is a peek into a much less jaded, much less connected, much smaller America. Barnum’s literary voice alternates between winking hucksterism, righteous indignation, rapier wit, and slightly bawdier Poor Richard.

Barnum dares spiritualists to prove themselves,
“When they pretend to give me communications from departed spirits, to tie or untie ropes- to read sealed letters, or to answer test-questions through spiritual agencies, I pronounce all such pretensions ridiculous impositions, and I stand ready at any time to prove them so, or to forfeit five hundred dollars, whenever these pretended mediums will succed in producing their “wonderful manifestations” in a room of my selecting and with apparatus of my providing.”

Barnum distilled manifesto breaks down to “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter”- the king of self promotion regalled in knocking pretenders to his throne down a peg. Check it out.

“Advertising is to a genuine article what manure is to land, – it largely increases the product. ”

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