“There’s a sucker born every minute” was the defining motto of 19th Century American showman and impresario P.T. Barnum.
Although the words are often attributed to Barnum, they were actually said about him by a jealous rival, not by the great man himself (according to Barnum, anyway).
Barnum was the most flamboyant, outrageous, daring — and successful — of the many entrepreneurs who dazzled and delighted North American audiences throughout the 19th Century with shows of natural and unnatural wonders — the bigger and more bizarre the better.
Barnum introduced awestruck Americans and Canadians to the 2-foot-5 dwarf performer General Tom Thumb (Barnum’s cousin), Nova Scotia giantess Anna Swan, the original “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng (from Siam — modern Thailand — of course), and a panoply of unusual humans and exotic animals, including the original Jumbo elephant (who died in St. Thomas, Ont., after being struck by a circus train; Barnum had Jumbo’s skin stuffed and continued to exhibit it for years).
Barnum also put up a breathtaking $200,000 to bring the world’s first superstar, Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, to North America for a tour that lasted years in the 1850s, making them both fabulously wealthy in the process.
So P.T. Barnum was always looking to put on a show that would entice audiences to part with their hard-earned cash. But he never considered his customers to be “suckers” and he gave them full value for the price of admission — usually.
But in the case of the Cardiff Giant, Barnum gave the paying customers what they wanted — even if it wasn’t real.
In fact, Barnum’s Cardiff Giant was a fake copy of an original fake.
Let me explain.
It all started shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War, when New York City tobacconist George Hull — a vocal atheist (not that uncommon for the time) — got into an argument with a fundamental creationist about whether or not the Bible could be believed when it said (Genesis 6:4) the Earth was once populated by a race of giants (sometimes interpreted as aliens).
Hull decided to stick it, so to speak, to the Biblical literalists by creating his own petrified Genesis giant; he spent a small fortune and a good deal of time and effort doing so.
First he had a 12-foot-long block of gypsum cut for him in Iowa and shipped to Chicago, where he promised to pay German tombstone carver Edwin Burkhardt handsomely to carve out a giant human form and keep his mouth shut. (According to Burkhardt’s descendants, the stonecarver died soon after completing his work and all Burkhardt’s widow ever got from Hull was $10.)
Hull and the sculptor then went to work on the stone giant with stains and acids to give it the appearance of great age. They even managed to create what looked like pores in the “skin” of the statue. The result was what Hull hoped his gullible religious opponents would take to be the petrified remains of one of the giants that once supposedly roamed the world.
When finally satisfied with his handiwork in November 1868, Hull crated his monster and shipped it to the farm of his cousin, W.C. Newell, near Cardiff in upstate New York. The two men buried the stone statue deep in a field behind Newell’s barn and waited … and waited … and waited.
Finally, almost a year later, the dug-up earth had settled and grown over enough that it seemed undisturbed ground and Hull launched his endgame.
Farmer Newell — known as “Stub” to his friends and neighbours — hired two locals in October 1869 to dig a well behind his barn. Lo and behold, the two labourers made an incredible discovery — the petrified, preserved remains of an ancient human, soon to be known far and wide as the Cardiff Giant.
And from far and wide gawkers soon came to witness this miraculous thing — and willingly paid 25 cents (50 cents within a few days — about $40 in today’s money) to Stubb Newell and George Hull for the privilege.
Exhibit tent on Newell’s Farm, 1869
With greed overtaking his philosophical pranksterism, Hull sold his two-thirds ownership share of the Giant for the whopping sum of $36,000 to a showbiz syndicate headed by banker and horse trader David Hannum.
David Hannum, above, and the Cardiff Giant being shipped to Syracuse, below.
Hannum moved the Cardiff Giant up the road to the bustling city of Syracuse, N.Y., where it continued to draw such crowds that P.T. Barnum soon became interested in acquiring the Giant for his museum of oddities down in New York City.
Barnum offered $50,000 for the petrified man, but Hannum turned him down flat.
Barnum, being ingeniously resourceful and unscrupulous, then bribed Hannum’s night watchman to secretly admit a craftsman in Barnum’s employ to make a wax model of the “real” Cardiff Giant.
Back in New York City, Barnum had a plaster replica made of the wax model and put it on display, claiming that Hannum had sold him the “real” Giant and that the one Hannum was now showing in Syracuse was, in fact, a fake.
What amazing gall.
P.T. Barnum’s “fake” fake
This is the point at which Hannum lashed out at Barnum and the gullible masses flocking to see P.T.’s New York City “fake.”
And it was a chortling Barnum who told the New York newspapers that it was Hannum who told him, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Hannum responded by suing Barnum for slander and loss of income for calling the Syracuse Giant a fake. Unfortunately for Hannum, the case was heard in a New York City court where Barnum was a generous contributor to the judge’s political campaigns.
It didn’t help that George Hull decided to pull the plug on his prank/fraud by admitting to a newspaper on Dec. 10, 1869, that he had faked the Cardiff Giant and set up the elaborate charade of its “discovery.”
When Hannum’s civil suit came to trial on Feb. 2, 1870, both Hull and his cousin, Stub Newell, testified that the Cardiff Giant was a total fake, inspired by Hull’s anti-religious fervour and turned into a huge money-making event by the public’s thirst for new and strange sensations.
The judge promptly ruled that there was no slander in calling a fake a fake — even if Barnum was unaware the “original” was indeed a fake — and threw out Hannum’s suit.
The court case actually increased the public’s interest in the Cardiff Giant and both Barnum and Hannum continued to display their two fakes for years and continued to make money, minute by minute, from new generations of suckers, er, paying customers.
Hannum’s “original” fake Cardiff Giant was even an attraction at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, although it was overshadowed by things like the gaudy display of new-fangled electric lights powered from nearby Niagara Falls and by the assassination of President William McKinley at the expo site.
If you feel like paying the price of admission (sucker), you can still see both Hull/Hannum’s Cardiff Giant and P.T. Barnum’s replica. One’s at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the other’s at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Mich., near Detroit. I’m not telling you which is which.
(Postscript: George Hull decided he was onto such a good thing that he created another buried giant — this time made of clay, ground bones, meat and plaster — that was “discovered” in Beulah, Colorado, in 1877. Hull and partner William Conant made a tidy profit from this new petrified giant, dubbed The Solid Muldoon since it was hidden on Muldoon Hill and there was a music-hall song, then currently popular, called “Muldoon, the Solid Man.” And, yes, P.T. Barnum’s fingerprints are attached to the Solid Muldoon: It’s likely he financed Hull’s latest enterprise and he was sniffing around Beulah within days of the “discovery” — but he seems to have decided there just wasn’t enough public interest to bring the Muldoon to New York City. Or perhaps the meat was just rotting too much. The Solid Muldoon disappeared from public awareness shortly thereafter, as did George Hull. As far as I can tell, Hull avoided having his photo taken during his hucksterhood.)
The Solid Muldoon, R.I.P.