2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.
In 1843, Barnum got a bargain on a herd of puny, scrawny bison yearlings and had them shipped to a racetrack in Hoboken, New Jersey. Then, he advertised a “Grand Buffalo Hunt”, with breathtaking displays of roping and capture of the wild beasts by genuine Indian braves. The advertisement was anonymous; admission was promised as free of charge.
In his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs Barnum claims that upwards of 24,000 people crossed the Hudson river to see the spectacle, which consisted of a bunch of underwhelming buffalo babies chewing grass and milling about. But that was okay — Barnum had actually struck up a deal with the ferry operator; he made a fortune on his share of the proceeds from the ferry tickets! The next day he announced that he’d been the one who had engineered the prank and found that, far from a backlash, the public was generally admiring of his acumen, and glad to have been taken to the cleaners in this fashion.
Side note. Nowadays we use the slang verb “to buffalo” as a synonym for “to cheat” or “bewilder”. Interestingly, none of the online sources I just consulted mention this incident as a possible origin for the term. I suspect it may have played a role, don’t you?