Barnum Presents a Unicorn

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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 1871, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, menagerie, Caravan and Circus presented an animal billed as the “Unicorn from Scripture”. At this stage, he’d done as much for 20 years. But here’s what patrons saw when they arrived:

unicorn (2)

Even in Barnum’s day naturalists and other scholars had speculated for ages that ancient accounts of unicorns were actually referring to early European impressions of the rhinoceros. In the poster above, Barnum says what it actually is. Could he be faulted if audiences were dumb enough to show up expecting to see the mythological beast depicted in the picture at the top of this post?

Furthermore, it is all technically quite correct. “Unicorn” literally means “one horn.” That is all the word means. Which is what allowed the corporate descendant of Barnum’s organization to dare to pull this stunt as late as the 1980s:

Unicor3

What folks saw at RBBB in the 1980s was a goat with one horn. Still, it’s technically correct. At the time there was a controversy and an uproar, and complaints about “fraud”, and so forth. I don’t know if there’s a sucker born every minute, but there are definitely 267 IDIOTS born every minute. As far as I am concerned, if you are buying tickets to a circus and don’t realize you are going to a SHOW, and then have the gall to complain at the efforts of the showfolk to ENTERTAIN you, you are a lower brute than any of the critters in the menagerie. If you come expecting to see the sort of mythological beast depicted in storybooks, and what’s more, expecting that to be GENUINE, there is a position available for you in the show. Here’s the last fellow we hired to fill the slot:

Koolookamba, 19th-Cent engraving

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