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.
Here is an example of Barnum at his most unprincipled, behaving in a way that anticipates the modern, monopolistic corporate ethos. Normally what we love and admire about Barnum is his imagination. In the case of the Cardiff Giant, Barnum essentially poached someone else’s idea. And yet the result was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
In 1869, the “petrified” remains of what appeared to be a ten foot tall man was discovered on the farm of one “Stub” Newell in upstate Cardiff, New York, not far from the Finger Lakes. A tent was erected, and admission was charged for viewings. People came from miles around to see the object. Unknown at the time, the “Giant” had been created at great trouble and expense by Newell’s cousin George Hull, who’d poured huge sums of money into the hoax, having had the stone for it brought all the way from Iowa, carved and distressed by experts, and then surreptitiously planted on Newell’s property where it would be “found” several months later. Despite the protests of scientists from every field who declared the thing a fake, a consortium of investors bought Newell and Hull out and began to exhibit the Giant in nearby Syracuse for even greater attention and profits. (The fact that the “Giant” was anatomically correct cannot have harmed ticket sales.)
As was his normal operating procedure when he heard about a good thing, Barnum tried to buy the Cardiff Giant from its present owners — who would not sell. Nothing daunted, Barnum had his own Cardiff Giant fabricated and began to exhibit it as the “real” one. Now he too was making huge amounts of money out of the Cardiff Giant. The proprietors of the original one attempted to sue him, but the judge ruled that since the first one had been a fake, there was no additional fraudulence in Barnum’s replica. Something seems kind of “off” about that ruling. This is why we say it is thought-provoking. What is a counterfeit of a counterfeit? Sounds like perfect fodder for Orson Welles’ F for Fake.
At any rate, both Cardiff Giants were ten feet long and made of limestone. Hence, unlike many objects from 19th century museums and sideshows they were not easy to lose or in any way ephemeral. Which means…they still exist and you can still look at them. Hull’s original one resides at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I have seen it!
Meanwhile, Barnum’s one is said to reside at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in the Detroit/ Ann Arbor area.