Archive for the BUNKUM Category

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Littlest Lovers: Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Little People, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd


“There’s someone for everybody” goes the old matchmaker’s expression, and perhaps no words rang truer on February 9, 1863, the day that professional little person Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church, New York. (I believe that’s Lavinia’s sister Minnie Warren as Maid of Honor; and Commodore Nutt as Best Man). This little stunt, the “Fairy Wedding” by the press, lightened people’s hearts during the depths of the Civil War. We present it to you in the same spirit today.


It wasn’t just a publicity stunt, however; the two were a real couple. But even so, their boss P.T. Barnum was probably not too unhappy when the big event resulted in coverage like this:


“I love you completely, my own, my all. But above all, I love this front page coverage in Harpers!”

Of Flim-Flam and Falstaff: Fields as Fictional Character

Posted in BUNKUM, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 4, 2016 by travsd



Over the past few decades the public has come to have a vague, simplistic and inaccurate image of the formerly-universally-beloved W.C. Fields — an image I call “the bobble-head on the bar” — a red cheeked and red-nosed inebriate leaning on a lamp-post, an American Silenus.

As far as I’m concerned, booze was the least imaginative and most uninteresting part of his act. The Fields I fell in love with is quite different — I think of him as the archetypal vaudevillian, with a steamer trunk crammed full of Dickens and Shakespeare, stickered on the outside with his far-flung ports of call: Berlin, Singapore, Sydney, Johannesburg, San Francisco. And then, in a manner that is one part P.T. Barnum and one part Mark Twain, he exaggerates his adventures, the places he’s been, the people he’s known, the superhuman deeds he has committed. “Why are you called ‘Honest John’?” he is asked…and out comes a long, rambling, impossible story that never actually answers the question. Like Falstaff (to whom critics often compared his character), he is not just a drunkard, but the drunkard as storyteller, a frightened little man who needs the steady diet of Dutch courage to transform himself into a make-believe super hero. He embodies the magic and tradition of American humbug. The irony of course is he spins his yarns off his REAL experiences. In an era when few human beings had traveled more than ten miles from their front door, he had lived a life of adventure, crossed seas and continents many times, had played to crowned heads in world capitals. It provided the raw material, but then he would transform that material into something miraculous, in much the same way as he would hold large numbers of balls, clubs or cigar boxes aloft in his early days as a vaudeville juggler.

But, like Falstaff, he seesaws betwixt bluster and deflation. He boasts of impossible skills and exploits but in every day life his character can scarcely accomplish anything. If not under the thumb of a controlling wife, his character is constantly on the run from creditors, the sheriff, process servers, the landlady. He is a physical coward. His ill-gotten gains are never gotten through the heroic methods of the highwayman, but through sneakery and subterfuge. He is a liar and cheat, not a pirate. He likes pretty women, but only as most men do – furtively, ineffectively, pathetically. He’s not a bold skirt chaser or a Lothario – more a guy who can’t resist a second look out the corner of his eye.

This double nature, this measurable difference between his real and presented self is both a rich mine of humor and a source of layers of complexity. There are always at least two “Fieldses” going on at any one time — again, just like juggling. This is what makes him three dimensional and eternal, and worthy of contemplation, an attribute which can’t be said to adhere to just any comedian. Helping re-educate the public about the genius of Fields is  my main mission in putting on Fields Fest this Fall, the 70th anniversary of his passing.

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest. For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 



The Riddle of the Monster Sized Monsters

Posted in BUNKUM, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by travsd


I came across the photo below on ebay about eight months ago, and I’ve been saving it up ever since then for Halloween month. It cleared up a riddle I’d stored in the back of my brain since I was about 7 or 8 years old, a mystery which had its origin in the ad you see above. Comic books had advertising sections in their back pages, and that unconscionable pitch was always among them. It was an early lesson in reading between the lines. I begged my father to send in the dollar on my behalf so that I could obtain what sounded to me like a real 7 foot tall monster. He assured me that it was a scam. That there’s no way a dollar could buy some sort of working automaton that any kid could buy. Though I understood what he was telling me, I didn’t quite WANT to believe him. And at any rate, I was very curious to see what it was (if not an actual monster) that you actually got when you sent in the dollar. But my dad wouldn’t hear of wasting the dough. (A dollar was more than it is now, but it still wasn’t THAT much). All these years I’ve wondered what the postman would bring to your door if you sent in the buck. And here is what it was: a 7 foot tall vinyl banner you hang on the wall of your room. It’s about what we figured. Someone was auctioning it off as a collector’s item. Frankly, now that I look at it, it doesn’t seem like such a swindle.


Davy Crockett, Man of Letters

Posted in AMERICANA, Asian, BUNKUM with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

Portrait of Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman

Today is the birthday of Davy Crockett (1786-1836).

Because he has been so heavily mythologized I think there has been an unfortunate tendency to regard this important American figure as a total “folk hero”, like Johnny Appleseed (also a real guy), or perhaps more like, say, Mike Fink or Pecos Bill. One hears of exploits like wrestling bears and contemplates the costume which has since become so iconic and arrives at a verdict of “unreality” even when so many of the historical things he did (served in Congress, died defending the Alamo) are a matter of record.

Last year I chanced to read his 1834 memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself (ironically co-written with fellow Congressman Thomas Chilton.) I was drawn to the book by two opposite but related impulses. One is that I am working on a piece of writing inspired by the American tradition of humbug and Tall Tales, a theme I have been seriously exploring for a couple of decades now. But the second attraction was the facts. I am related to Crockett (through his great-grandmother, who was a Stewart) and (by marriage) to his first wife Polly Finley. And he lived where my family lived (Eastern and Middle Tennessee) and fought in the same battles in the Creek War and War of 1812. I thought I might pick up useful details, and I indeed did.


But I found myself especially impressed with the book as a founding American cultural document of sorts. Crockett is like a missing link in American politics, and a pioneer in letters. In this highly entertaining book I heard a VOICE, a voice that I feel must have influenced everybody from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln to Will Rogers. Crockett’s voice is humorous, earthy, folkish, steeped in the hilarious, outlandish metaphors and hyperbole of the frontier. It manages to be both boastful and honest “Always be sure you are right, then go ahead” was his motto).

I say “missing link” because Benjamin Franklin had been our first politician to walk around in a coonskin cap and fringe jacket, although he did that in Paris and purely for a calculated effect. Crockett would become one of our first national political figures to make a virtue out of being rustic, paving the way for all those “log cabin” presidential candidates who came in his wake. If he had lived longer, I have little doubt, his national ambitions would have continued to bear fruit. Interestingly. his arch-nemesis was Andrew Jackson, also from Tennessee. He hated Jackson’s Indian removal policy and his autocratic tendencies. This hurt him at home politically.When Crockett was voted out of Congress in 1835, he went to Texas to take part in the Revolution, which is where he met his end. (“The voters can go to hell; I’m going to Texas” I’ve tweaked that a little but that’s essentially whet he said). Had he not died, it’s likely he would have been right there with Stephen Austin and Sam Houston as one of the founders of the Republic, and then the State, of Texas.

In the Narrative, Crockett plays both Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill. It’s this tooting of his own horn that makes him so American. His early childhood was uncommonly hard: indentured servitude, farm labor, starvation and more than one incident of running away from home to go on long distance cattle drives — all before adulthood. He made a legend for himself as a bear hunter (the amount of bears he claims to have killed can’t help but strike you as gross) and an Indian fighter, and his leadership and manly prowess was what propelled him to success in local politics despite his lack of formal education (he was sent to school but played hooky for a long stretch, a phase of life one can’t help associating with Huckleberry Finn). His tales of the difficulty of courting his wife (over the objections of her mother) are quite touching.

The success of the book and his martyrdom at the Alamo led to dime novels and stage plays about him, then movies, and finally the tv show, which truly cemented the legend. Surely, people think to themselves, this guy can’t have been real. But he WAS.

On the Real Grizzly Adams

Posted in AMERICANA, Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd


I came across this delightful information yesterday when writing up my eulogy of Dan Haggerty of tv’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.  As I wrote yesterday, the character was based on a real gent, whose given name was John Adams (1812-1860). Surprisingly, he turns out to be one of those Adamses, i.e. the same family that gave us Presidents John and John Quincy, maltster and revolutionary Samuel, ambassador Charles Francis, historian/writer/ philosophers Henry and Brooks, and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis (III).

Originally from Medway, Massachusetts, Adams began his working life as a shoemaker, learning skills like sewing and leather working that would later be of much use when he became a mountain man. In 1833 he began working as an animal trapper and trainer for a group of menagerie showmen, catching live bears and other creatures in the Northern New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometime before 1836 he was mauled by a tiger, and retired for a time to raise a family, returning to the trade of shoemaker.

In 1849 he went west for the California Gold Rush. When nothing panned out he became a mountain man, hunting and trapping for a living. In 1853, he captured his first grizzly, named her Lady Washington and trained her to earn her keep as a pack animal. He trapped and trained several more bears and other animals over the next few years, and performed shows as he traveled from place to place throughout the western wilderness.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of a novel by none other than Lionel Barrymore. The novel is called Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, and it is almost certainly inspired by this phase of Adams’ career.) In 1856, he opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco, containing a menagerie of live specimens, as well as taxidermically preserved beasts and other curios. With backing from others he expanded the enterprise under the name the Pacific Museum, while performing with various circuses during the same period.. One of his partners, James H. Hittell, took down notes from Adams’ stories and published it under the title, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California. Mysteriously, Adams had given Hittel his brother’s name, James Capen Adams, as his own. He had also styled himself William Adams for a time. Like many such frontier characters, Adams was given to a certain amount of flim-flam and hucksterism — something of a far cry from how he was depicted in the tv show. (John Huston’s interpretation in The life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was probably closer to the mark).

In 1860, Adams went into partnership with P.T. Barnum and brought his whole operation to New York City. He exhibited under canvas on Broadway for several weeks, and then traveled in New England with a circus. He died in late 1860, apparently from illness related to injuries he had received years earlier… from grizzlies.

The Myriad Faults of “San Andreas”

Posted in BUNKUM, disaster movies, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , on June 9, 2015 by travsd


Unlike probably nearly every other critic, I did not attend San Andreas predisposed to hate it, or scoff at it, or rag on it. The disaster movie is one of my favorite film genres, although producers and directors seldom seem up to the task of putting together the right magic ingredients. Aside from several examples in the 1930s and a couple in the 1970s, producers almost never get it right. But somehow I’ve managed not to become jaded and I keep hoping.

I am a sucker for the spectacle of course. (Does it surprise you that I am a fan of apocalyptic destruction? “Destroy them all”, that’s my motto). I’ve watched even the bad examples of the genre dozens of times on the strength of special effects alone. And, as I anticipated, San Andreas will be another I’ll have to file in that category.


Let me be clear: my praise for this element is not faint. The film has grossed $287 million at the box office to date for a reason and that reason is the ride. First Hoover Dam breaks and then both Los Angeles and San Francisco are destroyed, not once but several times. And then, after every single building has fallen down, a 300 ft tsumani puts the coup de grace to San Francisco. Director Brad Peyton (and his special effects people) are to be commended — highly commended — for the technical achievement. These astounding events look real. I can provide you with a very long list of films in which such spectacles look phony (or at least like a video game).


But there are even more positive things to say about Peyton’s direction (in fact I have nothing negative to say about Peyton’s direction at all.) He got really good performances out of the cast. This is not to be shrugged at. In fact, the acting in most disaster movies is generally blown off, mostly, I assume, because the scripts are so terrible, or because the director doesn’t think the acting is the most important element, or important at all. In Roland Emmerich’s films, for example, we are clearly never meant to take any of it seriously. But I assure you, actors, when the script is terrible that is when we need you the most.

Peyton seems to get this, and I know it’s he who’s responsible because I saw several really good performances by actors who were investing their cardboard parts with serious emotions, enough to involve me despite the many flaws we’ll soon get to. I am in particular awe of Paul Giamatti. I am ANYWAY, but nothing I have ever seen him do — Sideways, American Splendor, John Adams — impressed me as much as how much he gives to his role in this film as a Cal Tech seismology professor. Truly, he could have just shown up and mouthed his words, as so many do, but he goes all out, he affects you, he gives appropriate reactions to unprecedented events — he imagines what those might be and he goes there. Most actors in similar roles underplay it to an absurd degree. And, at the other end of the talent scale, I found myself really impressed with The Rock a.k.a Dwayne Johnson, and I’m not being arch or ironic. I had no idea he could do what he does in this movie, but right before your eyes, he does it. He’s giving a real performance, a moving, convincing performance. Are we grading on a scale? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It is a positive take-away from this movie. He’s a former professional wrestler, okay? And he does a really good job of acting in this movie.

So, it’s very well directed, very well acted…but?

There’s a little thing called a story and a little thing called a script. Back in the day when novelists and playwrights used to undertake such tasks (granted, under supervision of producers), the movies made by Hollywood weren’t so utterly idiotic. It’s really to the credit of Peyton and the cast that they carried me along despite the idiocies of the script. Actually, they’re not just idiocies. They were idiocies when they were first committed many decades ago. Now they are repeated idiocies, copies of idiocies, and to be so functionally bankrupt as to commit them you either have to be completely cynical (I believe that) or completely illiterate and retarded (I also believe that). Now when I say “novelists” and “playwrights” I’m not suggesting we do Chekhov here, okay? Hollywood people always jump immediately to this conclusion. The thing still is what it is. I am not suggesting that people run around spouting Shakespeare. But I am suggesting that they at least be people. Or that the producers don’t advertise it as a “movie”. Just call it what it is, a “3-D thrill ride”. That’s totally okay. That’s essentially what this is. Not only would I not dislike that, I would fully embrace it with enthusiasm — if it were 5 to 15 minutes long and in an amusement park.

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

But this a feature. This is a point I keep trying to make in the field of comedy. Feature length films were invented for a specific reason — you don’t actually have to make them. Many’s the time it would be preferable for a film to be vastly shorter (e.g., most comedies of the sillier sort). Why stretch out something that ought to be 20 minutes or a half hour to four times that length? Initially features were devised by guys like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith to prove that movies could be a medium for grown-ups…naturally, so they could sell tickets to grown-ups, in addition to the children and uneducated adults who had previously made up most of the movie going audience at nickelodeons. Length and prestige were related. It was thought that greater length would be appreciated if it were justified — by having some of the weight and authority of a play or novel. Now, obviously, pretty quickly B movies and the like came along not long after that, though I hasten to observe that most of those don’t run much over an hour, and were marketed as what they were, essentially children’s entertainment. But I’m not entirely sure we even make grown-ups even more, so maybe there’s no point in articulating what I’m attempting to say.

If the destruction is enough for you, read no further. You’re a psychopath, we have nothing in common, go away. I won’t deny that I am attracted by the spectacle of the destruction, but I also want to feel something. Something quite normal. I want to be involved in some people’s stories. If something good happens to them, I’ll feel happy. If something bad happens to them, I’ll feel sad. If you’re the kind of person who loves the stabbings in slasher movies instead of hoping the hero can thwart them and avoid them, take your sickness far, far away from me.  I agree with certain time-honored theorists of the drama that anything that conditions us to empathy is good; anything that conditions us to callousness is bad. So we need human characters who bear some relation (SOME relation) to the ones we encounter outside the theatre.

It's scary because it's true

It’s scary because it’s true

Important to assert right here and now that this is not to dismiss fantasy, in fact quite the opposite. All the best stories are a potent mix of both realism and fantasy. Realism without fantasy, outside of the hands of a rare few geniuses, is boring. But so, to a lesser degree, is fantasy without realism. Why is The Exorcist one of the scariest horror films?  The special effects are mighty cool but they are especially effective because great care was taken first to establish the world that was to be disrupted. The Mad Marchioness and I watched the 2004 prequel recently Exorcist: The Beginning. Rubbish from beginning to end. Because there was not a single moment to sink your teeth into.

The realism of the disaster in San Andreas is terrific, and I will undoubtedly watch the film many times on this score. I know Peyton is drawing from reality for the visuals, because you can see it on screen. He’s incorporating stuff we have learned from awful real disasters – I saw images in the film that were clearly inspired by 9-11, the 2004 tsunami, Katrina and every earthquake since the invention of the motion picture camera.

2004 Asian Tsunami

2004 Asian Tsunami

As I wrote in my piece about the Poseidon remake, most Hollywood films in recent decades (let alone most disaster films) reflect what I’m beginning to call the Fascist Imperative. The heroes are not ordinary and “called”, like Luke Skywalker, or Roy Scheider in Jaws or Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They are impervious, invulnerable aristocrats, demi-gods and superheroes. Instead of rooting for people like us to make it out alive, we are asked to root for the powerful to remain powerful, while we perversely look on in gratitude. If you’re sucker enough to do that, more power to you.


Make no mistake about it: in the world of San Andreas, we would be among the millions of dead. But I sure am glad this LAFD helicopter rescue pilot (Johnson) used his special skills (and public equipment) to rescue his own family! Indeed this may be the most unself-consciously selfish “heroism” movie to date. First Johnson uses his copter to rescue his wife (Carla Gugino) and ONLY his wife from the roof of a crumbling skyscraper. Then later, he uses a boat to rescue his daughter (Alexandria Daddario) and her two friends (Hugo JohnstoneBurt and Art Parkinson) from a flooded building. The moral at the end of the film is quite literally, “Too bad everyone else is dead, but I sure am glad our own family is alive and together!”

Blatant moral bankruptcy permeates the film. In one scene, Johnson and Gugino join some looters in taking what they need from a mall. I guess it’s supposed to be okay because they’re the heroes? In another scene, Daddario takes some supplies out of a fire truck, since she has some insider knowledge about what’s stored there. Uh…mightn’t the FIREFIGHTERS need that stuff while they’re doing their jobs? Do you people not get that it’s not okay just to TAKE stuff because you think you need it? Everyone else needs it, too. What do you plan to do? Fight them for it, like an animal? That happens to be the logical real-world outcome.

To its credit, the film makes one populist gesture in the direction of egalitarianism in the person of a predictably villainous real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd), who like Richard Chamberlain in Towering Inferno or like Martin Ferrero (“the bloodsucking lawyer”) in Jurassic Park “gets his”. He is punished for looking after his own skin…right before the hero of the film saves his own family and no one else (except a couple of people who happen to be standing next to his family).

But whether the heroes are selfish are not, why are they WHO they are? I wrote about this in my Poseidon piece, but I reiterate: Why are the heroes in these fucking movies professional rescuers, television personalities and the world’s foremost seismology experts? This is the true expression of fascism. For me, the existence of this disaster itself is more than enough fantasy. This thing happens. Why can’t it happen to some PEOPLE, some ordinary, bewildered humans who must try against all odds to figure out how to survive? An accountant, a deli owner, a student, a boy and his dog? Instead of following what happens to the BEST EQUIPPED people to survive on planet earth? Ya know what? I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE. In fact, those are the EXACT FOUR PEOPLE I am NOT worried about. Why are we following the exploits of the people we are NOT worried about?

And in this case, one of them isn’t even a man: he’s a SUPERHERO.

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who's not a Man

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who’s not a Man

You know how I know we don’t need to worry about our very short list of main characters? Because NONE OF THEM DIE during this crazy disaster, where every building in California collapses. Okay, one of them dies. An international seismology expert (Will Yun Lee) dies as a consequence of his spectacular, almost superhuman rescue of a small child. And by implication, several million other people die. But we don’t see them, we don’t meet them. This too seems like an expression of narcissicism. It’s collateral damage. It’s peripheral to our objective. I’ll bet you anything the studio marketing department gets audience response cards that tells them the audience doesn’t like it when the main characters die. The lesson? It’s okay when strangers die; as long as nothing bad must ever happen to US.  Oh, wait! One of the characters dies. The Rock’s daughter drowns, but then the Rock brings her back to life. What a shock that was! Whew!

Which brings us from the crimes against morality to the crimes against the brains God gave us. I knew what we were in for from the film’s very first frames when we got a title that read:

San Fernando Valley (18 miles north of Los Angeles)

This is one of those movies that assumes we don’t have a brain in our heads and that we know nothing. Or perhaps it merely hopes that we don’t. Otherwise we’d notice things. It’s the kind of a movie where a team of seismologists discover a new process for predicting earthquakes…at the very INSTANT an unprecedentedly large earthquake is about to strike. And then it strikes while the seismologists are standing on the very vulnerable Hoover Dam. And then TV reporter Archie Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) is with The Rock in his helicopter when he performs a spectacular rescue and is THEN with Paul Giamatti throughout the entire earthquake experience.


Bend It Like Beckham, Indeed

And THEN The Rock just happens to be flying over in a helicopter when his wife is standing at the top of a building. And then he and his wife travel to the destroyed San Francisco to save the daughter (“Let’s go bring back our daughter” they say about five times) and not only do they actually FIND HER, they actually find her at the exact moment her life needs to be saved, and then they actually SAVE her, because well, The Rock just happens to be a professional life saver. If you buy this bullshit you must have a brain the size of a pea.

Let's go bring back our our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

Let’s go bring back our daughter…in our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

And worse, they build in all this family redemption horseshit. I don’t know which film school teaches them all that you have to have this, but it has now led several generations of producers and screenwriters up a garden path that leads all the way up their assholes. So not only all that stuff above, but The Rock and his wife are about to be divorced because he is totally wrapped up in his work and too emotionally distant because of THE PREVIOUS DAUGHTER HE WAS UNABLE TO SAVE WHEN SHE DROWNED. But good thing everything west of Nevada was destroyed in an earthquake TO BRING THIS ONE FAMILY TOGETHER. That’s really what happens in this movie!

And then some self-congratulatory propaganda when American soldiers and rescue workers do terrific mop up afterwards. Heckuva job, Brownie!

Haha, and in the last scene, the family stands on this high hill surveying a completely devastated San Francisco, sort of mildly bummed, and one of them goes, “Look at that.” And THEN! I swear I mouthed the next dialogue even as it happened! :

“What now?”

“We rebuild”.

So…I can’t say enough bad things about the script. But I’ll undoubtedly watch the film again and again to see California fall into the ocean…especially the part of California containing the screenwriters of this movie.

Don’t worry too much about earthquakes, people. What you need to worry about is earthquake movies.

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

The Cardiff Giant

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , on March 25, 2015 by travsd


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.


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