5/25/11 - "the american people love to be humbugged"

In today's excerpt - the Cardiff Man, P.T. Barnum, and the Wizard of Oz. The Cardiff Man, a twelve-foot petrified giant "discovered" outside of Syracuse, New York, was perhaps the greatest hoax of the nineteenth century. New Yorker Phineas T. Barnum was one of the greatest businessmen of the age, the empresario of an era that saw the U.S. economy on the verge of becoming the largest in the world. L. Frank Baum, later the author of The Wizard of Oz, was then a Syracuse castorine-oil merchant who, along with all other citizens of the town, watched the hoax unfold:

"In October of 1869 an unusual bit of news came out of Cardiff, a town near Syracuse. Two workmen were digging a well at a farm there when their shovels struck something large and hard. After a little more digging and dusting, they discovered nothing other than a giant petrified man. ...

"Within days of the discovery of this fabled giant, William Newell, the owner of the farm in Cardiff, erected an enormous tent over the finding and began charging a quarter to come inside for a viewing. When he couldn't control the crowds, Newell doubled the price. Before long the Cardiff Giant became a tourist attraction, drawing crowds every day, including religious groups who saw in the stone beast something of biblical significance. 'The interest in the Stone Giant found at Cardiff increases,' wrote the Syracuse Standard. 'Go where you will in this city, it is the topic.' When the deluge continued unabated, Mr. Newell agreed to sell the giant to a group of Syracuse businessmen for $37,500, an outrageous amount that could purchase an entire city block. The new owners put it on display in a leased storefront downtown. The admission price was raised again, and the local economy was boosted by the traffic.

Archaeologists, meanwhile, examined the statue and proclaimed that it was a fraud, that the 'ancient relic' was in fact quite new. Soon after this report a Binghamton factory owner named George Hull admitted that he had commissioned its creation—just to prove how easy it was to fool Americans, especially religious-minded ones. It all grew out of an argument Hull, an avowed atheist, had waged with a fundamentalist preacher who said he literally believed the Genesis passage about how giants once roamed the Earth. Hull had sculptors craft the statue from gypsum before shipping it to the farm of his cousin William Newell, who buried it and kept the secret until they hired workmen to 'dig a well.' These were the workmen who 'found' the giant.

For many people the story ended there, but Frank found the final twist the most compelling part of the tale. Even after the hoax was widely reported, the crowds kept coming, until the famous showman and museum curator P. T. Barnum offered to buy the giant for $60,000. After all, Barnum specialized in locating and displaying fake mermaids and mummies and other dubious artifacts. He made a fortune charging admission to see these and other curiosities at his American Museum in New York City. But that structure had just recently burned to the ground after a quarter century of brisk business, and now Barnum was desperate for spectacular new attractions for a new venue.

When his offer was rejected, an angry Barnum commissioned a replica. In ads Barnum claimed that his Cardiff Giant was the real one and the original was the fake. This outraged the Syracuse businessman who was the majority owner of the 'real' one, causing him to proclaim, 'Well, I guess there's a sucker born every minute.' The entire matter ended up in court—until an exasperated judge threw the whole case out. Later, the famous 'sucker born every minute' line was erroneously attributed to Barnum himself. To Barnum, however, the true insight ran even deeper, and it was this bit of wisdom that made him one of the wealthiest men of his time: 'The American people love to be humbugged,' he observed.

It was this very insight that later inspired Frank Baum to turn the Wizard of Oz into a fraud. Before meeting the Great Oz, the companions expect him to be nothing but a wonderful wizard. But then they find him to be a giant head who bellows mean and terrible things. When they next encounter him, however, Toto pulls away the partition to reveal a little old man who breaks down and admits that 'I am a humbug,' confessing that he created illusions with ceiling wires and ventriloquism.

'Really,' says the Scarecrow, 'you ought to be ashamed of yourself for being such a humbug.'

" 'I am—I certainly am,' answers the little man sorrowfully, 'but it was the only thing I could do.' The people there were eager to be deluded and were willing 'to do anything I wished them to.'

In telling the story of the real fake and the fake fake, Frank Baum would never forget this powerful lesson: Americans not only don't mind being fooled, or humbugged, but they desperately want to be taken for a ride—and the greater the number of people who are strung along by a great humbug, the more others want to be in on it, too."


Evan I. Schwartz


Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2009 by Evan I Schwartz


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