“There’s a sucker born every minute” – P.T. Barnum’s most famous words. He is widely considered to be one of the best purveyors of entertainment in history – a genius in sales and marketing – and these words have become somewhat of a legacy. But did he ever really say them? As it turns out, we may be suckers for believing this after all.
The Quote Heard ’round the World
Rochester Institute of Technology professor Nicholas DiFonzo described in his 2008 book The Watercooler Effect, that Barnum’s biography could not verify this attribution at all. Rather, it was likely that a banker named David Hannum from Syracuse, New York who actually said it. As described by DiFonzo (p. 124):
This strange story begins with a surreptitious cigar manufacturer named George Hull, who sculpted the giant from a ten-foot-long block of gypsum, buried it in Cardiff, New York, “discovered” it, and put it on display (charging admission, of course). Crowds of spectators journeyed from all over the state of New York to see the “petrified American goliath.” Hull’s hoax was hugely successful.
Most people who were fascinated by the Giant were convinced that it was a petrified man (which was not considered so far-fetched in the 19th century), or a statue made by Jesuit fathers, over three centuries prior. The fact that Hull went to great lengths to make the statue look realistic (including chiseling tiny holes in the statue to imitate pores in his skin) evidently helped.
As the story goes, Hannum purchased the “Cardiff Giant” in 1869 and displayed it for even higher admission fees. When this caught the eye of Barnum, he tried and failed to convince Hannum to sell it. This motivated Barnum to create his own version – a simple replica – and claim it to be the one true Giant, asserting that Hannum’s was a hoax. It is alleged that, at this point, Hannum said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” referring to the gullible customers of Barnum’s more successful exhibit.
The fascinating end to this story leads to the courtroom, since Hannum sued Barnum for defamation. As it turns out, Hull confessed to having created the sculpture himself, and fabricating the whole original story, so the judge ruled in Barnum’s favour. Indeed, the best defence against defamation is proving that what you said is true.
The Bottom Line
Hannum was correct – Barnum’s customers were “suckers” for believing his bogus story. But so was Hannum, who paid a handsome fee for a phoney sculpture in the first place. It seems that everyone believes things a little too eagerly, especially if they want to believe it.