P. T. Barnum (Phineas Taylor Barnum, 1810-1891) did not actually say “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He’s the Barnum in what became the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum was known in his day as a master of hoaxes. He was also a master of media—newspapers and posters. He was bankrupt once, engaged in a number of businesses and discovered a talent for making money while entertaining the public.
His view of hoaxes was that a hoax was not a matter of truth but a matter of advertising. Once you got the public’s attention you could make money by entertaining people. Here’s where I see something like Trump—being outrageous is not a matter of fact but a matter of attracting attention. It’s not clear if Barnum really had a casual personal relationship with the truth, but if he did, it’s reincarnated with another, contemporary, master of hokum.
One of Barnum’s first hoaxes was rather cruel. He bought a blind old slave woman (named Joice Heth) and exhibited her, claiming she was George Washington’s nurse and was 160 years old.
Others were less cruel. In 1842 he exhibited the Feejee Mermaid, a mummy with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, supposedly from Fiji. A quite large number of people paid to see it.
Another was a very small person, just over 3 feet tall, promoted as General Tom Thumb; Barnum in effect trained him from young boyhood (he was smoking cigars before he was ten). He was married to another short person and toured all over the world, heavily promoted by Barnum. It might mitigate the modern sense of exploitation to know that the General (actually named Charles Sherwood Stratton) became rather well-off.
He exhibited the original “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng, convincing them to come out of retirement in 1860 (they had settled in North Carolina adding remarkable diversity to a county in the rural South). In 1850 he made a deal with Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.” Barnum’s publicity and her voice made them both a lot of money--$500,000 in 1850s dollars for Barnum.
He wrote several books, including the 1880 The Art of Money-Getting.
He had a minor political career, including election to Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
His circus life didn’t begin till 1870, when he launched P.T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome.
Perhaps there’s an omen in the fact that Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey is ending its elephant acts.