Why do we say "There's a sucker born every minute"?

Well-Known Expressions

There's a sucker born every minute

Meaning:

There is no shortage of naive people ready to become victims of frauds and cheats.

Background:

The Cardiff GiantThis expression appears to have originated in the USA around 1850 and is often attributed to P.T. Barnum (1810-1891). However, there is actually no evidence that Barnum said this. Instead, it seems that the comment originates with David Hannum, a New York investor.

In 1868 George Hull decided to pull off an elaborate hoax. While spending a couple of years studying archeology and paleontology he had noticed that a gypsum quarry in Iowa had dark blue streaks running through the lime rock that looked a bit like human veins. Hull hired a group of quarry workers to cut a twelve foot long slab of this rock. He then had the slab shipped to a stone cutter in Chicago who was ordered to carve a giant statue out of the rock. Edward Burghardt and his two assistants were sworn to secrecy and instructed to make the statue look like the giant had died in great pain with his right hand clutching his stomach. The statue was highly detailed, even down to the use of a needlepoint mallet to add authentic-looking skin pores. Then chemicals were used to make the figure look aged.

The giant was then shipped back to the house of Hull's cousin, William Newell, near Cardiff, New York with instructions to bury it near the house. Then Hull waited. About six months later some fossil bones were dug up near Newell's farm and Hull knew that his moment had come. He instructed Newell to employ laborers to dig him a well on the exact spot where the giant was buried. And, lo, a few hours later the laborers rushed into the house to say they had discovered a giant buried in the soil. News spread fast and soon Newell was charging 25 cents admission (which soon rose to 50 cents) to thousands of visitors. Some experts immediately denounced it as a fake, while others split into two camps - those who thought it was a fossilized human giant and those who thought it to be an authentic ancient statue.

Ten days later, Hull sold a two-thirds interest in the "Cardiff Giant" to a syndicate led by David Hannum. Sources differ but it seems that the sum was in the region of $23,000 to $30,000 (around $400,000 today). The giant was moved to Syracuse where admission was raised to a dollar a head. P.T. Barnum made an offer to buy the giant for $50,000 but was turned down. Rather than upping his offer, Barrnum had his own giant created out of plaster and then proclaimed that the original was fake. Thousands now flocked to see Barnum's statue.

Soon, Hannum brought a lawsuit against Barnum for claiming that Hannum's giant was fake. It is at this point that it is said that Hannum, still believing that his giant was genuine and Barnum's was fake, made the comment so often attributed to Barnum. The irony being that Hannum, himself a "sucker", made the comment in reference to the many "fools" who had paid to see Barnum's fake giant, not the one Hannum believed to be authentic. At the trial, Hull confessed that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax, and the judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for saying Hannum's giant was a fake given that it had been proven to be exactly that.


While on the topic of quotes Barnum did not make, a few words on the life of Barnum himself who we tend to think of as a con man whereas it seems that Barnum and at least some of his contemporaries did not see him that way.

Arthur Saxon, author of P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (1989) spent more than three years collecting over 3,000 letters that Phineas Taylor Barnum sent to friends and business associates and concluded that while Barnum loved pranks he always considered his audience to be in on the joke. For instance, once he was offered the opportunity to purchase an extraordinary "cherry-colored cat" sight unseen. On being presented with the cat he observed that it was black; to which the seller responded, "some cherries are black." Barnum then put the cat on show with great fanfare much to the amusement of audiences who were delighted to discover - and keep - Barnum's secret!

He was a passionate advocate of temperance and supported both women's rights and abolition. He was also, apparently, an honest and effective politician serving in the Connecticut state legislature from 1865 to 1867, and as mayor of Bridgeport in 1875. He was also a founding trustee of Tufts University to which he endowed an expansive museum of natural history, including the stuffed hide of the circus's famous elephant. Jumbo the Elephant remains the university's mascot to this day.

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