Today we’re looking at PT Barnum and his book Humbugs of the World. After all, there’s no one who knows a sham better than a professional sham salesman. “Humbug” as you probably know, is an old world for “bullshit” or “flim-flam” but PT Barnum generously defines humbug as mere…. exaggerations of the truth. And as long as people were getting their money’s worth, humbug here and there isn’t a problem. Whatever you say, PT.
Humbugs came out in 1865, following the huge success of Barnum’s autobiography. Humbugs did pretty well too, and you can probably find really beautiful copies of both books in your local used book store – but it’s public domain and free on Kindle. If you want to see a really beautiful copy, CFI Amherst has a lovely leather copy in their library with gold lettering on the cover and gold on the edge of the pages.
At times, Humbugs reads like PT Barnum is simply defending his own humbuggery by pointing at people who are bigger liars than he is. And hey, the guy has a reputation to keep. But that all fades away when he talks about spiritualists and mediums. Barnum never hired a single one and he has nine chapters full of venom and scorn for the lot of them. If you’re into the history of spiritualists, this is worth picking up just for those chapters alone.
Otherwise, the book gives us a nice overview of the scams and psudoscience of the day, like the “Golden Pigeons of California”, the weird and wonderful moon hoax (the one with the demons having a party on the moon), witch hunts, Monsignore Cristoforo Rischio (a “model for our quack doctors”), blood purification pills, and the list goes on and on. The chapters on financial scams are tailor made for Skeptic money readers, with lottery humbugs, Tuipomania, the largely fictional (but very profitable) New-York and Rangoon Petroleum Company , and page after page of money swindles. The book is mostly anecdotes and feels like a friendly conversation with Barnum. It’s also pretty sarcastic and light-hearted, so it’s very readable, despite the 150+ years of language difference.
There is some serious historical culture shock. He has two chapters devoted to avoiding food and alcohol-related scams; for example, watering down alcohol to “homeopathic” doses. Barnums words, not mine. It took me a minute to remember that these were the days before FDA and basic food regulations. I’ve never felt so grateful for modern food regulations in all my life. I’ll let you read them for yourself, but it’s all very scary. It’s for the germaphobe. The chapters on quack medicines are even scarier with magic sand, rampant placebo use at doctor’s offices, and hashish candy. It’s a wonder anyone was able to survive a doctors visit at all.
Other chapters left me really disliking Barnum. The 1800′s were a bit racist. Ok, they were really racist. And boy-howdy is Barnum right in step with his era. The chapter on the Miscegenation pamphlet is flat-out unpleasant. I get that he had to sell copies of the book to all parts of the US (I’m looking at you, post-civil-war-south) but I took very long breaks from that chapter. It ended up being worth reading for the history of the word “Miscegenation”, but I feel like that information could also be learned from Wikipedia without reading about Barnums disgust with racial mixing. His chapters on religious humbug is where he can really loose me. He’ll start waxing on and on about pagan cultures on distant lands or ancient heathens and my eyes glaze over. On the upside, he does move onto “ordeals”; traditional christian “trials” that would determine your innocence if you survived drowning, poisoning, burning, etc. Apparently these were still practiced during his time.
Overall, it’s a fun read and many of the lesser scams in the book aren’t available to research on the internet. If you’re into history in general or if you feel like you’ve simply run out of new ways to be shocked by scam artists, well, you’re only gunna find this stuff here and Barnum is awesome. Go check it out.
Humbugs of the World is public domain and is available on Project Gutenberg for free, and currently is free in the Kindle bookstore.
The audio recording is free at the Internet Archive, and was recorded by volunteers at Librivox.org