The words in the headline aren’t mine. They belong to the master showman, publicist and flim-flam artist of the 19th century: P.T. Barnum.
I stumbled across Barnum’s highly relevant quote as I tore through a superb new book: Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History.
Written through the eyes of author Yunte Huang, Inseparable not only tells the amazing tale of Cheng and Eng, but reads like a modern-day Asian American’s de Tocqueville-like tour of antebellum America.
First, some way-cool facts about the twins and their times:
- Their early touring success in the 1830s enabled them to build a house near Mt. Airy, NC, where they not only married two local sisters, but went on to sire 10 children, two of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
- The twins saw themselves as the equals of the landed white gentry of the South and were alleged to have grossly abused the 30 or so enslaved people they owned.
- Before Andrew Jackson sent the Cherokee Nation heading West on the horrific “Trail of Tears,” the tribe owned no fewer than 20,000 enslaved black people of their own!
Now back to P.T. Barnum.
The Bethel, Conn., native was a huckster from the very beginning.
Clerking at his father’s country store, Barnum instinctively realized he could con his customers. He came up with the idea of a lottery in which the highest prize would be $25. The minor prizes consisted solely of worthless glass and ware. The tickets sold like wildfire, and Barnum had found his passion in life: separating fools from their money.
Barnum quickly latched onto the notion of showcasing America’s curios, oddities and freaks (which sated Victorian-era America’s unquenched thirst for the salacious).
And so, he built The American Museum in New York which, in its day, was the equivalent of Disneyland. Americans from near and far saved their hard-earned money to observe:
- Joice Heth, a toothless black woman publicized as being 161-years old and George Washington’s nurse (after she died, an autopsy revealed she was no older than 80 and had never been within 50 miles of Mt. Vernon). A classic Barnum scam.
- General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch-tall teenager who weighed all of 15 pounds.
- The twins (but accompanied by their perfectly “normal” grown children in order to subliminally titillate viewers to conjecture about Cheng and Eng’s sex life).
The twins became Barnum’s pièce de résistance and reinforced his instincts to continue to prey on his target audience’s willingness to be scammed by bogus attractions on the off chance they might occasionally view the real deal.
Now getting back to the untruth headline, allow me to share two other Barnum observations:
“When people expect to get something for nothing, they are sure to be cheated, and generally deserve to be.”
“Advertising is my monomania. When an advertisement first appears, a man does not see it; the second time he notices; the third time he reads it; the fourth or fifth he speaks to his wife about it; and the sixth or seventh he is ready to purchase.”
Advertising was Barnum’s version of misinformation and disinformation. Some of it was real, but most of it was smoke and mirrors.
And to tie this time travel blog back to the present, I submit a link to the Institute for Public Relations’ outstanding new study on disinformation, showing that both Democrats and Republicans view disinformation as a major problem in our culture – on par with gun violence and terrorism.
Afterword: It seems to this blogger that, as we approach the 2020 election cycle, one camp has its advertising message locked and loaded a la Barnum while the other flounders helplessly to construct a coherent, memorable narrative that will accomplish what Barnum did so many years ago.
The Democrats need a latter-day Barnum to manage their campaign. And regardless of the eventual rallying cry, the Dems could sure use the twins. They could run as vice presidents who simultaneously appeal to far-left progressive wing of the party who want free college for everyone, and the middle-of-the-road Joe Biden camp.😎