As I’ve said numerous times while pimping out my book, there is all flavor of jerk out there, including lovable. And there may be no better example of this than legendary showman, P.T. Barnum.
Barnum is known as “Prince of Humbug,” but I’m not sure everyone knows what that the means any more. “Humbug,” as Barnum referred to it, was excessive hype or publicity, often related to a hoax or in jest.
When most hear the term nowadays, they tend to think of Ebenezer Scrooge and his famous line, “Bah, humbug!”—Scrooge was suggesting that Christmas was overhyped. (Way ahead of his time, obviously.) But somewhere along the line, the word has changed meaning, gaining a more negative connotation. When used now, it seemingly suggests that rather than trafficking in humbug, someone is a humbug, i.e., that they are Scrooge-like in their behavior. “Don’t be a humbug,” as in “Don’t be a grouch about Christmas.”
Anyway, Barnum’s more “pure” version of humbug revolved around hype, and his personal view on it was that any amount of publicity—be it truthful or not—was okay, as long as those being hyped received some sort of value or entertainment in the end, even if it wasn’t exactly what was promised.
Barnum lived one of the most interesting and well-documented lives in American history—he wrote his autobiography in 1855 and continually updated it in subsequent printings—so I had *a lot* of material to consider for his chapter. One thing I didn’t have space to include was his relationship with his grandfather.
In his memoirs, he wrote of his grandfather, saying: “My grandfather would go farther, wait longer, work harder, and contrive deeper, to carry out a practical joke, than for anything else under heaven.”
Here’s an excerpt from Barnum’s autobiography to show how that maybe it was genetics that led him to become a lovable jerk.
Previous to my visit to New York, I think it was in 1820, when I was ten years of age, I made my first expedition to my landed property, “ Ivy Island.” From the time when I was four years old I was continually hearing of this ” property.“ My grandfather always spoke of me (in my presence) to the neighbors and to strangers as the richest child in town, since I owned the whole of ”Ivy Island,” one of the most valuable farms in the State. My father and mother frequently reminded me of my wealth and hoped I would do something for the family when I attained my majority. The neighbors professed to fear that I might refuse to play with their children because I had inherited so large a property.
These constant allusions, for several years, to “Ivy Island ” excited at once my pride and my curiosity and stimulated me to implore my father’s permission to visit my property. At last, he promised I should do so in a few days, as we should be getting some hay near “Ivy Island.” The wished for day arrived and my father told me that as we were to mow an adjoining meadow, I might visit my property in company with the hired man during the “nooning.” My grandfather reminded me that it was to his bounty I was indebted for this wealth, and that had not my name been Phineas I might never have been proprietor of “Ivy Island.” To this my mother added :
“Now, Taylor, don’t become so excited when you see your property as to let your joy make you sick, for remember, rich as you are, that it will be eleven years before you can come into possession of your fortune.”
She added much more good advice, to all of which I promised to be calm and reasonable and not to allow my pride to prevent me from speaking to my brothers and sisters when I returned home.
When we arrived at the meadow, which was in that part of the “Plum Trees” known as “East Swamp,” I asked my father where “Ivy Island” was.
“Yonder, at the north end of this meadow, where you see those beautiful trees rising in the distance.”
All the forenoon I turned grass as fast as two men could cut it, and after a hasty repast at noon, one of our hired men, a good-natured Irishman, named Edmund, took an axe on his shoulder and announced that he was ready to accompany me to “Ivy Island.” We started, and as we approached the north end of the meadow we found the ground swampy and wet and were soon obliged to leap from bog to bog on our route. A mis-step brought me up to my middle in water, and to add to the dilemma a swarm of hornets attacked me. Attaining the altitude of another bog I was cheered by the assurance that there was only a quarter of a mile of this kind of travel to the edge of my property. I waded on. In about fifteen minutes more, after floundering through the morass, I found myself half-drowned, hornet-stung, mud-covered, and out of breath, on comparatively dry land.
“Never mind, my boy,” said Edmund, “ we have only to cross this little creek, and ye’ll be upon your own valuable property.”
We were on the margin of a stream, the banks of which were thickly covered with alders. I now discovered the use of Edmund’s axe, for he felled a small oak to form a temporary bridge to my “Island” property. Crossing over, I proceeded to the center of my domain. I saw nothing but a few stunted ivies and straggling trees. The truth flashed upon me. I had been the laughing-stock of the family and neighborhood for years. My valuable “Ivy Island” was an almost inaccessible, worthless bit of barren land, and while I stood deploring my sudden downfall, a huge black snake (one of my tenants) approached me with upraised head. I gave one shriek and rushed for the bridge.
This was my first and last visit to “Ivy Island.” My father asked me “How I liked my property ?” and I responded that I would sell it pretty cheap.
Good to know that even the Prince of the Humbug had one put over on him on occasion.