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America's Prince of Humbug : P.T. BARNUM The Legend and the Man by A. H. Saxon (Columbia University Press: $32.50; 488 pp., illustrated; 0-231-05686-9)

September 17, 1989|Ricky Jay | Jay is the author of "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women" and the host of a forthcoming CBS-TV special of the same name. He is the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts in Los Angeles

Welcome to the world of Mysterious Aztecs, Ferocious Zulus, Annamite Dwarfs, Invincible Afghans, Pagan Burmese Priests, the Fejee Mermaid, the Wooly Horse, Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind and the Three Ring Circus.

Welcome to the world of a man who counted as his friends or acquaintances Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Joaquin Muller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Ward Beecher, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Brigham Young.

Welcome to the world of Phineas Taylor Barnum.

If you are unfamiliar with the life of this great American showman, I envy you a reading of Arthur Saxon's new biography. If, like myself, you are already his enthusiastic student, there is new material to explore the intricacies, deflate the rumors and exhume the skeletons in his complex life.

Saxon uses Barnum's own autobiography--one of the showman's most enduring passions--as a counterpoint to this study. The book, first published in December, 1854 and still a wonderful read, largely molded the public's image of P. T. Although lambasted by some as an example of unmitigated hubris and self-aggrandizement (in Europe it almost single-handedly defined the image of American-as-swindler), the book is worthy of far more praise than it has ever received. Barnum worked on numerous new or amended editions throughout his life.

Saxon's objective, after examining ledgers, notebooks, diaries, press accounts and more than 3,000 Barnum letters, is to show the "antagonism between the Barnum of popular imagination and Barnum as he really was or wished to be." Focusing on Barnum's profound mid-life change, where a battle back from bankruptcy transformed him from the "Prince of Humbug" to a more charitable, "genial showman," Saxon attempts to reveal a private Barnum never before seen.

And if it is a more benign Barnum whom we follow in the latter half of his life, it is a Barnum who has surely not lost his "grift sense," as con men and card cheats are wont to say. Barnum still knows how to "get the edge"--and does. It is difficult to believe that a reformed and tempered man would agree to a poster of himself with the following copy:

"The sum of the amusement world from which all lesser luminaries borrow light. Born in the town of Bethel, Conn., July 5, 1810. Started as a showman in 1835. He has conceived and exhibited more gigantic amusements and enterprises than any other showman that ever lived. (He) is the wealthiest manager on the face of the Earth and projector and builder of a great city, (he) has been the frequent guest of emperors, kings and queens. Once mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., 4 times member of state legislature, an editor, an able writer and a popular lecturer in Europe and America."

Rodomontade and modesty aside, there is a serious Barnum worthy of our attention, a staunch campaigner for social issues such as women's rights whose convictions and loyalties would almost seem misplaced today. The Barnum who does good, as he expressed, in "profitable philanthropy," the Barnum who battled back from adversity, and the Barnum able to change his mind about tolerating liquor and slavery.

Ironically, it was the exhibition of a famous slave that launched Barnum's career as a showman. While working as a partner in a small Connecticut grocery store in 1835, Barnum heard about Joice Heth, "a blind, decrepit, hymn-singing black slave." Heth, it was said, was 161 years old and had raised the infant George Washington. Barnum examined a contract in which Augustine Washington, father of George, had bought a 54-year-old black woman named Joice Heth in 1727. With this authentication Barnum purchased the rights to exhibit her for one year.

In the wonderfully crazy and convoluted Joice Heth affair, with its many sidebars and subplots, one almost senses a microcosm of Barnum's life. As this toothless, 46-pound woman related intimate anecdotes about young "Georgie" and British redcoats, sang old hymns and laughed "heartily at her own jokes," Barnum collected the considerable receipts.

When her popularity began to wane, Barnum shrewdly spread the rumor that Heth was an automaton and the exhibitor a ventriloquist who answered questions posed to her. Spectators often returned to determine if they had been deceived. Indeed, they were, but in another way, as it was proven, when Heth died on Feb. 19, 1836. An autopsy was scheduled before a group of "physicians, medical students, clergymen, editors," Saxon writes, "each of whom was assessed fifty cents for this extraordinary privilege" (twice what it cost to see her alive).

The presiding doctor, David Rogers, determined that Heth was no more than 80 years old. Insulted by Barnum's representative, Levi Lyman, Rogers and his friend, Richard Locke, a New York Sun reporter, stormed out of the room.

Locke then wrote an article exposing the Joice Heth affair as "one of the most precious humbugs that was ever imposed upon a credulous community."

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