Dubbed as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time, was the Cardiff Giant nothing more than a stepping-stone to fame and fortune by the American showman named Phineas Taylor Barnum?
By: Ringo Bones
Even though the Cardiff Giant gained the fame as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time, at present, it now seldom registers in the national consciousness of anywhere. The writers of a certain NCIS-Los Angeles episode titled “Fame” even attempted to reintroduce the Cardiff Giant into the present-day national consciousness as using it as a conversation piece as the source of the phrase that: “A sucker is born every minute”. And yet the word Cardiff Giant was never mentioned in that particular episode. Nevertheless, was the Cardiff Giant nothing more than P.T. Barnum’s stepping stone into fame and fortune? Before we’ll get into that, here’s a brief history of both.
In the Organized Christianity's search of “desired proof” on the historicity of Jesus, details of His life, and, later a more complete history of Church itself resulted in a rash of religious forgeries and fake relics that were produced and accepted as true by a mass of believers. As late as the 19th and 20th Centuries, such religious hoaxes continued to be perpetrated, though with less lasting success.
The Cardiff Giant – widely known as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time – was the twelve-foot figure unearthed at Cardiff, New York back in 1889 by neighbors of William C. Newell, who were helping him to dig a well on his property. A day after the discovery, a tent had been erected and admission was being charged to hundreds of the pious who tiptoed in and murmured: “Lot’s Wife”, “The Scriptures are fulfilled” – or similar remarks before they left. Four local physicians pronounced the newly-dug giant’s body as petrifaction, but a fifth declared it was a statue not more than 300 years old.
The statue theory gained impetus with the discovery that the figure was made of a kind of gypsum. Because gypsum was not indigenous to the region of Cardiff, New York, a scholar from Yale Divinity School advanced the theory that the figure was a Phoenician idol. Meanwhile, proponents of the petrified man theory cited an Onondaga Squaw who was said to have declared the dug-up relic as the body of a giant Native American prophet who, centuries before, had foretold the coming of the “palefaces” (European Anglo-Saxons) and also prophesized that his descendents would see him again.
With the arrival of Yale palaeontologists, the truth began to seep out. A Chicago stonecutter had made the giant from a block of gypsum sent to him from near Fort Dodge, Iowa, by George Hull, a tobacconist and relative of the farmer George Newell. The hoax – which cost Hull several thousand dollars at the time – was partly a money-making scheme and partly as an attempt by Hull to gull an Iowa Evangelist with whom he had lost an argument on the existence of giants in Biblical times.
Phineas Taylor - or P.T. Barnum as he was more widely known became inexplicably linked with the Cardiff Giant when confusion arose between the original giant and the replica made for Barnum which he exhibited when he was unable to purchase the original. Since, 1948, the true Cardiff Giant (contradiction in terms really since it was a hoax all along) has been in the Farmers’ Museum at Cooperstown, New York.
Phineas Taylor / P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) described as a pioneer American promoter of the bizarre and unusual in amusement. Barnum’s entrance into show business was marked by his “purchase” of Joice Heth – who was represented to him as being George Washington’s 161-year-old colored (African-American) nurse. When Joice Heth died in 1836, she was thought by medical men to be about 80 years old.
After exhibiting Joice Heth, Barnum went on to the road with various other acts. When Scudder’s Museum in New York was put up for sale, Barnum managed – by clever manipulation rather than by any great payment of money – to open it as Barnum’s American Museum on January 1, 1842. The “American Museum” presented such oddities as the Feejee Mermaid – contrived from a monkey and a fish; Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese Twins” (called Siamese Twins back then since they were born in Siam, which is now called Thailand – conjoinedtwins is the current politically-correct term); and General Tom Thumb, who was actually a 25-inch tall midget / little person whose real name was Charles S. Stratton.
In 1844, Barnum began a tour of England and Europe with Stratton – which proved to be a great success with Queen Victoria and other royalty as well as the general public. In one of Barnum’s more high-brow talent promotions, he imported Jenny Lind – the “Swedish Nightingale” in 1850 and through clever promotion developed her into a front-page celebrity who grossed nearly three-quarters of a million dollars at the nation’s box offices. Barnum was offered – but declined – the Democratic nomination for governor of Connecticut back in 1852.
“The Greatest Show on Earth”, as the Barnum, Coup, and Costello Circus was then called, opened in Brooklyn in 1871. In 1873, Barnum’s first wife died and he married Nancy Fish – a young English girl – the next year. Barnum then served as the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut – his hometown – from 1875 to 1876. His last personal appearance with his circus was in 1889, at the London Olympia. He died in 1891 at his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Barnum’s “somewhat desperate” attempt at the acquisition of the Cardiff Giant was back then supposedly meant an additional menagerie to his entertainment empire. The menagerie or a Biblical theme was - more often than not – added to the circus to overcome the great prejudice and puritanical hostility toward this form of amusement. During the Victorian era, Churches proclaimed that circuses were immoral so Barnum thought the tie-up with a then famous Biblical era menagerie – the Cardiff Giant – would give his show an educational tone. Through the prism of time, all the education that I got from P.T. Barnum is that in religion – as well as entertainment – a sucker is indeed born every minute.