In 1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum was anxious to find an “amusement” to attract paying customers. One lucky day a stranger told Barnum that he possessed half-ownership of a “curiosity”: a woman named Joice Heth who was the 161-year-old slave who raised George Washington.
Barnum examined Heth and the stranger’s “proofs” about her age and provenance and, convinced of her seeming veracity, bought Heth’s story from the stranger. Soon he was drawing crowds, who came to see the poor woman — who was blind and immobile — recount George Washington’s childhood.
Barnum later wrote that his advertising strategy, much like Donald Trump’s election efforts, depended “upon getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about the ‘rare spectacle.’” Barnum paid off newspaper editors to write up the story of Joice Heth in the most dramatic way possible, but his chief tools were exploitation — and hyperbole.
Hyperbole comes from the Greek hyper, “beyond” and bole, “to throw” — to overthrow or throw beyond. Aristotle thought that because hyperbole relied on excessive exaggeration, its users abused the power of metaphor and demonstrated a “vehemence of character.” In the 18th century, Joseph Priestley argued that hyperbole was unjustly used to appeal to “persons of little reading” who were particularly attracted to the “very extravagant” or the “marvelous and supernatural.”
Hyperbole draws attention to itself, for the sake of merely drawing attention. And that’s why P.T. Barnum relished it. While he is often remembered as the founder of a circus — “The Greatest Show on Earth” — his story is more broadly about America’s fascination with hyperbole, which clearly continues today.
For a time, Barnum wrote in his 1855 autobiography, ticket sales for the Heth show were great, business was good, and he was happy. Then potential disaster stuck. “A Visitor” wrote to one local paper and claimed that Joice Heth was what the hip school kids of the 1750s called a “humbug.” Specifically, the person believed that Heth was “not a human being,” but was “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs, ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator.”
The attack on Heth didn’t hurt Barnum’s show, however; it made it bigger. Barnum would recall that “hundreds who had not visited Joice Heth were now anxious to see the curious automaton; while many who had seen her were equally desirous of a second look, in order to determine whether or not they had been deceived.”
Joice Heth passed away in early 1836, ending Barnum’s show, but not the nation’s curiosity. Barnum took advantage of that interest to exploit Heth once more: 1,500 audience members paid 50 cents each — double what audiences had paid to see her alive — to watch Dr. David L. Rogers conduct an autopsy on her body. According to the Feb. 25, 1836 edition of The New York Sun, Dr. Rogers concluded that Heth was a real person, but nearer to 80 than to 160.
But Barnum had the last word. He planted a story with The Sun’s competitor, The New York Herald on Feb. 27, 1836, which claimed that. Heth was “not dead,” but alive and well in Connecticut.
Why did Barnum’s hyperbole and humbug excite American audiences in the 19th century? For the same reason that it excites Americans today: We love to be amused, and we love excess, and so we reward showmen with our attention.
We’re especially attracted to hyperbole during times of great transition, when things are confusing and reality can be more easily distorted. Barnum knew this too: The humbug expose relied upon the nation’s curiosity about the emerging technology of machinery, new commercial uses for India rubber, and new Northern concerns over the abolition of slavery.
Today is a another time of great transition and America’s showmen-leaders know it. During an election interview with NBC in 2016, Donald Trump said he had enjoyed being compared to P.T. Barnum. “We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country,” he said — make it “great again” as it were.
Ask yourself: Was Barnum and Bailey’s circus literally the “greatest show on Earth”? Of course not, that’s nonsensical hyperbole. But such confident appeals attract audiences (and voters).
And we shouldn’t forget another idiom associated with Barnum: There’s a sucker born every minute.
Jennifer Mercieca (www.jennifermercieca.com) is the world’s greatest associate professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. A version of this essay originally appeared in Zocalo Public Square.