The Greatest Story Ever Told About Hyperbole, Humbug, and P.T. Barnum!

In Turbulent Times, Showmen Can Distort Reality and Make Suckers of Us All

In 1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum was down on his luck and anxious to find an “amusement” that would attract paying customers. One lucky day a stranger came into the shop where Barnum worked and told him that he possessed half-ownership of a “curiosity”: a woman named Joice Heth who, the stranger claimed, 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 from the stranger. Barnum, being “a student of human nature” …