Select Page

The Humbugs of the World An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All AgesThe Humbugs of the World An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages by P.T. Barnum

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An unexpected delight.

I delved into Humbugs as research for an upcoming project featuring 19th-century old-west fakirism (is that a word? I guess it is). I was happy to discover that the consummate old-time American showman was not only well-spoken, but also a bit of an ethnologist and historian (taking into account the limitations of research and biases of the times, of course).

Barnum takes the reader on a tour of flakes through history, describing the ways in which even the brightest fell for the conmen and hucksters of their times. Man’s need for reassurance goes back to the days of the Delphic oracles and beyond, thus arguing that Barnum’s observations about “a sucker born every minute” held true universally, and not just in the America of the 1800’s. There have always been those desperately seeking to believe the improbable and impossible, and with them, those willing to provide confirmation — in exchange for a small consideration:

. . . one said to the other gravely, in Latin “mundus vult decipi;” and the other replied, with equal gravity and learning “decipiatur ergo:” that is, “All the world chooses to be be fooled. — “Let it be fooled, then.”

There’s always been an endless supply of the willingly-deceived, across all social classes.

The prose is often soaring in pompous grandiloquence. Barnum breaks things up by adding witty asides and mordant observations:

In many cases the answers were ingeniously arranged, so as to mean either a good or evil result, one of which was pretty likely.

Those unable to excuse Barnum the cultural viewpoints of his times will not enjoy this book. To Barnum, the notion of a certain reputed form of African justice is drolly amusing:

The Wanakas in Eastern Africa, draw a red hot needle through the culprits lips — a most judicious place to get hold of an African!

You don’t read this book in search of any proto-political correctness. You read it to learn just how little changes through the centuries. The Internet would have been Barnum’s playground: speech-code utopianism and trigger warnings be damned.

In the later chapters, Barnum’s exposition takes a turn toward denying any of his prior debunkings apply to the dominant forms of Christian worship prevalent at the time. For some readers, the damage might have already been done. Nevertheless, Barnum reasonably succeeds in defending his ethnocentrism and the neutrality of his discourse toward what he considers “true” Christianity. Though much of this reads like market-oriented backpedalling, he’s obviously not as against faith itself as he is against the misuse of faith that leads to cults of personality, self-aggrandizement, victimization, and salvation-on-an-installment-plan. He invokes skepticism like a softer, more jocular AJ Ayer — putting the credulous on-guard while trying not to piss in the porridge of conventional culture.

Highly recommended for the inquisitive — and tolerant — reader.

View all my reviews