The most dangerous man of all.
The most dangerous man of all.

P.T. BARNUM MIGHT HAVE RUN THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH, but one thing he could not abide was a humbug: a man who tricked and swindled others for naught but his own gain. In Humbugs of the World, he outlined the various types, with none being singled out for such ire as the humbug who believes nothing at all.

1865 | New York City

Pronouncing a Fool

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true, and that the only way to decide which is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges extant, a first-rate investment, and by all odds the most respectable disguise that a lying or swindling businessman can wear. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race, as you would hold out a cabbage leaf to coax a donkey. What people want, he thinks, or says he thinks, is something good to eat, something good to drink, fine clothes, luxury, laziness, wealth. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown—who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue—I pronounce him—no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool. 


Spring 2015

P.T. BARNUM, from Humbugs of the World. At the age of twenty-five in 1835, Barnum purchased a slave named Joice Heth, whom he advertised for exhibition as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. On and off between 1842 and 1868, he operated the American Museum, attracting at least thirty-eight million visitors to his various marvels, among them the twenty-five-inch-tall General Tom Thumb and the original “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng. In 1874 Barnum upgraded his “Great Traveling World’s Fair” from two to three rings.

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