Even though school has started and homework assignments are already piling up, it’s important to remember to read for fun! We’ve got that covered here at the Reading into History Family Book Club. This Sunday, kids ages 9-12 and their adults will gather to discuss Jim Murphy’s incredible book The Giant and How He Humbugged America and see precious artifacts related to it from our Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. What giant, you ask? Are there really giants, you also ask?
We’ll answer your second question first: no, as far we know there are no real giants. The giant Mr. Murphy writes about was a ten-and-a-half foot tall stone statue of a man buried on a farm in Cardiff, New York in 1868 and then dug up by the owner of the farm, A.C. Newell, and some hired hands a year later. Most who first saw the giant thought it was a “petrified man,” or a man whose corpse had turned to stone after being buried for thousands of years . Others thought it was an ancient and significant statue. It took a long time to uncover the truth about the statue and its unsavory origins.
One man who became entangled with the giant’s rise to fame and remained powerful through its downfall was Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famous American showmen and co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. As the Cardiff Giant become popular—and lucrative— Barnum tried to buy a stake in it, but he was rejected. So what’s a famous humbug artist to do? He built a copy! But was it really a copy or was it the original? That’s what Barnum asked audiences to decide when they came to see it in his American Museum, which you can see in this image below.
The question “Is it real or fake?” is one that Barnum wanted people to ask themselves when they went to see his museum. That is-it-or-isn’t-it quality is what separates a humbug from a pure deception. Barnum and those who exhibited the original Cardiff Giant swore up and down to the authenticity of their curiosities, but invited the public to debate that authenticity amongst themselves. This strategy gave ordinary people the power to become authorities on what they saw equal to scientists, archaeologists, or other so-called learned men. It also drove in crowds by the thousands. Here’s how one advertisement described what was on display for people to see in Barnum’s Museum, which included historical objects, animals, and people from places most Americans would never go:
We’d like to try humbug you right now into joining us this Sunday from 3-5 pm for the book wrap! There’s no pre-registration, no extra fee besides museum admission—just step right up, folks! You’ll decide if the Cardiff Giant’s creators were geniuses or charlatans; you’ll decide if the nineteenth century scientists who believed the giant was an ancient relic were as right as they could have been given the evidence, or if they were no-nothing amateurs duped by antiquated ideas; Finally, you’ll decide if people today are more or less susceptible to humbuggery than people were 146 years ago. We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!