P. T. Barnum: There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

P. T. Barnum, the famous 19th-century American showman and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, is often quoted as saying “there’s a sucker born every minute.” This “quote” is usually trotted out to refer to something that con-men or other shysters who try to separate people from their hard-earned money (as in, selling them tickets to a circus) would say. But did good old P. T. ever say it?

P. T. Barnum did a lot of different things in his life (including getting involved in politics, and promoting the anti-slavery cause in the 1850s), but he referred to himself like this. “I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” And although he was certainly obsessed with making money, there’s no evidence that he deliberately wanted to bilk people out of their hard-earned cash.

And you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s also no evidence that Barnum ever said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” In fact, linguists and word-origin experts argue that “sucker” was not used as a synonym for “fool,” or “someone who is easily fooled” in the 19th century. Finally, as is so common with famous quotes, “there’s one born every minute” goes back to before Barnum was born. Variations of “there’s a fool born every minute” appeared in print as early as 1806. And those early printed references almost always refer to it as an old saying, or as ancient truism.

Here are a couple of other truisms, Buzzkillers. The precise number is, of course, impossible to determine, but experts seem to agree that 250 people are born every minute. If only one sucker (or one fool) is born every minute, then we’re probably be gonna be OK as a species. After all, that’s a paltry 0.4% sucker birth rate per minute. And even more heartening is the freshly minted statistic that Buzzkill Institute scientists have just handed me. Of those 250 babies born per minute, over two dozen (in fact, 26) will grow up to be Buzzkillers. At the very least, we’re outpacing the suckers. In fact, we’re crushing them.

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Buzzkill Bookshelf:

P.T. Barnum, Barnum’s Own Story: The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum’s career of showmanship and charlatanry was marked by a surprising undercurrent of honesty and forthrightness. His exuberant autobiography forms a happy combination of all those traits, revealing the whole story of his world-famous hoaxes and publicity stunts. Here is a pageant of nineteenth-century America’s gullibility and thirst for marvels, as told by the master of revels himself.

A born storyteller, Barnum recalls his association with Tom Thumb, his audience with Queen Victoria, and his trouble keeping Jenny Lind’s angelic image intact during a trying tour. He tells of Jumbo, the most famous elephant in history, from the creature’s heroic arrival in America to its tragic death in a railroad accident; of his attempts to transfer Shakespeare’s house and Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks from England to New York; and of his triumphant reentry into public life after financial failure and five disastrous fires had all but wiped him out. The true-life tale of a man of boundless imagination and indomitable energy, Barnum’s autobiography embodies the spirit of America’s most exciting boom years.

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