In 1869, a guy named George Hull, an atheist, created something called the Cardiff Giant after an argument with a bunch of Methodists regarding Nephilim, the supposed giants of Genesis in the Christian Bible.
Hull figured to put one over one the Christians. So he had a huge block of soft gypsum secretly carved into the likeness of a giant man (complete with enormous penis, for some reason that I’m sure Hull found hilarious). He used various chemicals and dyes to “age” his newly created petrified giant. Then he had it secretly buried on his cousin’s farm. He waited a year, for Hull knew the secret to a good prank was patience. After sufficient time, Hull’s cousin, William Newell, who was obviously in on the scam, hired some men to dig a well. And surprise, of course, they “found” the buried giant right where Newell wanted his new well dug.
Word got around fast. And Hull saw possibilities beyond putting one over on some gullible bible thumpers.
The cousin set up a tent and started charging admission and people came from far and wide to see a genuine petrified giant from the Bible.
But It’s Fake
Of course, it didn’t take long for science of the time, primitive as it was, to declare the Cardiff Giant a giant fake.
But predictably the preachers and the holy men and the religious nuts and the sensationalists dismissed science, just as they do today, and claimed the Cardiff Giant proof of whatever con they were using to bilk the wide-eyed suckers.
People didn’t care. They came and plunked down 50 cents apiece, which was a damned steep admission price in those days (the average wage was about $15 per month for unskilled labor in that part of the country, and remember most households were single income). 50 cents was a lot of money.
Eventually George Hull sold the giant to one David Hannum for what today would be half a million dollars.
Hannum moved the giant to Syracuse and started advertising. The resulting crowds – and profits – were so huge that it caught the attention of P.T. Barnum all the way over in New York City.
So, Barnum offered Hannum what today would be almost a million dollars for his giant.
Both men knew the giant was a hoax. But they were showman, and they considered this scam no more or less immoral than the Feejee Mermaid, the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, and Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy, who were staples of Barnum’s American Museum.
Hannum refused to sell, so Barnum copied the Cardiff Giant in wax and had his own artisans fashion a copy. Which he promptly put on display in New York and which he declared the authentic giant and started telling everybody who would listen that Hannum’s original giant was a … well, a hoax. And given that it was indeed a hoax, Hannum couldn’t exactly prove it was an authentic giant, could he?
Hannum was none too pleased by this and retaliated by calling Barnum’s hoax a hoax, and saying of the crowds filing past Barnum’s giant, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Fake It Til You Make It to Court
This being America, eventually the matter ended up in court, where both giants were revealed to be fakes – and to add insult into injury, Hannum’s quote is often attributed to Barnum. So Barnum stole not only Hunnam’s con, but his words about the theft too. That’s business.
Even after both giants were revealed to be fakes, the crowds still came and paid their hard earned money to see the hoax – and the holy men persisted in declaring the fake plaster giants proof of their particular theology. And, in fact, you can still see both giants to this very day, the original is displayed in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and Barnum’s copy at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
That’s right, more than a hundred years later, people are still paying to see a hoax.
The original crowds, they had a pretty good idea they were being swindled, but they wanted to believe. They wanted the giant to be real. They wanted science to be unwrong. And that’s why the hoax worked. Because there is indeed a sucker born every minute. And by the time the crowds wised up, Hull, Barnum, and Hannum had each cashed out with their fortunes.
And that’s why the hoax of trickle-down economics works.
Because it sounds plausible, providing you don’t look too closely. Because people want to believe even though all the experts are telling them that it doesn’t work. But the difference, you see, is that rich people like Barnum and Hannum know they’re pushing a hoax and they also know most people are too goddamned stupid and gullible to realize it. And even if the marks do suspect a con, they still want to believe.
There’s a sucker born every minute.