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The Hoax Is On You: A Short Question About a Tall Tale

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The following is a guest post by Megan Lulofs, a Legal Information Analyst in the Public Services Division.

About a month ago, I received a seemingly simple question through our Ask A Librarian service: was there ever a New York court case between a Barnum and a Hannum in 1869 or 1870, and if so, was there a transcript of the trial available?* Ok, I thought, no problem. Since the Law Library has access to HeinOnline’s New York Legal Research database, as well as plenty of print reporters from New York in our stacks, all I needed was a little background information on Barnum and Hannum to get started. I Googled (yes, even librarians Google), and realized that I needed to clarify the question. If by, “was there ever a court case, and was there a transcript,” did this patron mean, “is there a court record of David Hannum, owner of the Cardiff Giant, telling P.T. Barnum, legendary entertainer and circus magnate, that ‘a sucker is born every minute?'” It turned out that this was what the patron was asking.

The Cardiff Giant is one of the greatest American hoaxes of all time. To make a tall tale short, a rough sculpture of a man was carved out of a 10 foot piece of gypsum, then “found” buried in upstate New York and asserted as being a large and prehistoric petrified man. The particulars are controversial.

Cardiff Giant. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

The giant was indeed “discovered,” and became a national sensation. David Hannum, along with his business group, purchased the giant and was making a lot of money by showing him at exhibitions, when P.T. Barnum offered to buy the giant from Hannum. Hannum refused, so Barnum commissioned his own giant to be built and claimed it was the real one. Hannum then sued P.T. Barnum.  This case, during which Hannum may or may not have told P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute,” was the one our patron wanted.

Before I went downstairs to our closed stacks to leaf through New York reporters, I wanted to research possible party names, especially since Hannum purchased the giant with a larger business group. I searched Google Scholar’s Legal Opinions for “cardiff giant,” just to see what I would find. The only case my search returned was Gott v. Pulsifer, 122 Mass. 235 (1877). It did seem a little late, since the giant affair happened in 1869, but any lead was helpful.

I searched the Massachusetts Reports, found the Gott case and realized that I was at the end of the Cardiff Giant story, not the beginning. Calvin O. Gott was a photographer in Onondaga County, New York. In fact, his name appears in the county Gazetteer and Business Directory as a “photograph artist.” He bought the giant from Hannum after the case with P.T. Barnum and tried to keep the hoax going. In fact, he took some pictures of the giant for Hannum (check out the bottom right corner of the above picture of the giant). In Gott v. Pulsifer, Calvin Gott sued newspaper editors in Boston for libel because they reported that the giant was a fake and that anyone still showing the giant as a scientific spectacle was a fraud. Gott won a remand in this particular suit on a technicality, but that’s neither here nor there — a sucker is born every minute, and I probably lost at least 15 on this dead end!

I decided to order a book about the Cardiff Giant from the Library’s catalog, A Colossal Hoax by Scott Tribble. While I was waiting for the book to be delivered, I searched the New York Times’ archives for 1869 for any articles about the giant. I found an amazing notice, posted by Amos Gillett, D.H. Hannum, W.C. Newell and A. Westcott declaring that “The Cardiff Giant Not in Town.” Perfect! Just as I found the Times article, Tribble’s book arrived and informed me that the injunction against P.T. Barnum’s giant was heard in the New York Supreme Court by Justice Barnard (as reported by the Albany Evening Journal on December 7, 1869). Even more perfect!

I raced downstairs to the New York reporters, found Barnard listed as a justice, and started flipping through reported cases from 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872… all the way to 1880. No mention of Hannum, Barnum, or anyone else associated with the Cardiff Giant. How could this be? I knew a case happened, I had party names, I was searching in the correct reporter.

As it turns out, a sucker is indeed born every minute, and in that minute, the sucker was me. It seems the case between Hannum and Barnum was never reported. There’s no way to know whether or not Hannum ever spoke those famous words in court. Even if the case had been reported, a report is not a transcript of everything uttered during the course of a hearing; it would have been pure luck, combined with unusually colorful reporting, to truly find the “there’s a sucker born every minute” statement in a court document.

*The requester has kindly agreed to let me this share the information.

Comments (3)

  1. Fascinating. Great research!

  2. I enjoyed this piece as it harks back to things my father told me about the Cardiff Giant. But it seems that the most used sentence of all time is, “The Cardiff Giant is one of the greatest American hoaxes of all time.” But there is no information about the item.
    Apparently it is on display somewhere in Syracuse, New York, but there are no modern photos of it. The only ones that exist are very old and poor quality. Also, they are only from the front or side. It would be nice to read some modern pieces on this with many photos of all sides, back front, both arms, closeups on head, hands, face and feet.
    Then how do we know it is made of a piece of gypsum? Has it been chemically tested? Has it been drilled through? Is it the same material? Is it hollow? Is there some kind of re-bar inside?
    Who carved it? We have a name but was he capable of carving such a life-like statue? Was the item equal in quality to many other statues? Clearly, more research is needed but I don’t know why it hasn’t been done.
    It seems that all we are relying on is those old newspaper articles which only tell us it was a hoax. How about some more modern articles written about it?
    It may have been a hoax back then but the statue really does exist so we can’t say it is a hoax on us. A historical museum needs to take it over and do serious research on it if for no other reason than to prove that those old news articles are correct. Where are the MythBusters when you need them?

  3. The Cardiff Giant does indeed exist, and is now the property of the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY. A google image search turns up plenty of modern photos.

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