Review: The Humbugs of the World

P.T. Barnum believed in aggressive marketing and wasn’t shy about separating people from their money.  It may be surprising to see that he wrote this book exposing scams and balderdash as well.  He claims that exposing this kind of stuff makes his entertainments look better by comparison, and I believe him.  I don’t believe he never stretched the truth, though.

Whatever you believe about Barnum’s personal ethics, the book is a nigh-comprehensive explanation of ways that people fleece the unwary.  Spiritualists, Religious crooks, and cults all take a licking, but it’s interesting to see Barnum take shots at adulterers of food and liquor, and at unscrupulous businessmen cashing in on bubbles. It’s also interesting to see his religious commentary given that he takes a very pro-Christian point of view.

Skeptics wont find a ton of new information in here, but it is remarkable how few new tricks have premiered since the 1880’s.  I enjoyed seeing just how many of these scams continue unchanged to this day, as well as how easily new tech gets incorporated.

While Barnum’s writing is clear, I did find that the book seemed long.  Some of this is that there were few new revelations; some is that many of the names here are otherwise lost to history.  The parade of historic scams gets a little tedious when you don’t recognize any of the players.


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