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

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There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase often credited to entrepreneur and circus founder  P. T. Barnum (1810–1891). However, there is little evidence to support this fact.  When tracking down the phrase,  Barnum’s biographer was told by Barnum’s friends and acquaintances that it would have been out of character. Barnum’s philosophy was more like “there’s a customer born every minute” and he was always looking for ways to draw new customers because competition was fierce.

Some sources attribute the quote to the famous con-man Joseph (“Paper Collar Joe”) Bessimer, while other sources say it was actually uttered by David Hannum, spoken in reference to Barnum’s part in the Cardiff Giant hoax. Hannum, who was exhibiting the “original” giant and had unsuccessfully sued Barnum for exhibiting a copy and claiming it was the original, was referring to the crowds continuing to pay to see Barnum’s exhibit even after both it and the original had been proven to be fakes.

As well,  circus owner and rival Adam Forepaugh attributed the quote to Barnum in a newspaper interview in an attempt to discredit him. Barnum never denied making the quote but instead thanked Forepaugh for the free publicity. Another source credits late 1860s Chicago gambling kingpin Michael Cassius McDonald as the originator of the phrase. In the 1930 John Dos Passos novel The 42nd Parallel, the quotation is attributed to Mark Twain. (wikiJeffrey Robinson)