The Age of Imposture
"What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." If William Dean Howells was instinctively right when he said this to his fellow novelist Edith Wharton, then the hook of the modern hoax has been to separate the tragedy from that American happy ending. Recently the hoax, at least after the nineteenth century that Wharton and Howells had just seen turn, pretends every tragedy is far worse than it really is — if only to make the scripted ending, no matter how apocalyptic it may be, all the happier. Once the hoax meant to honor, now it embraces horror; once it sought to praise, today the hoax mostly traffics in pain.
Yet across the nineteenth century, the honor and horror of the hoax briefly blended into humor — of a species we might call dark. Nineteenth-century America regularly reveled in the contradictions of what famed showman P. T. Barnum called humbug, his many audiences taking pleasure in hoaxing and being hoaxed. What folks wanted was a show — and not necessarily an especially good one. Take the Feejee Mermaid, which Barnum bought and displayed starting in 1842: the exhibit was nothing more than a monkey's upper body — head, arms, torso — sewn together with a fish's tail, looking nothing like the beautiful images used to advertise it. Those who paid to see the humbug surely experienced a number of things, not least of which was a feeling of being fooled, but also a not unpleasant realization at how foolish they had been to be so eager. How could I have believed in mermaids? Viewers' betrayal mixed with being humbled, both a wish and a form of curiosity–curiosities being Barnum's name for the array of exhibits, freaks, and humbugs presented in his rather elegant American Museum, bought from its former proprietor in 1841.
Of course there would have been a quite different reaction had Barnum marketed his humbug as, say, the "Massachusetts Mermaid." (Turns out he had, in fact, earlier tried out a far less successful "Dorchester Mermaid"!) The advertisement promises exoticness — seen in Barnum's phonetic spelling of the island of Fiji — that both preys on and plays with provinciality. The name Feejee Mermaid also suggests not just where this is found, or what could be found there, but an idea, however subtle, that this "ugly, dried-up, black looking, and diminutive specimen," as Barnum later put it, just might be what passes for a mermaid in that lesser, foreign land. This would only grow worse when he exhibited several actual Fijians and at least one African American as "Figi Cannibals" in 1872, their foreignness (or rather, nativeness) their only freakishness. The Mermaid worked exactly because it provided that mix of shame and superiority that constitutes the humbug.
In his fascinating survey Humbugs of the World (1866), Barnum draws a distinction between humbugs and what we might call hoaxes. Barnum objects to Webster's definition: "humbug, as a noun, is an 'imposition under fair pretences;' and as a verb, it is, 'to deceive; to impose on.' With all due deference to Doctor Webster, I submit that, according to present usage, this is not the only, nor even the generally accepted, definition of that term." Barnum's mention of Noah Webster is important given Webster's emblematic Americanness — as historian Jill Lepore recounts, in putting out his call for a new dictionary, Webster set out not just to define American usage but to capture "the American language." Sixty-six years after Webster first declared his intention to make a "Dictionary of the American Language," Barnum means to define humbug as an American idea and ideal.
This raises a central question: is there something especially American about the hoax? Where the eighteenth century was the hoax's height in Britain, the nineteenth century starred the United States, so much so that someone at the time called it "the age of imposture." Hoaxing would ironically prove one key way nineteenth-century America sought to establish its bona fides after the fact — just as, a century before, Shakespearean fakes and finds were attempts to claim ancestry and British culture's supremacy. The age of reason gave way to romanticism, which prized truth, originality, mystery, and beauty while also including a bevy of fakers who capitalized on those very things. In contrast, "born in the eighteenth century as an adult," critic Curtis MacDougall writes in his comprehensive 1940 study Hoaxes, "the United States during the nineteenth century felt the lack of a childhood with its rich memories and cherished traditions." This lack led to a host of hoaxes. There's indeed a powerful, persistent notion that the American character is filled not just with tall tales and sideshows but also with con men and fake Indians, pretend blacks and impostor prophets, with masks and money.
Barnum reaches for "the public" in order to delineate the difference between swindlers, forgers, impostors, cheats, and humbug. "We will suppose, for instance, that a man with 'fair pretences' applies to a wholesale merchant for credit on a large bill of goods. His 'fair pretences' comprehend an assertion that he is a moral and religious man, a member of the church, a man of wealth, etc., etc. It turns out that he is not worth a dollar, but is a base, lying wretch, an impostor and a cheat. He is arrested and imprisoned 'for obtaining property under false pretences' or, as Webster says, 'fair pretences.' He is punished for his villainy. The public do not call him a 'humbug;' they very properly term him a swindler." In contrast, Barnum writes:
Two actors appear as stars at two rival theatres. They are equally talented, equally pleasing. One advertises himself simply as a tragedian, under his proper name — the other boasts that he is a prince, and wears decorations presented by all the potentates of the world, including the "King of the Cannibal Islands." He is correctly set down as a "humbug," while this term is never applied to the other actor. But if the man who boasts of having received a foreign title is a miserable actor, and he gets up gift-enterprises and bogus entertainments, or pretends to devote the proceeds of his tragic efforts to some charitable object, without, in fact, doing so — he is then a humbug in Dr. Webster's sense of that word, for he is an "impostor under fair pretences." ...
An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a "humbug," but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a "humbug." He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an outre manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.
This is a brilliant distinction: An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a "humbug," but he is not a swindler or an impostor. It is not the difference, necessarily, between intent and innocence, or a show being exactly as advertised — Barnum's rarely were innocent or as advertised — but whether the show remains worth it once you are already in the door. We can see through Barnum's eyes the ways he, certainly in a self-serving manner, defines the humbug not as fraud, or at least as simply fraud. Though dubious in places — fair is false, and false is fair — Barnum also clearly draws a line between humbug and other kinds of hoaxes, from forgery to swindles, that "not a person in the community" confuses with a good show. The question is not whether to humbug or not to humbug, but how to humbug better.
The best, current corollary we have to the dizzying delight of Barnum's many humbugs may be reality television. There, too, we can see a promised spectacle implied as real that quickly turns out to be staged — either relatively subtly (as in television's The Bachelor) or not (as in the Feejee Mermaid or Survivor). "Reality TV" labels anything from a game show to arranged marriages; from celebrities pretending to be cops or businesspersons or even celebrities to those pretending to be princes or even presidents. More recently, the Bachelorette broadcast has incorporated select Twitter posts — none mine, unfortunately — revealing that it's not enough to share our experience of watching silly television virtually, we now must watch ourselves watching. As viewers, we inheritors to Barnum's America tend to feel a mix of I can't believe I'm watching this and I can't believe that person did that to I can't wait to see what happens next.
It would be Barnum who first turned the American invention of the confidence man legit. He did so first in 1835 by using Joice Heth, the black woman he had likely bought for an act in which she pretended to be George Washington's nursemaid, which would have made her over 161 years old. Capitalizing on the growing cult of Washington, Barnum also proved brilliant at making the audience part of the hoax, saying effectively, you're smart, or better yet, you think you're so smart: come see and decide for yourself. He made everyone an expert. What reality TV does is make everyone a judge — and not just because "judge shows" are some of the most popular on television. (Judge Judy makes a reported sixty million dollars a year, far more than the more prestigious "male-only" job of late-night host.) Courtroom trials also become a different kind of entertainment when swept up in sweeps week, and votes counted without fear of gerrymandering.
Nineteenth-century America's love of humbug allowed the new republic to marvel at its mysteries, question its hypocrisies, and express contradictions of freedom and slavery, exploration and faith. The relatively young nation saw a number of heavy-duty hoaxes and part-time pranks, many of them committed by some of our most beloved writers — Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, practically the entirety of what's called the American Renaissance of the nineteenth century — who questioned truth rather than questing after it. Poe would write of "mystification" and craft an essay in praise of the con he called "diddling" in the 1840s; Herman Melville's Confidence Man (1857) helped name a figure growing more familiar. For its part Twain's Huck Finn (1885) would mock the very idea of the Lost Dauphin of France that had yielded dozens of pretend contenders to the throne. Soon Tom Sawyer would become a verb that means tricking someone to work for you while you sit back and watch.
The very year Barnum showed Joice Heth to an eager public by turns credulous and skeptical, Richard Adams Locke reported on the murder trial of Matthias the Prophet, an event fanned and fed by the inexpensive newspapers known as "the penny press." Born Robert Matthews, preaching an apocalyptic doctrine, Matthias had further renamed himself "the Spirit of Truth." His was yet another American religion founded in "the burned-over district" of the Hudson Valley and western New York, an area of spiritual reawakening that produced Mormonism around the same time and would later in the century yield the Fox sisters, whose communications with spirits (ultimately confessed as fake) spurred on Spiritualism, a movement at the center of several other hoaxes. It also provided an outlet for many other radical sects, notable for their calls for equal rights for women and enslaved Africans.
Yet at the time, Matthias's sensational trial in 1835 for killing one of his followers spawned four different books, including Locke's anonymously issued Memoirs of Matthias the Prophet, with a Full Exposure of His Atrocious Impositions, and of the Degrading Delusions of His Followers just two days after his daily reports ran. Matthias had taken over a follower's home to set up a kingdom in his own name, insisting that the wife of the owner was his sexual "spirit match" and marrying her while her husband looked on; he was accused of letting the husband die slowly a few months later (from a broken heart, one might guess) rather than seeking medical help. Certainly Matthias's proclaiming equality while holding himself out as a savior sounds a note familiar to our modern cult leaders. One critic describes Locke's portrayal of Matthias as very much "draped in the portentous gothic tones of one of the horror stories that Edgar Allan Poe was just then beginning to write." Later the same year, Locke would go on to commit one of the most famous hoaxes of the nineteenth century.
The characterizing of Matthias as a charlatan is part of the era's humbug too — the penny press was central to the circus, the metaphoric sign outside announcing its Cannibal King. As an introduction to a reprint of the Moon Hoax has it, the Sun and its publisher "had stumbled across an unexpected fact about American society. The New Yorkers of Andrew Jackson's second term did not especially care to read the news. Political life bubbled and fizzed around them constantly anyhow; they had no need of being further informed. The doings of General Jackson or Henry Clay or Louis-Philippe were their own business. Political life was no more important to the New Yorker of 1835 than police court life, and police court life, in fact, was a lot more interesting." Such facts would find life in the deception and reception of the nineteenth-century hoax.
If all this sounds familiar, it is because the transformative advent of the penny press most resembles the current change demonstrated, if not caused, by the Internet. The Web too promised a democratic upheaval, predicated on the notion that freedom could be nearly free; it too soon became filled with sensationalism as news, with support not by sponsors (as earlier papers had) but by advertising (at least at first); it too made court life a kind of politics, addicted to scandal, and politics into a kangaroo court, simply adding "-gate" to every incident; it too implements chaos as a going concern. And like the Internet, the penny press inaugurated by the Sun — first popularized by the Matthias scandal and within two years of its start, the best-selling newspaper in the world — was spurred on not by arguments over objectivity or facts but over hoaxes, impostors, vast fictions, con artists, and cheats.
Few people remember that in 1835 men first walked on the moon. That year, however, it was all anyone could talk about — the famed reports in the Sun described men with bat wings (Vespertilio-homo), unicorns, and biped beavers as viewed on the moon's surface, leading to much speculation and vast newspaper sales in New York and the rest of the relatively new nation. All the city's papers printed extracts or rebuttals; as with our current headline-worthy hoaxes (anyone remember 2009's "balloon boy" hoax?), every outlet had to weigh in. The news of life on the moon spread like riots had the year before, when mobs of white New Yorkers hit the streets looking for blacks, abolitionists, and "amalgamators" — the name given to those who they feared were in favor of race mixing — to intimidate, beat up, or worse.
Needless to say, none of these discoveries on the moon proved true. Locke's Moon Hoax would seem not just a parody of science and faith or a prank on a gullible public but also somehow a transference of some of the energy that led to those riots. Many white readers would rather embrace lunar man-bats than their fellow human beings. As detailed in his book on the Moon Hoax, The Sun and the Moon, Matt Goodman writes that Locke, editor of the Sun, helped make it the one paper in the city to come out against slavery in a state that, while it no longer sanctioned slavery, by and large supported it in the South and partook of its spoils. No one would mistake the Sun for being fully abolitionist; historian Nell Irvin Painter cites noteworthy instances of the Sun's complicitness with slavery. Yet, under Locke the Sun's sometimes antislavery stance in the 1830s was enough for the notorious William Bennett, who ran the fierce competitor the Morning Herald, to call it a "drivelling contemporary nigger paper."