The Prince of Humbug and the King of Debt

People did not choose between things.
They chose between descriptions of things.
—Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project


He was known across the United States for his business acumen, and became the symbol of a seismic shift in popular culture. He took out loans to close real estate deals in New York, and publicly criticized competitors until their stocks fell. Embracing racist undertones and a sense of nationalism, he found a new way of speaking directly to the new middle class, drawing unprecedented crowds across the country. He developed an adversarial relationship with several newspapers, including the New York Times, and he built his name by playing the “highbrow” and “lowbrow” press against each other. After spending most of his life as a Democrat, he eventually ran to serve in the Federal Government as a Republican. Immediately after the election, he accused his opponent of benefiting from voter fraud. When asked to produce evidence of his claim, he only pointed to hearsay accounts.

He was Phineas Taylor Barnum, the “prince of humbug.”1 He was Donald John Trump, the “king of debt.”37.
Regardless of their opinions on Barnum’s endeavors, historians agree that his practices mark a watershed moment for the rise of fraud in the United States. At the height of his career, the British Advertiser wrote: Regardless of one’s views on President Trump’s policies, he has shifted the meanings of “literal truth” to “figurative truth” and “fake” to “disagreeable.” As a result we regularly hear, read, or watch people exclaim:
“(He) had raised himself up as a false prophet, a dangerous cultural icon who tells us that to cheat is no longer a wickedness, that to lie is no longer a condemned expedient; that to gull the public is the beginning and the end of all wisdom; […] that mammon worship is the true devotion, and that hypocrisy, deceit, lying, perjury, and fraud are the legitimate arts of worship.”2 “He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief. […] He is a stranger to the concept of verification.”38
Yet, there has been something like this—a lot like this. While we have not seen it in the White House, we have experienced an eerily similar progression in American culture.
This paper intends to map out the overlaps between the methodologies of P.T. Barnum and those of President Trump and his administration. To do so, I will follow the arc of Barnum’s Age of Deception in the primary column, pulling in parallels to the current White House as they apply, rather than moving chronologically through both timelines. By examining how these tactics previously functioned in U.S. culture, and with some insight into Barnum’s state of mind at the time, perhaps we can better understand the nature of deception in our current circumstances. This paper intends to map out the overlaps between the methodologies of President Trump and his administration, and those of P.T. Barnum. To do so, I will follow the arc of Barnum’s Age of Deception in the primary column, pulling in parallels here to the current White House as they apply, rather than move chronologically through both timelines. By examining how these tactics previously functioned in U.S. culture, and with some insight into how they parallel President Trump’s actions, perhaps we can better understand our current circumstances.
My hope is that by looking at how American culture moved back to a firmer ground at the end of Barnum’s Age of Deception, we can gain a greater perspective on how the cycle will complete itself and bring us back to truth.

My hope is that by looking at how American culture moved back to a firmer ground at the end of Barnum’s Age of Deception, we can gain a greater perspective on how the cycle will complete itself and bring us back to truth.

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P.T. Barnum’s career was inspired by his family. In 1819, Barnum’s grandfather, Phineas Taylor, concocted a lottery “scheme” that he advertised as officially sanctioned by the state of Connecticut. Taylor told potential ticket buyers that the lottery would benefit the Episcopal Society in Fairfield.3 Shortly after the drawing, the entire lottery was exposed as a hoax, which the press reported across the country. This was not the first deception of its kind, but it stood out for its intricate backstory. That false narrative earned it a reputation as “the meanest scheme ever invented.”4 Donald J Trump’s career began with a $14 million loan from his father, which he used to follow in his footsteps to begin his real estate empire. In the 1990s, New Jersey regulators came after Donald when his father purchased $3.5 million in chips at his failing casino.39
As a young adult, P.T. Barnum tried his hand at lottery schemes, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Though these schemes only generated modest sums, young Barnum honed his skills at two important elements that served the rest of his career: The White House continues to support President Trump’s use of Twitter to get his message out more quickly, often citing its aid in his success as a candidate. This June, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters:
First, he figured out how to work the power of the press, specifically the new penny dailies. Penny press papers were a low-cost, one-cent, and therefore loosely edited alternative to traditional newspapers. Wildly popular, they were used to send stories, commonly with misinformation, to more people with greater speed. “Social media for the president is extremely important. It gives him the ability to speak directly to the people without the bias of the media filtering those types of communications.”40
Barnum invoked “the aid of printer’s ink” by creating full-page advertisements that ran in papers across Connecticut and New York.5 More importantly, he figured out how to cater to the sensibilities of the populist Jacksonian era’s new working class. With the rise of paper currency and stock exchanges, the certainty of face-to-face economics was fading away. Though there were criminal laws against fraud and economic deceit, the leading precedent in the courts was one of caveat emptor, especially for cases where individual transactions involved small sums of money.6 Caveat emptor, according to historian Edward Balleisen, is a legal term that comes from “a Hobbesian economic world in which buyers had to beware, lest they lose their shirts, or purchase ones that would lose their sheen and fall apart.”7 Barnum took advantage of the moment’s shifting definitions, and a flexibility in the law that put the onus entirely on customers. As early as 1989, Donald Trump was pushing false stories by buying full page advertisements in newspapers. He spent over $85,000 on a call to bring back the death penalty in response to the racially charged Central Park Jogger case. After the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, one of his ads read, “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. I want to hate these murderers and I always will.”41
In 1835 when he was presented with an opportunity to purchase his first living attraction, Barnum knew what to do. Taking out a loan of $500 to meet the $1000 cost, he purchased Joice Heth, an elderly African American slave, from R.W. Lindsay of Jefferson County, Kentucky. Barnum purchased Heth because of her physical deformities, which aided the story that she was 161 years old and had served as George Washington’s nurse when he was a child.
To assist in commodifying Heth, Barnum hired an assistant, Levi Lyman, and they rented a large space originally designed to show trompe l’oeil paintings.8 The exhibition’s design inherently raised questions of authenticity while also setting them aside as unimportant. This tactic worked, drawing unprecedented crowds for a live side-show attraction. American Studies professor James W. Cook suggests, “If we were to pick a single moment to mark the birthday of modern American popular culture, this just might be the one.”9 Showing Heth in this setting is the moment where truth ceased to matter, and low-brow entertainment began to be marketed to the masses.
Barnum drafted his script and marketing for Joice Heth to draw upon American mythology, racist undertones, and people’s desires to see deformities. He framed all of this around a central question other showmen avoided: Is this true? Is she as old as Barnum claims? Was she Washington’s nanny? Writing about this time in his career, Barnum bragged, “The titles of ‘humbug,’ and the ‘prince of humbugs,’ were first applied to me by myself.”10

The early advertisements focused on claiming legitimacy: “Original, authentic, and indisputable documents accompanying her prove, however astonishing, the fact may appear, that JOICE HETH is in every respect the person she is represented.”11 A few weeks after debuting Heth, Barnum wanted to appeal to audiences that would not normally attend so-called freak shows. “One thing which set Barnum’s trickery apart from these earlier culture forms” Cook observes, “was his enormous skill at scripting his promotions according to the egalitarian ideals and rhetorics of the 1830s and 1840s.12
Triggering Christian ideals of charity, Barnum added a new detail to his story about Heth: “She has five great-grandchildren, now the slaves of Wm. Bowling, Esq. of Paris, Kentucky, to the purchase of whose freedom the proceeds of this exhibition are to be appropriated.”13 Pundits point out that during the election, Trump played the dual role of billionaire and populist everyman. A key element of balancing these opposites was his promise of giving to charity. In January 2016, Donald Trump pledged to donate $6 million to veterans’ groups, including $1 million from his personal account.
Shortly after making this seemingly small change, Barnum saw an immediate increase in ticket sales. Though he purchased Heth in Kentucky, her great-grandchildren and Wm. Bowling were figments of the imagination. Barnum and Lyman split all the proceeds. Several weeks later, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold followed up, and found that no funds had been donated. Eventually, Trump did donate the $6 million to veterans’ groups in May of 2016. By then, Mr. Fahrenthold was curious and decided to investigate Mr. Trump’s other charitable activity. The articles that followed revealed a series of other falsehoods and deceptive claims about giving, resulting in a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Mr. Fahrenthold.42
Barnum, though, had not yet fully formed his approach. He started to lose ticket sales to skepticism and his biggest competitor Johann Maelzel’s automaton chess player. In Boston, Barnum decided to take control of the conversation by anonymously leaking a fabricated story to the newspapers. Trusting the leaks, several Boston papers printed, “The fact is Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numberless springs.”14
The stories’ effects were instant. People stopped asking if Joice Heth was 161 years old and instead began to wonder if she was a human or a machine. At some showings, Barnum and Lyman encouraged viewers to assume Heth was a mechanical invention. Other times, they invited audiences to touch her, as if proving she was human meant that Barnum had told the truth all along. This would imply that newspapers had it all wrong and had therefore printed fake news. (Here, I am referring to real fake news—fabricated media stories—and not the recent misappropriation of the term “fake news” to reject accurate stories by calling them false.) This is when Barnum realized that casting doubt on the entire narrative increased his crowd size. He observed that “the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”15 During his first day in office, Trump called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”43 Since then, he has regularly condemned legitimate reporting as “fake news,” repurposing the term and applying it to articles he disagrees with, or fake fake news. (Here, I distinguish between real fake news—fabricated media stories—and the recent misappropriation of the term “fake news” to reject accurate stories by calling them false.) As of July 16, 2017, he has tweeted about fake news 68 times.44 Examples include, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”45
When Joice Heth died and an autopsy exposed her real age of 79, Barnum played a trick on the press that now attacked him for his humbug. He visited James Gordon Bennett, editor of The New York Herald, and told him that Joice Heth was still alive and at that very moment, being exhibited in Connecticut. Bennett, eager to snatch an exclusive story and fault competing papers, printed Barnum’s tale.16 Helped by the press, the deceptions continued. When faced with increasing questions about Russia’s influence on the 2016 election, Trump attempted to make himself look innocent by shifting blame to the Obama administration, tweeting, “the Obama administration knew far in advance of November 8 about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”46

     * * *

After Joice Heth, Barnum continued to use competition and “otherness” to excite the working class. In New York, he saw a performer named Signor Antonio, who could perform almost all the key sideshow feats, such as tightrope, plate spinning, and stilt walking. Barnum hired Signor Antonio on the spot, but felt he needed to make some changes. “I did not think ‘Antonio’ sufficiently ‘foreign,’ hence I named him Signor Vivalla,” Barnum recalls in his autobiography. “I immediately wrote a notice announcing the extraordinary qualities of Signor Vivalla, who had just arrived from Italy, elaborately setting forth the wonders of his performances.”17 Trump began his run for president by using competition and “otherness” to excite the working class. In his campaign announcement, he used hyperbolic metaphors comparing China to the United States:

“It’s like take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team. That’s the difference between China’s leaders and our leaders.”47

Barnum made a habit of harnessing existing biases against foreigners, frequently making his living exhibitions appear more “foreign.” “If the announcement that he was a foreigner answered my purpose,” he thought, “the people had only themselves to blame.”18
Starting in Boston, Barnum initiated challenges between Signor Vivalla and local performers. Each competition turned out to be rigged, setting up Signor Vivalla to defeat the American performers at just the right moment in order to provoke a mix of awe and outrage. As word of the competitions spread, ticket sales increased exponentially.19 He went on to amplify fears and stereotypes.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”48

     * * *

After five years of touring the United States, Barnum felt he knew his audience enough to bring his work to Manhattan. In 1841, Barnum learned that Scudder’s American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann street, was for sale. He first purchased the building with debt, and then used a mix of deception and public defamation to manipulate his way into owning Scudder’s collection as well.
Barnum first tried to purchase the building from its owner, Francis W. Olmsted, entirely with debt. At Olmsted’s request, he provided a list of references that he had specially selected from friends and colleagues. But Olmsted was unconvinced. “I don’t like your references, Mr. Barnum,” Olmsted said as soon as Barnum entered the room. “They all speak too well of you.”20 The relationship between President Trump’s loans and his real estate deals are still unknown, though he has repeatedly referred to himself as “the king of debt.”49
After Barnum exaggerated the worth of his grandfather’s land and offered it as collateral, Olmsted agreed to send him to the museum administrator, Mr. Heath. When he met Mr. Heath, Barnum learned that the directors of Peale’s Museum had already put down a deposit for the collection. President Trump’s health records are one of many examples where we have reason to be skeptical of his references. The clearest piece is the letter from Dr. Harold Bornstein declaring that Donald Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Dr. Bornstein’s letter was written in just five minutes while Trump waited outside in a limousine.50
Undeterred, he used the press to lambast the Peale’s Museum Company,bring their stock value down, and delay the purchase. Then, he secured a secret promise from Heath that Barnum could buy the museum if the board didn’t put down the rest of the money by a certain date. Unaware that Heath had negotiated to close with Barnum and feeling that their deal was safe after they hired Barnum to run the museum, the board skipped their own meeting with Heath on December 26th, 1841.
On December 27th 1841, with the help of a $10,000 loan, P.T. Barnum signed the papers with Heath, becoming the owner of the American Museum and its collection. To celebrate, he sent the rival board of directors the following 115-character note: After winning the election, Trump sought to insult those who did not support him, most famously with this New Year’s Eve tweet sent as president-elect:


“Gentlemen:— It gives me great pleasure to inform you that you are placed upon the Free List of this establishment until further notice.
-P. T. Barnum, Proprietor.”21
“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”51

     * * *

Managing the American Museum, Barnum was now where he wanted to be. He acted decisively and immediately sought to distinguish himself from the already existing Peale Museum in Philadelphia, which showcased the power of human reasoning and science. Barnum wanted to offer “democratic amusement.” To Barnum, this meant more than low prices and choice: “It was defined, too, by the viewer’s willingness to expose him/herself to a barrage of middlebrow social values and consumption conventions,” according to Cook.22
He already sensed that the public responded to hoaxes coupled with impressive natural history, and the opportunity for the museum’s first major humbug arrived with a combination of the two: the Feejee Mermaid, which was really a monkey’s skull seamlessly glued to a fish’s skeleton. To prepare for the “mermaid’s” unveiling, Barnum enlisted his assistant, Mr. Lyman, to play the fictional Dr. Griffin from the Lyceum Natural History in London. This lent an air of authority to the humbug that could not be easily verified.23
Next, Barnum composed a series of letters casually mentioning the mermaid and Dr. Griffin’s lectures for another actual fake news scheme. He distributed these letters to friends and asked them to mail them to various New York papers.24 With anticipation of his artifact scattered across Manhattan’s media outlets, Barnum was ready to craft his second marketing approach: Trump’s team repeatedly cited actual fake news stories throughout the campaign, most notably when Michael Flynn tweeted a false story about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that democratic leaders had ties to an underground child sex-ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza shop.52
“Engaged for a short time the animal (regarding which there has been so much dispute in the scientific world) called the FEEJEE MERMAID! Positively asserted by its owner to have been taken alive in the Feejee Islands, and implicitly believed by many scientific persons, while it is pronounced by other scientific persons to be an artificial production, and its natural existence claimed to be an utter impossibility. The manager can only say that it has such appearance of reality as any fish lying in the stalls of our fish markets—but who is to decide when doctors disagree. At all events whether this production is the work of nature or art it is decidedly the most stupendous curiosity ever submitted to the public for inspection. If it is artificial the sense of sight and touch are useless for art has rendered them totally ineffectual—if it is natural then all concur in declaring it the greatest Curiosity in the World.”25 Trump continues to live in the gray area between the known and the unknown. Rather than asserting something is true or false, he pushes the uncertainty. Take, for example, his statements on climate change:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”53
“I believe in clean air. Immaculate air…. But I don’t believe in climate change.”54
“NBC News just called it the great freeze – coldest weather in years. Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?”55
Yet after leaving the Paris Agreement, neither Trump nor the White House would say if, as president, Trump continues to doubt global warming and climate change.
Barnum complicates the question of “true” or “real,” admitting it could be either. Historian Andie Tucher suggests that by doing this, Barnum tapped into the excitement of the Jacksonian era for distinguishing between reality and falsehood. Trump similarly keeps people wondering if he, as Putin claimed at the G20, accepts Russia’s denial of their involvement in hacking the 2016 election, or if, as Reince Priebus suggested, he believes Putin was involved. In a break of protocol, Trump did not hold a press conference after the G20 Summit. Instead, he sent a series of tweets, including:

“I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..”56

“Working through and solving a hoax… demanded from every citizen the democratic duty of judgement. It offered to every citizen the democratic delight of choice. It allowed to every citizen the democratic satisfaction of participating in public life.”26
This moment shows a key element of the populist mass appeal, telling the public that they have the power to individually decide what is true and false. Capitalizing on anger at previously established power structures, populists in power can distort the truth in their favor by telling supporters they can decide what to accept as fact. This moment shows a key element of the populist mass appeal, telling the public that they have the power to individually decide what is true and false. Capitalizing on anger at previously established power structures, populists in power can distort the truth in their favor by telling supporters they can decide what to accept as fact.
During the first four weeks of the mermaid’s exhibition, the museum sold three times as many tickets as in the previous four weeks.
After this success, Barnum sought a greater sense of authenticity. As he put it, he needed to escape his image as a purveyor of “a stuffed monkey-skin or a dead mermaid.”27
He opted to enter a one-year contract to tour Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” Europe’s leading opera singer. During the tour, Barnum and the Swedish Nightingale earned praise from critics and the cultural elite. In February 2017, Trump gave a speech to the joint houses of congress. Even Trump’s harsher critics showered him with compliments following this speech. “This was probably, without a doubt, one of his best speeches that I’ve ever heard,” Anderson Cooper said that evening.57
Even The New York Herald, whose editor Barnum had tricked in the days of Joice Heth, proclaimed:
“We concur in everything that has been said… describing her extraordinary genius— her unrivalled combination of power and art. Nothing has been exaggerated, not an iota.”28   On MSNBC, Chris Matthews exclaimed, “I thought it was a winner politically. I think it was probably the reason he was elected in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, it is his winning the ticket: economic nationalism.”58

          * * *

Before his museum burned down, Barnum debuted his most culturally insensitive and “most famous freak”: “What Is It?”29 Trump’s moment of legitimacy was short lived.
He built “What Is It?” on the antebellum stereotypes and anxieties that came out of the Dred Scott case and the new theory from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published just three months before the Barnum first displayed this act. For the exhibition, Barnum hired an African-American man whom he ordered to laugh, not talk, and remain on all fours while on stage.30 The act was billed as neither man nor monkey, and Barnum attracted crowds that wanted either to deride his performer or to consider if he could in fact be a missing link. Just after Trump’s speech came the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
During this period in particular, the press disparaged Barnum’s ventures. In 1853, The New York Times attempted to write Barnum’s middlebrow empire “out of existence.”31 The press became even harsher after he published his biography and the rumor circulated that he had hidden funds shortly after declaring bankruptcy. The Southern Quarterly Review called him a “thimblerigger who has cheated the public.”32 Trump’s adversarial relationship with the press is stark, with many papers accusing him of posing as a false prophet during the campaign. Four days into his presidency, The New York Times published a front-page article with the headline, “Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie,” marking only the second time in the paper’s history they used the word “lie” in a headline referring to the president of the United States.59
The New York Times wrote another article saying that the only difference between Barnum’s systematic dependence on false pretenses and those of common counterfeiters was that the former had not learned “the advantage of doing things on a grand scale and with the flourish of trumpets.”33 On March 23rd, Time Magazine published an interview with President Trump about “the way he has handled truth and falsehood.”60 The interview was paired with a critical piece by the interviewer, Michael Scherer, titled “Can President Trump Handle the Truth?”
Barnum capitalized on the attention that he received from the press, knowing he had become a household name. Therefore, at a moment of extreme culture upheaval and confusion from the Civil War, he saw a ripe moment to enter the political arena. He ran for a seat on the Connecticut General Assembly on the Union ticket and won. During his time in office, he contradicted his own practice of owning performers and spoke passionately in favor of an amendment to the state constitution recognizing “universal manhood.”34 On June 23rd, The New York Times published a definitive list of Trump’s lies to date.61

On July 2nd, President Trump tweeted a video of himself wrestling “CNN” to the ground.62

Though Barnum was a Democrat for most of his life, after the war, in 1867, he ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican. Trump has switched political parties at least five times since the 1980s. Most recently, he switched from being an independent to being a republican in 2012.
Despite his attempts to appear honorable and sympathetic to the suffering of others, Barnum lost the race for a seat in the Senate. On April 4th 2017, Assad launched what is considered the worst chemical attack in years. After seeing images of the wounded, President Trump issued a missile strike against one of Assad’s airfields.
Before the election, he had alleged that fraud and “humbuggery” was rampant in politics. Following his election loss, Barnum levied heavy accusations of voter fraud. Leading up to the 2016 election, President Trump repeated claims that the election was rigged. During a debate, he refused to say whether he would accept the results. Days after his electoral college victory, President Trump made allegations of voter fraud based on hearsay:

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”63

“Barnum, the showman, was not deterred by any conscientious scruples, or by lack of ingenuity to make out a plausible pretext for contesting the seat of his successful competitor…” one newspaper reported.35
Citing hearsay accounts of bribery and bringing in voters from other states, Barnum insisted upon a formal investigation. The hearings brought forth only one witness who could validate Barnum’s claim. During the investigation, “it occurred to one of the committee to ask the witness which Barnum he had been working for, the witness replied P. T. Barnum, the virtuous showman.’”36 This immediately drew a close to Barnum’s claims. Trump continues to push claims of voter fraud. On July 5th, after his newly formed Commission on Election Integrity asked for voter information, 44 States plus Washington D.C. refused.


In Barnum’s time, a crescendo of uncertainty caused many institutions to bend back towards emphasizing objective truths that they could generally agree upon. This trend seems to have started with The New York Herald. After being burned by Barnum and Lyman with Joice Heth’s autopsy, editor James Gordon Bennett began compiling and publishing daily lists of uncovered frauds and humbugs.64 By the end of Barnum’s tenure at the American Museum, publications across the country—including the Boston Herald and the Philadelphia Public Ledger, national weekly magazines such as the National Police Gazette, and even trade journals like The American Bee Journal and Electricity—prominently displayed their lists of daily truths proven and deceptions uncovered.65

The New York Times in particular shifted its reach to not just report the news, but also to uncover the truth in cases of deceit. In the 1870s, the paper considered itself a champion of the “honor of the community,” with the “right to bring a great fraud to light in whatever way we can.”66 The vast amount of misinformation in the burgeoning financial markets also gave rise to market-focused media outlets such as The Wall Street Daily News (founded 1879) and The Wall Street Journal (founded 1889).67

Publicizing relatable facts that bridge political barriers mirrors what Adam Berinsky from MIT suggests is the most efficient method to change people’s opinions: sharing truths that can be validated by opposing parties without directly challenging their narratives reduces falsehoods and recreates a common ground based upon truth.68 The media’s combined efforts in the late nineteenth century seemed to have contributed to a positive shift; in the beginning of the twentieth century, the Age of Deception had faded. Exposures of financial frauds helped stabilize the markets. With Barnum’s museum closed, other museums shifted to showing either art or verifiable artifacts, with The National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. opening in 1910. While Barnum’s circus lived on until 2017, it focused on an entertainment model of spectacle over trickery. This decline in deceit spread across cultural elements; even trompe l’oeil painting faded into obscurity after the 1913 Armory Show.

However, the blurring of fact as a cultural trend did not die entirely. It comes back in waves. As Cook contends, “each era reinvents its own cultural tricks for its own particular reasons.”69 How we engage with deceit is one of the ways that cultures define their moral thresholds. While the depth of blurring the real and the fake in America is at its height since Barnum’s era, history shows that the cycle will end. It is up to us to choose how, and how prominently, we display the strength of truths that will determine how and when this iteration of the circle closes.