Advertising and Publicity Surrounding Barnum's What Is It? Exhibit

BARNUM'S museum exhibits thrived thanks to the showman's astute advertising skills and the general public's curiosity to see human "freaks." In Struggles and Triumphs Barnum touts the fact that he "thoroughly understood the art of advertising" which was "all calculated to extort attention."1 The cleverness of Barnum's advertising lay in the fact that he did not state the absolute identity of any of the "freaks" that appeared in his exhibits. The "not-quite-but-almost-human" status of Barnum's freaks caught the curiosity of the public because "It was precisely in opposition to the liminal self that the new middle-class urbanites initially defined their own social status, character, and virtue."2 Appearing during a tumultuous moment in American history Barnum's "What Is It?" exhibit added another facet to the ongoing debate surrounding the status of African-Americans. The ambiguous and aggrandized language Barnum used in the advertisements for this exhibit enticed the public's interest and invited them to visit the museum and see the exhibits for themselves in order to arrive at their own conclusion concerning the true identity of the "creature" on display.

Currier and Ives LithographONE of Barnum's most manipulative uses of rhetoric occurs in the ambiguous language that used in the "What Is It?" advertising campaign. "It" was actually an African-American man named William Henry Johnson. Johnson was a self-made freak, and according to speculation his mother sold him into show business at a young age. Johnson was between four and five feet tall and appeared to suffer from microcephaly. Although Johnson was not the first man to assume the role of "What Is It?" (Harvey Leech briefly performed the role before an audience member recognized him as being an actor), he was by far one of Barnum's most popular exhibits.The cultural context in which the exhibit appeared helps explain the public fascination with evolution and human origins. Appearing three years after the 1857 Dred Scott case and three months after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, the debut of "What Is It?" was a hit thanks to its tie-in with contemporary issues surrounding race and citizenship. Regarding the Dred Scott case, James W. Cook contends, "Whereas Scott's lawyers described their client as "quasi-citizen," born a slave but seemingly emancipated by his temporary residence in two free states, Barnum offered "What Is It?" as the world's first quasi-man, born a "brute" in the African jungle, but now beginning to take on various "human" more "civilized" features during his stay in New York."3 Barnum exploited public interest in evolution in his advertising campaign for the "What Is It?" exhibit. Posters asked the public to determine whether the creature was man or animal. This Currier and Ives lithograph depicts a black male in an exoticized environment; the man is supposed to convey a sense of "wildness" with his attire and his walking stick. Notice the not-quite human feet as well. The text of the advertisement asks, "Is it a lower order of man? Or is it a higher order of monkey? None can tell! Perhaps it is a combination of both. It is beyond dispute THE MOST MARVELOUS CREATURE LIVING." The physical description of the creature also exemplifies the power of the indefinite rhetoric: "It has the skull, limbs, and general anatomy of an orang outang and the countenance of a human being." By describing the exhibit in both human and animal terms "What Is It?" is exists in a liminal space that resists definite classification.

Table of Contents | Next page