EQUALLY disturbing as the Currier and Ives lithographs are two Matthew Brady photographs that sold as carte de visites in the museum's souvenir shop. Patrons displayed these postcards in the ubiquitous photo albums found in any fashionable Victorian parlor. The photographs use a similar exotic background and a fur suit to further establish the "What Is It?" "creature" in a liminal space. Notice the fur suit and the pseudo-wilderness backdrop used in the Brady photographs. "What Is It?" also appears more upright in these photos than in the lithographs although the walking stick is still present. Barnum's descriptions of the physiognomy of "What Is It?" also contribute to this lack of a concrete identity in the exhibit. Barnum's exhibit was also referred to as a "nondescript," a term that had previously been used to described a species that had yet to receive classification.5


Matthew Brady carte de visite of "What Is It?"


Another Brady carte de visite.

The ambiguity of the rhetoric used in Barnum's advertising not only encouraged a discourse from the general public as they attempted to arrive at their own explanations about the curiosities, but it also functioned as a semiotic device "which further differentiated and created the distance between the normative body and the extraordinary body."6 The fact that the public purchased these carte de visites implicated them in the "enfreakment" of the racialized "other." These images reinforced the difference between nineteenth century white Americans and African Americans.

Public fascination with the freak lay in the physical differences, but it also lay within the freak's potential to be normalized. When Barnum first exhibited Harvey Leech he dubbed him "The Wild Man of the Prairies." Once Johnson assumed the role Barnum conferred a more exotic biography to "What Is It?" claiming that the "creature" was from the jungles of Africa. By the turn of the century "What Is It?" was known by the name "Zip" and became more of a novelty act.7


Thomas Nast Cartoon of Barnum

The evolution of the "What Is It?" exhibit reflects Barnum's own changing views on race relations. Initially a Jacksonian Democrat, Barnum himself was a slaveholder, yet by the mid 1840's Barnum established himself as a sympathetic Republican. He writes in Struggles and Triumphs "The black man possesses a confiding disposition thoroughly tinctured with religious enthusiasm and not characterized by a spirit of revenge…his soul may appear dormant, his brain inactive, but there is vitality there."8 Barnum's rhetoric suggests a romantic racialism in which the "other" is exoticized. James W. Cook, Jr. stresses that "Barnum's exhibition catered to moderate or "soft racist" notion of a paternalistic reform which posited that Africans would benefit from the ameliorative influence of Anglo-Saxon culture…and the Whig/Republican presumption of a fixed social order which allowed for charitable guidance from on high."9 This Thomas Nast cartoon depicts Barnum's vacillating political views.


Taken in today's context, Barnum's "What Is It?" exhibit is unabashedly racist. Yet, during the show's forty-plus year run, William Henry Johnson consistently assumed the role of Zip. Within its proper historical context, however, the "What Is It?" exhibit epitomizes the way in which Barnum's museum patrons established their own identities by placing that identity in opposition to the numerous "freaks" that were exhibited. Unbeknownst to the museum patrons, they were participating in one of the most heatedly debated topics of the time under the guise of spectacle and education manufactured by Barnum.

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