October 16, 1869: One More Giant for Mankind

In 1869, George Hull, a New York tobacconist, and his cousin, William Newell, a farmer, hired two men to dig a well on Newell’s farm. As theycardiff_ were digging, one of the men suddenly shouted: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” ‘I declare’ is a tad short of ‘Eureka!’ but it got the point across; what the two men had discovered was, according to Hull, a perfectly preserved ten-foot-plus petrified giant.

Noting the incredible scientific implications of this discovery, Hull and Newell immediately did the scientific thing. They set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later, thanks to public demand, the price doubled to 50 cents. And the crowds doubled along with the price. Everyone wanted to see the amazing, colossal Cardiff Giant, as the stony corpse had come to be called.

Archaeological scholars stood at the back of the throngs shouting “fake, fake” but folks ignored them (folks generally ignore archaeologists). And they ignored the geologists who said there was no earthly reason to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. A Yale palaeontologist, getting really worked up, called it “a most decided humbug.” Some Christian fundamentalists and preachers, came to the giant’s defense, however, citing some positive reviews in Genesis.  And we all know there were some mighty big people in the Bible.

Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest for $23,000 (close to half a million today) to a syndicate in Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant continued to draw amazing crowds, so much so that P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate turned him down, he hired an unscrupulous sculptor to create a plaster replica. Barnum put his giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the true giant, and that the Cardiff Giant was an impostor.

Then in December, Hull confessed to the press that he had faked the Cardiff Giant (he already had his $23,000). It had been carved out of a block of gypsum then treated with stains and acids to make the giant appear to be old and weathered.  (It had been whacked with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores.) And the following February, both giants were declared fakes in court.

Epilogue: An Iowa publisher later bought the Cardiff Giant to use as a conversation piece in his basement rumpus room. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display.



November 2, 1887: Ode to a Nightingale

Wild and crazy entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum was known for bringing audiences such high-brow entertainers as Tom Thumb, the Feejee

Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)
Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)

Mermaid, and Zip the Pinhead. As he said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” and “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But Barnum went all respectable in 1850 when he booked one of the most celebrated singers in Europe, the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, for a series of 150 American performances. Without even hearing her sing, Barnum contracted to pay her an amazing $1,000 per performance.

Born Johanna Maria Lind in 1820, Jenny became famous in Sweden and throughout Europe during the 1840s. She was still  pretty much unknown in the United States, but that was about to change as Barnum put his promotional prowess to work. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America. It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny’s vocal potency.”

Barnum’s relentless publicity made her a celebrity before she even arrived. As a result of what the press called Lind Mania, her initial appearances were in such demand that Barnum auctioned tickets. Her tour was such a rousing success that, after just a handful of performances, she renegotiated her contract with Barnum, with him willingly giving her a percentage of ticket sales in addition to her original payment per performance. He still cleared close to a half million dollars himself.

For her part, Jenny found Barnum’s over-the-top commercial promotion of her distasteful, and they parted ways in 1851, though still on friendly terms. She continued touring in the U.S. until May 1852. By the time she left for home, she had reached super-stardom here, and her performances had established opera as a lasting form of entertainment in the U.S.

Jenny Lind died on November 2, 1887.

Inspiration for 11/2/16