There's a sucker born every minute
"There's a sucker born every minute" is a phrase often credited to P. T. Barnum (1810–1891), an American showman. Though this phrase is often credited to Barnum, it was more likely spoken by a man by the name of David Hannum, who was criticizing both Barnum and his customers. It means it is simple to con people out of their money.
Attribution to Barnum
When Barnum's biographer tried to track down when Barnum had uttered this phrase, all of Barnum's friends and acquaintances told him it was out of character. Barnum's credo was more along the lines of "there's a customer born every minute" — he wanted to find ways to draw new customers in all the time because competition was fierce and people could become bored easily.
Some sources claim the quote is most likely from famous con-man Joseph ("Paper Collar Joe") Bessimer, and other sources say it was actually uttered by David Hannum, spoken in reference to Barnum's part in the Cardiff Giant hoax. Hannum, who was exhibiting the "original" giant and had unsuccessfully sued Barnum for exhibiting a copy and claiming it was the original, was referring to the crowds continuing to pay to see Barnum's exhibit even after both it and the original had been proven to be fakes.
In turn, Barnum's fellow circus owner and arch-rival Adam Forepaugh attributed the quote to Barnum in a newspaper interview in an attempt to discredit him. However, Barnum never denied making the quote. It is said that he thanked Forepaugh for the free publicity he had given him.
Another source credits late 1860s Chicago "bounty broker, saloon and gambling-house keeper, eminent politician, and dispenser of cheating privileges..." Michael Cassius McDonald as the originator of the aphorism. According to the book Gem of the Prairie: Chicago Underworld (1940) by Herbert Asbury, when McDonald was equipping his gambling house known as The Store (at Clark and Monroe Streets in Chicago) his partner Harry Lawrence expressed concern over the large number of roulette wheels and faro tables being installed and their ability to get enough players to play the games. McDonald then allegedly said, "Don't worry about that, there's a sucker born every minute."
The phrase is the title of the opening song in the Broadway musical Barnum, about P.T. Barnum's life.
The earliest appearance of the phrase in print is in the 1885 biography of confidence man Hungry Joe, The Life of Hungry Joe, King of the Bunco Men. Another early appearance is in Opie Read's 1898 novel A Yankee from the West.
In a slightly different form, the phrase shows up in the January, 1806, European Magazine: "It was the observation of one of the tribe of Levi, to whom some person had expressed his astonishment at his being able to sell his damaged and worthless commodities, 'That there vash von fool born every minute.'"
According to David W. Maurer, writing in The Big Con (1940), there was a similar saying amongst con men: "There's a mark born every minute, and one to trim 'em and one to knock 'em". Here 'trim' means to rip off, and 'knock' means to persuade away from a scam. The meaning is that there is no shortage of new victims, nor of con men, nor of honest men.
- Forer effect or the Barnum Effect
- Saxon, A. H. (1989). P. T. Barnum: the Legend and the Man. Columbia University Press.
- Jay, Ricky (February 2011). "Grifters, Bunco Artists & Flimflam Men". Wired (19.02): 90.
- The Life of Hungry Joe, King of the Bunco Men. New York: Frank Tousey. 1885. OCLC 78310948.
- Read, Opie (1898). A Yankee from the West. Rand, McNally & Co. p. 46.
- "Essay on False Genius". The European Magazine And London Review. January 1806.
- Maurer, David W. (1999) . The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man and the Confidence Game (reprinted). New York: Bobbs Merrill / Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-49538-2.
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