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Lewis Lapham: Ugly Mermaid, Bearded Lady Made Barnum Rich

Brenda Wineapple
Brenda Wineapple, author of "Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and the End of Compromise, 1848 - 1877." Photographer: Elena Seibert/Harper via Bloomberg

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- She was not a beauty, the Feejee mermaid, but millions paid 25 cents to enter Phineas Taylor Barnum’s American Museum to see her.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

In fact, the mermaid consisted of a monkey’s head sewn to the tail end of a fish. Other Barnum exhibits included Joice Heth, a blind, paralyzed black woman, said to be the 160-year-old former nurse to George Washington; and General Tom Thumb, “the smallest person that ever walked alone,” a tiny boy of five who drank wine for the public’s amusement,

There were also bearded ladies, albinos, four-legged chickens, educated dogs and new-fangled knitting machines.

The showman started publishing his autobiography in 1855, and by the final revision, it was the second-most-read book in the U.S. after the Bible.

For Barnum, people who paid for his beguiling lies got their money’s worth. When he died in 1891, he was likely the most famous American in the world.

I spoke with Brenda Wineapple, author of “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877,” on the following topics:

1. Unsung Heroes.

2. Showmanship.

3. Civil War.

4. Age of Greed.

5. Appeasement.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend and Greg Evans on movies.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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