“Humbug … I won’t believe it,” is Scrooge’s response when confronted by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, and just as surely as Dickens knows that ghosts are humbugs, so too does P. T. Barnum, writing a generation later. For Barnum, humbug begins in the Garden of Eden with the temptation of Eve, and permeates all of history, through every age and in every nation, right down to his own time, where the “Great Spirit Postmaster” publishes ghost letters from veterans recently perished in the Civil War.
Barnum himself was often called the “Prince of Humbugs,” but he was no cynic. In this book he sets out to make his fellow citizens a little wiser via a catalog of colorful characters and events, and mocking commentaries about how a sensible person should be more skeptical. He goes after all kinds of classic humbugs like ghosts, witches, and spiritualists, but he also calls humbug on shady investment schemes, hoaxes, swindlers, guerrilla marketers, and political dirty tricksters, before shining a light on the patent medicines of his day, impure foods, and adulterated drinks. As a raconteur, Barnum is conversational and avuncular, sharing the wisdom of his years and opening an intimate window into the New England of the mid-19th century.