The Whale The Angel Fish And The Golden Pigeon
If the fact could be definitely determined, I think it would be
discovered that in this "wide awake" country there are more persons
humbugged by believing too little than too much. Many persons have such
a horror of being taken in, or such an elevated opinion of their own
acuteness, that they believe everything to be a sham, and in this way
are continually humbugging themselves.
Several years since, I pur
hased a living white whale, captured near
Labrador, and succeeded in placing it, "in good condition," in a large
tank, fifty feet long, and supplied with salt water, in the basement of
the American Museum. I was obliged to light the basement with gas, and
that frightened the sea-monster to such an extent that he kept at the
bottom of the tank, except when he was compelled to stick his nose above
the surface in order to breathe or "blow," and then down he would go
again as quick as possible. Visitors would sometimes stand for half an
hour, watching in vain to get a look at the whale; for, although he
could remain under water only about two minutes at a time, he would
happen to appear in some unlooked for quarter of the huge tank, and
before they could all get a chance to see him, he would be out of sight
again. Some impatient and incredulous persons after waiting ten minutes,
which seemed to them an hour, would sometimes exclaim:
"Oh, humbug! I don't believe there is a whale here at all!"
This incredulity often put me out of patience, and I would say:
"Ladies and gentlemen, there is a living whale in the tank. He is
frightened by the gaslight and by visitors; but he is obliged to come to
the surface every two minutes, and if you will watch sharply, you will
see him. I am sorry we can't make him dance a hornpipe and do all sorts
of wonderful things at the word of command; but if you will exercise
your patience a few minutes longer, I assure you the whale will be seen
at considerably less trouble than it would be to go to Labrador
expressly for that purpose."
This would usually put my patrons in good humor; but I was myself often
vexed at the persistent stubbornness of the whale in not calmly floating
on the surface for the gratification of my visitors.
One day, a sharp Yankee lady and her daughter, from Connecticut, called
at the Museum. I knew them well; and in answer to their inquiry for the
locality of the whale, I directed them to the basement. Half an hour
afterward, they called at my office, and the acute mother, in a
half-confidential, serio-comic whisper, said:
"Mr. B., it's astonishing to what a number of purposes the ingenuity of
us Yankees has applied india-rubber."
I asked her meaning, and was soon informed that she was perfectly
convinced that it was an india-rubber whale, worked by steam and
machinery, by means of which he was made to rise to the surface at short
intervals, and puff with the regularity of a pair of bellows. From her
earnest, confident manner, I saw it would be useless to attempt to
disabuse her mind on the subject. I therefore very candidly acknowledged
that she was quite too sharp for me, and I must plead guilty to the
imposition; but I begged her not to expose me, for I assured her that
she was the only person who had discovered the trick.
It was worth more than a dollar to see with what a smile of satisfaction
she received the assurance that nobody else was as shrewd as herself;
and the patronizing manner in which she bade me be perfectly tranquil,
for the secret should be considered by her as "strictly confidential,"
was decidedly rich. She evidently received double her money's worth in
the happy reflection that she could not be humbugged, and that I was
terribly humiliated in being detected through her marvelous powers of
discrimination! I occasionally meet the good lady, and always try to
look a little sheepish, but she invariably assures me that she has never
divulged my secret and never will!
On another occasion, a lady equally shrewd, who lives neighbor to me in
Connecticut, after regarding for a few minutes the "Golden Angel Fish"
swimming in one of the Aquaria, abruptly addressed me with:
"You can't humbug me, Mr. Barnum; that fish is painted!"
"Nonsense!" said I, with a laugh; "the thing is impossible!"
"I don't care, I know it is painted; it is as plain as can be."
"But, my dear Mrs. H., paint would not adhere to a fish while in the
water; and if it would, it would kill him. Besides," I added, with an
extra serious air, "we never allow humbugging here!"
"Oh, here is just the place to look for such things," she replied with a
smile; "and I must say I more than half believe that Angel Fish is
She was finally nearly convinced of her error, and left. In the
afternoon of the same day, I met her in Old Adams' California Menagerie.
She knew that I was part-proprietor of that establishment, and seeing me
in conversation with "Grizzly Adams," she came up to me in some haste,
and with her eyes glistening with excitement, she said:
"O, Mr. B., I never saw anything so beautiful as those elegant 'Golden
Pigeons' from Australia. I want you to secure some of their eggs for me,
and let my pigeons hatch them at home. I should prize them beyond all
"Oh, you don't want 'Golden Australian Pigeons,'" I replied; "they are
"No, they are not painted," said she, with a laugh, "but I half think
the Angel Fish is."
I could not control myself at the curious coincidence, and I roared with
laughter while I replied:
"Now, Mrs. H., I never let a good joke be spoiled, even if it serves to
expose my own secrets. I assure you, upon honor, that the Golden
Australian Pigeons, as they are labeled, are really painted; and that in
their natural state they are nothing more nor less than the common
ruff-necked white American pigeons!"
And it was a fact. How they happened to be exhibited under that
auriferous disguise was owing to an amusing circumstance, explained in
Suffice it at present to say, that Mrs. H. to this day "blushes to her
eyebrows" whenever an allusion is made to "Angel Fish" or "Golden