Jay Ricky discusses deception and magic in legacy of P.T. Barnum

A steady stream of art history aficionados, young and old, filed into Barnum 104 last night. They didn’t come to watch Ricky Jay, long considered one of the world’s greatest sleight of hand artists perform magic tricks, but to enjoy his personal collection of pamphlets and prints depicting P.T. Barnum’s exhibitions.

The presentation, sponsored by the Toupin Fund, the Departments of Art History and Drama, and the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences among others, was a fitting extension of the “Jumbo: Marvel, Myth and Mascot” exhibit currently featured at the Tufts University Art Gallery. Exhibit curator and art history professor Andrew McClellan gave a short introduction before giving the floor to Jay and fellow presenter, Laurence Senelick, a Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory.

Like old friends, Jay and Senelick bantered back and forth throughout the presentation, casually offering historical tidbits and discussing their collections. One theme wove through the presentation and tied it all together — the magic and deception that characterized Barnum’s entertainment career.

The first document, an aged photograph of Harry Houdini performing at the New York Hippodrome, introduced this theme. To help sensationalize his longest running act, in which he made an elephant named Jenny disappear, Houdini advertised Jenny as the daughter of Barnum’s Jumbo. This, of course, wasn’t true.

“I am surprised that an Asian elephant could be the daughter of an African elephant,” Jay joked. “So I think Houdini, like Barnum, exaggerated and told fibs to his advantage.”

Houdini, of course, wasn’t the only popular master of deception at the time. Jay next presented several photos by William Mumler, credited as the first person to take “spirit photos.” Using double exposure techniques, Mumler seemed to capture ghosts lingering in photographs. The most shocking portrait showed a widowed Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly visage of her husband standing behind her.

According to Jay, Barnum reportedly testified against Mumler in court for fraud, though Barnum hardly had a clean record himself. Many of Barnum’s most popular exhibitions, such as his “Fejee Mermaid” and his “Aztec Children” — featured in beautiful lithographs and Currier and Ives prints owned by Jay — were not all that he claimed they were. Barnum’s “Egyptian Jugglers,” for example, were actually brothers and performers from France. An autopsy of one of Barnum’s very first “attractions” — a woman named Joice Heth, who was allegedly 161 year old and a nurse maid to George Washington — revealed that Joice was in fact no more than 80 years old.

Jay also discussed Barnum’s legacy as a master advertiser. He cited a particular clever pamphlet, exactly 6.25 inches long, which advertised Tom Thumb, a 25 inch tall man who become one of Barnum’s most popular “attractions.” The bottom of the pamphlet proclaimed that Tom Thumb was “exactly four times the length of the bill you are reading!”

“If he showed a bill that was 25 inches tall, it would be too easy to see that and compare it to something you know,” Jay said. “The idea of handing out a bill this tiny is just something, to me, of pure genius.”

Of course, as a magician, Jay argued that the deception in Barnum’s exhibits was not always a bad thing. In fact, many of Barnum’s spectacles actually led to interesting technological discoveries. For example, the “talking machine,” a figurehead which could be manipulated to utter any syllable in a human language, helped lead Alexander Graham Bell to invent the telephone, Jay explained.

“It’s possible, in the world of Barnum and the world of magic and deception, that something that’s purposefully misleading can lead to fascinating results,” Jay said.