Phineas T. Barnum once displayed, in his American Museum in New York City, the corpse of a “mermaid” that was in fact the preserved head of a monkey sewn onto the preserved tail of a fish. He once advertised a large but otherwise extremely average elephant as “The Only Mastodon on Earth.” He once “exhibited” a woman named Joice Heth as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington (and as “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World”). He then wrote to newspapers to make a confession: Joice was not, actually, Washington’s nurse. She wasn’t even, in fact, human—but merely “a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs,” operated by a hidden ventriloquist.
An autopsy conducted just after her death would reveal that Joice Heth was, indeed, a person, one who was around 80 years of age when she died. Barnum would admit to that, and to the many other tricks he had pulled in the name of public spectacle—or rather, he would boast about them—in a series of newspaper articles and, later, in Life of P.T. Barnum, the first of his four books. It was published in 1854, the same year Thoreau published Walden.
Barnum was one of the original creators and commercializers of the pseudo-event, the vaguely real-but-also-not-real thing that, the historian Daniel Boorstin argues, has been the fundamental fact of American culture since the days of Barnum himself. Or, at least, in the years between those days and the days of the mid-20th century. Boorstin’s book on the matter, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, was first published in 1962; it was, in its time, a blistering indictment of newspapers and television and Hollywood and the habit they all had of turning mortals into gods. (The indictment was so blistering that, when the book’s publication date found Boorstin abroad for a longstanding lecture engagement, a reviewer suggested that perhaps the author had simply decided to flee the country that he had so recklessly libeled.)