Scholla: White Elephants

White Elephants

“People will laugh at you,” warned Phineas T. Barnumm in the Berks and Schuykill Journal, of April 19, 1884, “if you don’t wait for Barnum and see a real white elephant, rather than a white washed one …” Barnum himself at Reading, May 14.” No, the construction of that sentence does not mean that Barnum was a white elephant. It implies that the people of Reading were in danger of being imposed upon by paying to see a fake white elephant exhibited by Adam Forepaugh’s Menagerie.

In a full three-column length advertisement the Barnum and London Circus announced that they would be in Reading, May 14, and that they would have the “only sacred white elephant ever landed in a Christian country. In typical Barnum ballyhoo the advertisement abounds in superlatives. There are many such advertisements in the various newspapers of the period and in this respect the 1884 “ad” in a Reading paper is no different. But the unusual feature of the announcement we are describing is the promulgation of a controversy with Adam Forepaugh, an Englishman, who vied with Barnum in presenting living pehnomenas.

It must be remembered that Barnum characterized the gullibility of the public by declaring that there is a “sucker born every minute” and therefore, his printed charges against Forepaugh must be viewed as a publicity trick. But he goes to great lengths to use the columns of a Berks newspaper to convict his competitor of fraud. Under the caption of “Forepaugh’s Futile Folly,” the great showman presents a series of affidavits to prove that Forepaugh painted an elephant white by daubing its body with whitewash and then presented his hoax to the public. The “white” elephant, named “Tiny,” was painted in England and then brough to this country, according to the testimony of the witnesses.

In opposition to this fraud Barnum was presenting a real white elephant, named “Toung Taloung” along with Burmese priests and attendants and “the true symbols of white elephant worship.” In staging the pre-circus parade in Reading, Barnum promised to show one artificially colored elephant free to the public in order that people might see for no cost what forepaugh charged an admission to see, namely a hoax.

The great Phineas T. Barnum, or rather his agents, were not disturbed by the lack of logic in their presentation. In one portion of their condemnation of Forepaugh they upraid him for maltreating a poor dumb beast by subjecting it to the paint brush and then go on merrily to promise to do the same thing in preparing one of their elephants for the parade in Reading.

Note: Der Ewich Yeager has heard older persons mention, in a general way, that Barnum frequently stationed animals that formed part of his menagerie, on farms in western Berks, during the off-season. Does any reader know of actual cases? In answering, please remember the five W’s: Who, When, Where, Why and What.

A normal and albino elephant from Burma, pictured at the London Zoo.
A normal and albino elephant from Burma, pictured at the London Zoo.

One thought on “Scholla: White Elephants

  1. Although Barnum is credited or blamed for the “sucker” comment, it is generally believed that
    Forepaugh , in a newspaper interview, attributed it to Barnum.

    Theirs was a bitter rivalry. We do know for certain that Forepaugh boasted that his show and his memory
    would outlast Barnum’s because “I have a boy, and Mr. Barnum has none”.

    We know how that turned out.

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