P.T. Barnum was an Early Adopter of the Telegraph- So he Could Prank his Co-Workers

A few months ago I posted about David Lechler’s telegraph prank. He had been tricking old Pennsylvania Dutch farmers into believing that he could send newspapers and clothes from Philadelphia to his Lancaster office in mere seconds using the brand new telegraph lines. I had written that Lechler’s prank reminded me of the 19th century king of practical jokes and humbuggery: P.T. Barnum.

I’m sure Barnum would have been impressed with Lechler’s telegraph prank, though he would have been disappointed that he didn’t make any money off of the trick.

Jenny Lind
Jenny Lind. National Portrait Gallery.

Well, it turns out that Barnum pulled off his own telegraph prank, just a few years after Lechler. Believe it or not, the fraudulent showman pulled one over on his own employees while they were on tour with Jenny Lind in 1850. I had assumed that Barnum would have seen the telegraph as another opportunity to take advantage of others and make a quick buck, but it turns out that he used it for an April Fools Day laugh at the expense of his co-workers. I discovered this amusing anecdote while reading Barnum’s autobiography. The greatest conman was very proud of his telegraph prank and described it in detail. His autobiography is full of dishonesty, exploitation, and con-man games, and I have to admit it was nice to read about a fairly harmless scheme for once. I highly recommend his “The Life of P.T. Barnum,” originally published in 1855. That crummy movie they made about him recently doesn’t do any justice to the real guy.

Anyways, here is an excerpt from the Nashville Daily American that Barnum reproduced on page 336-337 in the book. Enjoy!

A seriesĀ  of laughable jokes came off yesterday at the Veranda in honor of All Fools’ Day. Mr. Barnum was at the bottom of the mischief. He managed in some mysterious manner to obtain a lot of blank telegraphic dispatches and envelopes from one of the offices in this city, and then went to work and manufactured ‘astounding intelligence’ for most of the parties composing the Jenny Lind suite. Almost every person in the company received a telegraphic dispatch written by E.T. Nichols, under the direction of Barnum. Mr. Barnum’s daughter was informed that her mother, her cousin, and several other relatives were waiting for her in Louisville, and various other important and extraordinary items of domestic intelligence were communicated to her. Mr. Le Grand Smith was told by a dispatch from his father that his native in Connecticut was in ashes, including his own homestead, etc. Several of Barnum’s employees had most liberal offers of engagements from banks and other institutions at the North. Burke, and others of the musical professors, were offered princely salaries by opera managers, and many of them received most tempting inducements to proceed immediately to the World’s Fair in London.

Telegraph register machine, circa 1850. National Museum of American History.

One married gentleman in Mr. Barnum’s suite received the gratifying intelligence that he had for two days been the father of a pair of bouncing boys, (mother and children doing well,) an even which he had been anxiously looking for during the week, though on a somewhat more limitedĀ  scale. In fact, nearly every person in the party engaged by Barnum received some extraordinary telegraphic intelligence, and as the great Impressario managed to have the dispatches delivered simultaneously, each recipient was for some time busily occupied with his own personal news.

By-and-by, each began to tell his neighbor of his good or bad tidings; and each was, or course, rejoiced or grieved according to circumstances. Several gave Mr. Barnum notice of their intention to leave him, in consequence of better offers; and a number of them sent off telegraphic dispatches and letters by mail, in answer to those received.

The man who had so suddenly become the father of twins telegraphed to his wife to ‘be of good cheer,’ and that he would ‘start for home t-morrow.’ At a late hour last night the secret had not got out, and we presume that many of the victims will first learn from our columns that they have been taken by Barnum and All Fools’ Day!

P.T. Barnum (center). “The Life of P.T. Barnum,” page 279.

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