P.T. Barnum? Hungry Joe Lewis? Artemus Ward? Mike McDonald? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A famous saying about gullibility is usually attributed to the well-known showman P. T. Barnum. Here are two versions:
There’s a sucker born every minute.
There’s a fool born every minute.
Whether Barnum actually used either of these expressions is controversial. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no persuasive evidence that Phineas Taylor Barnum who died in 1891 spoke or wrote this saying. Researcher Ralph Keyes presented a skeptical stance with his assertion in “The Quote Verifier” that “No modern historian takes seriously the routine attribution of this slogan to P. T. Barnum.” 1
There exists a family of closely related expressions with a long history. Here is a sampling together with years of occurrence. The first item listed employed dialectical spelling. The word “flat” was a synonym for “fool”. The abbreviation “attrib” means that the words were attributed to an individual, but the evidence was indirect:
1806: there vash von fool born every minute
1826: a new fool is born every day
1835: there is a flat born every minute
1877: there is a fool born every hour
1879: there’s a sucker born every minute (anonymous adage)
1882: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib anon con man)
1885: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib Hungry Joe)
1888: there is a sucker born every minute (attrib Artemus Ward)
1889: a sucker is born every minute (attrib Mike McDonald)
1890: a fool was born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)
1892: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)
The above listing is a snapshot of current research results, and it will certainly change over time as more data is gathered. The earliest instances of these expressions were anonymous, and QI believes that later attributions had inadequate support.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 215, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩