The whale, the angel fish, and the golden pigeon.

If the fact could be definitely determined, I think it would be discovered that in this “wide awake” country there are more persons humbugged by believing too little than too much. Many persons have such a horror of being taken in, or such an elevated opinion of their own acuteness, that they believe everything to be a sham, and in this way are continually humbugging themselves.

Several years since, I purchased a living white whale, captured near Labrador, and succeeded in placing it, “in good condition,” in a large tank, fifty feet long, and supplied with salt water, in the basement of the American Museum. I was obliged to light the basement with gas, and that frightened the sea-monster to such an extent that he kept at the bottom of the tank, except when he was compelled to stick his nose above the surface in order to breathe or “blow,” and then down he would go again as quick as possible. Visitors would sometimes stand for half an hour, watching in vain to get a look at the whale; for, although he could remain under water only about two minutes at a time, he would happen to appear in some unlooked for quarter of the huge tank, and before they could all get a chance to see him, he would be out of sight again. Some impatient and incredulous persons after waiting ten minutes, which seemed to them an hour, would sometimes exclaim:

“Oh, humbug! I don’t believe there is a whale here at all!”

This incredulity often put me out of patience, and I would say:

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a living whale in the tank. He is frightened by the gaslight and by visitors; but he is obliged to come to the surface every two minutes, and if you will watch sharply, you will see him. I am sorry we can’t make him dance a hornpipe and do all sorts of wonderful things at the word of command; but if you will exercise your patience a few minutes longer, I assure you the whale will be seen at considerably less trouble than it would be to go to Labrador expressly for that purpose.”

This would usually put my patrons in good humor; but I was myself often vexed at the persistent stubbornness of the whale in not calmly floating on the surface for the gratification of my visitors.

One day, a sharp Yankee lady and her daughter, from Connecticut, called at the Museum. I knew them well; and in answer to their inquiry for the locality of the whale, I directed them to the basement. Half an hour afterward, they called at my office, and the acute mother, in a half-confidential, seriocomic whisper, said:

Mr. B., it’s astonishing to what a number of purposes the ingenuity of us Yankees has applied India-rubber.”

I asked her meaning, and was soon informed that she was perfectly convinced that it was an India-rubber whale, worked by steam and machinery, by means of which he was made to rise to the surface at short intervals, and puff with the regularity of a pair of bellows. From her earnest, confident manner, I saw it would be useless to attempt to disabuse her mind on the subject. I therefore very candidly acknowledged that she was quite too sharp for me, and I must plead guilty to the imposition; but I begged her not to expose me, for I assured her that she was the only person who had discovered the trick.

It was worth more than a dollar to see with what a smile of satisfaction she received the assurance that nobody else was as shrewd as herself; and the patronizing manner in which she bade me be perfectly tranquil, for the secret should be considered by her as “strictly confidential,” was decidedly rich. She evidently received double her money’s worth in the happy reflection that she could not be humbugged, and that I was terribly humiliated in being detected through her marvelous powers of discrimination! I occasionally meet the good lady, and always try to look a little sheepish, but she invariably assures me that she has never divulged my secret and never will!

On another occasion, a lady equally shrewd, who lives neighbor to me in Connecticut, after regarding for a few minutes the “Golden Angel Fish” swimming in one of the Aquaria, abruptly addressed me with:

“You can’t humbug me, Mr. Barnum; that fish is painted!”

“Nonsense!” said I, with a laugh; “the thing is impossible!”

“I don’t care, I know it is painted; it is as plain as can be.”

“But, my dear Mrs. H., paint would not adhere to a fish while in the water; and if it would, it would kill him. Besides,” I added, with an extra serious air, “we never allow humbugging here!”

“Oh, here is just the place to look for such things,” she replied with a smile; “and I must say I more than half believe that Angel Fish is painted.”

She was finally nearly convinced of her error, and left. In the afternoon of the same day, I met her in Old Adams’ California Menagerie. She knew that I was part-proprietor of that establishment, and seeing me in conversation with “Grizzly Adams,” she came up to me in some haste, and with her eyes glistening with excitement, she said:

“O, Mr. B., I never saw anything so beautiful as those elegant ‘Golden Pigeons’ from Australia. I want you to secure some of their eggs for me, and let my pigeons hatch them at home. I should prize them beyond all measure.”

“Oh, you don’t want ‘Golden Australian Pigeons,’ ” I replied; “they are painted.”

“No, they are not painted,” said she, with a laugh, “but I half think the Angel Fish is.”

I could not control myself at the curious coincidence, and I roared with laughter while I replied:

“Now, Mrs. H., I never let a good joke be spoiled, even if it serves to expose my own secrets. I assure you, upon honor, that the Golden Australian Pigeons, as they are labeled, are really painted; and that in their natural state they are nothing more nor less than the common ruff-necked white American pigeons!”

And it was a fact. How they happened to be exhibited under that auriferous disguise was owing to an amusing circumstance, explained in another chapter.

Suffice it at present to say, that Mrs. H. to this day “blushes to her eyebrows” whenever an allusion is made to “Angel Fish” or “Golden Pigeons.”