> Rather than suggest that Barnum was out to make his fortune by duping > a gullible public, Mr. [Arthur] Saxon is now convinced that Barnum was > the exact opposite: a sensitive and tolerant individual with a sense > of mission who believed in giving the public a good laugh for only > pennies, and fought hard for unpopular, progressive causes such as > women's rights, freedom for slaves and against the machine-dominated > politics of his day. > >
[Arthur Saxon quoted in Andree Brooks, "Debunking the Myth of P. T. Barnum," New York Times October 3, 1982], accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/03/nyregion/debunking-the-myth-of-pt-barnum.html on 20111020.
There is not a whit of evidence, suggested Mr. Saxon, that Barnum ever said anything as callous as, "There's a sucker born every minute."
"There's no contemporary account of it," said Mr. Saxon, "or even any suggestion that the word 'sucker' was used in the derogatory sense in his day. Barnum was just not the type to disparage his patrons.
"I'll admit, he loved a good show; a hoax. But the whole idea was that the audience would get a laugh out of being taken in and consider it part of the entertainment, rather than feel cheated. Barnum was not even above being duped himself and turning it to his advantage."
As an example, Mr. Saxon tells of the cherry-colored cat. "In probably the most reliable version," said Mr. Saxon, "a woman writes to Barnum asking him to give her \$25 for her cherry-colored cat. Crackpots were always writing to Barnum with curiosities like a three-legged chicken or a genuine mermaid.
"So he said, 'Sure, bring it over.' So the woman arrives with a cat in a bag and dumps it on the table. But it's a black cat. 'I've been duped,' cries Barnum. 'No sir,' says the lady, 'some cherries are black.'
"Barnum liked the idea so much he put the cat on display," Mr. Saxon said. "And sure enough, the public loved it, too, so much so that they would not even give away the secret to their friends."
Saxon is the author of two books on P. T. Barnum.
[Edit:] The Oxford English Dictionary, consulted 20111020, identifies uses of sucker in the sense 'greenhorn, simpleton' dating to 1838 and 1857, both North American.
[Arthur Saxon quoted in Andree Brooks, "Debunking the Myth of P. T. Barnum," New York Times October 3, 1982]: http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/03/nyregion/debunking-the-myth-of-pt-barnum.html?pagewanted=print