Racial Science & the Politics of P.T. Barnum’s “What Is It?”
The Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave., Brooklyn)
In 1860, showman P.T. Barnum began presenting a number of “pinhead” performers (persons with microcephaly, or unusually small heads) as members of newly discovered races or evolutionary missing links between apes and humans. These “pinhead race” acts were enormously popular as America stood on the brink of civil war over the issue of slavery, and as racial “science” was poised to become the foundational justification of Jim Crow segregation. Unsurprisingly, the most successful of all of these “pinhead race” acts was the “What Is It?”, an African-American microcephalic who became a public sensation, to the point of being used in political cartoons attacking President Abraham Lincoln.” This lecture is structured around a trove of amazing images including photographs, posters, advertisements, political cartoons, news illustrations, and stunningly-offensive scientific charts.