Saturday, February 20, 2010

Barnum's Cannibals

P.T. Barnum from Wikipedia

This isn't a ghost story, but it is one of the weirder tales to come out of the fair town of York, a textbook example of Phineas Taylor Barnum's ability to generate - some say fabricate - a story.

First, a bit of history. The York Judicial Center now stands on the site of the old Penn Hotel, which was razed for the Pennsylvania House Hotel.

PT Barnum stayed in the Pennsy House in 1872 during a stop of his "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome", the self proclaimed "Greatest Show on Earth". His act included 4 purported genuine Fijian cannibals, allegedly ransomed from the King of Fiji before they became the special of the day from his kitchen.

One of them, a dwarf, took ill. He died uttering "Fiji" as his last word, and was laid out in a hotel room. The man watching over his remains locked the door and left for half an hour. When he returned, the two remaining male cannibals were merrily nibbling away on the corpse while being scolded by the lone female, who apparently was Christian and had renounced her man-eating ways.

At least, that's what the York Daily reported. The town's other paper, the True Democrat, called the story whole bunkum. And we'll never know which was right; was it just a clash of cultures or another ink-grabbing hoax by the master?

What was left of the poor cannibal was buried in the local Potter's Field with 700 other unmarked, unclaimed, and unknown bodies. 25 years later, the bodies were disinterred, and people were eager to open the Fijian's coffin and see if he was intact or was indeed served up as his showmate's entree.

Alas, the coffin was empty! It seems a local doctor hired a professional ghoul to snatch the body, which he proudly exhibited in his office as a showpiece skeleton. And he never told anyone if the corpse had any bites out of it. So we'll never know if Barnum pulled another fast one or if the cannibals indeed enjoyed one final nostalgic midnight snack.

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