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P. T. Barnum

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was the famous showman, P. T. Barnum who once declared that there was a sucker born every minute. And, he might have added, just enough con men to take advantage of them. That plain and simple assessment of human beings worked well for Barnum until he took a trip on a steamboat up the Mississippi River.

Barnum was already a successful entrepreneur and showman. In 1841 he had opened Barnum's American Museum in New York, exhibiting animal and human oddities, and he had introduced Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale to packed audiences all across America.

Even on his trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, however, Barnum could not resist pitting his skills against others. Unfortunately, the poker game he set up involved professional river gamblers, who soon relieved him of all his money. The conman had been fleeced.

Dead broke, he went ashore at a small Mississippi town, hoping for better poker luck. Unfortunately, the town happened to be in the middle of a revival, and poker players were scarce. Not to worry. Barnum knew that cards were only one of the manifestations of poker in this world.  He set himself up as a Universalist minister, hired a hall, and began a revival of his own.

The audience was sparse. The South was not used to his liberal theology. Across the street, the Presbyterian meeting house was packing them in. Barnum did the only thing possible. He dismissed his small audience, went over to the Presbyterian meeting house. He announced that he was converted, that he had seen the error of his Universalist ways. There was much rejoicing by the enthusiastic crowd, who invited him to preach. Afterwards they took up a handsome collection for the new convert.

Barnum left with enough money to get the rest of the way to St. Louis comfortably, by which time his poker luck had improved—perhaps in part because he had learned that a careless con can turn sucker in a minute.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.