For many years Barnum exhibited William Henry Johnson, a native of Bound Brook, New Jersey, as "What Is It?." Barnum promoted "What Is It?" as an indescribable, undefinable mixture of man and ape. Posters, like the one shown below, depicted Johnson as a wild creaturen of the jungle, barely able to stand on two legs (that's why he holds the pole). Sometimes Johnson posed in the ridiculous fur suit he wears in the picture above: sometimes he wore velvet shorts and tights.
an advertisement for "what is it"
It's an especially puzzling exhibition, since to modern eyes Johnson looks pretty much normal, despite the ridiculous costume. For Barnum, it was all about context--he could make a really ordinary man like Johnson appear to be some sort of wild freak, or at least engage his audience in the process of trying to figure out what Johnson really was. Was he an accident of nature, an anthropological specimen, or just a guy from New Jersey?
Historian Jay Cook argues the exhibit was also a way for white Americans to examine their beliefs about African Americans. Could they be "civilized?" Were they the same species as whites? Descriptions of Johnson sometimes claimed he could not speak English; at other times they claimed he had learned a few phrases and was being "improved" by life in America.
Much of Barnum's museum, like American society generally, was extremely racist. Barnum sponsore lectures and exhibitions on the physical differences between "the races," and offered "phrenological readings" of the shape of people's skulls. Indeed, Barnum did a great deal to help establish the minstrel show as American popular entertainment. At the very least, his exhibits depended heavily on American racial beliefs.
Johnson himself was "in on" the stunt and cooperated willingly. He lived into the 1920s, performing as "Zip, the Pinhead."