P.T. Barnum, who knew America as a land of suckers, is giggling down below the topsoil. From the great three-ring Beyond, the old circus visionary has provided the world with another lunatic promotion:

At a breakfast featuring 10-inch doughnuts, 48-ounce cups of coffee and a press release the size of Montana, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus unveiled in its Washington offices yesterday the stuffed carcass of its chestiest performer, Gargantua II, a 6-foot-tall, 500-pound arrangement of muscle, fur and gristle.

"One of the greats," noted Kenneth Feld, the circus' president, with a touch of melancholy. The circus, obviously, is coming to town, opening April 2.

Even in death, even in a display case, the big ape holds the room in a thrall. A clown wearing Size 20 loafers and a vermilion Bozo suit let his ordinarily rapid jaw drop in awe before the gargantuan proportions. The ringmaster's smile froze, then melted. Children gawked at the ape's enormous splayed toes.

"Oooohh," squeaked Michu, a 33-inch Hungarian midget with a voice suggesting helium, "dat's a very big gorilla." Especially so for "the smallest man in the world." (Tom Thumb was also 33 inches high in his circus days but stretched out inexplicably to a full yard in retirement.)

Feld and Michu stood before the gorilla and toasted each other with champagne served in fishbowl-size glasses.

After 20 years of entertaining ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, the great beast died "in the early 1970s," the mega-release said. The stuffed version was on display at the circus' old office on 18th Street. He had been shipped to a theme park when the Mattel toy company bought the circus 10 years ago, but when the Feld family bought Ringling Bros. in 1983, they began their search to recapture Gargantua II. They bought him back at an auction in New York recently for $20,350.

"Worth every cent," Feld said.

Built like a combination of Jayne Mansfield and a high school gym teacher, Gargantua II "watched soap operas in his cage and drank cognac cocktails before bedtime," according to C.P. (Chippie) Fox, the circus' official historian.

What Barbara Tuchman is to the Black Death, Chippie Fox is to the Big Top. He is obsessed with the circus. He lives in the central Wisconsin town of Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum. He is a dapper gentleman of 72, partial to bow ties and draft horses, and he remembers the days when the circus would arrive by rail with 1,500 people, raise the tents, put on a matinee, put on an evening show, strike the tent and move on down the line the next morning.

Fox, the author of "Billers, Banners and Bombast," is a student of circus hype:

The five Ringling brothers had terrific attractions with Jumbo the elephant in 1882, the Burmese white elephant Paweh in 1927 and a few "giraffe-necked" and "saucer-lipped" women in the 1930s. Gargantua I arrived in Brooklyn, via the Belgian Congo, for the 1938 season. He was an immediate hit.

The Ringling folks changed the gorilla's name from Buddy -- "not a great name for an animal billed as 'the world's most terrifying creature,' " Chippie said -- to Gargantua. Chippie said the circus invented the name, but the circus folks may have half-remembered Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel" when they "added to the dictionary."

Gargantua I died on the last day of the 1949 season and the circus soon bought the hairy ape that now stands in the Ringling office on New Mexico Avenue.

Menageries and sideshows disappeared from circus life when Ringling Bros. stopped using tents and moved to indoor arenas in 1956. Ineluctably, time moves on in the circus world. There is no Gargantua III.

"Gargantua was always just an individual," Chippie said. "They tried to get him to breed but, you know, you can't do that for a gorilla. You can't keep them in cages and expect them to act natural."