Joice Heth: The Hoax That Launched P.T. Barnum as a Showman

Mar 22, 2022 0 comments

Phineas Taylor Barnum, the “greatest showman” on earth was still making a modest living as the owner of a grocery store in 1835 when his path crossed with that of a certain Mr. Coley Bartram, who would provide Barnum with a foray into the lucrative world of showmanship. Bartram informed Barnum of a spectacular “exhibit” that he had recently sold to Mr. R. W. Lindsay. The “exhibit” was an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth, who was supposedly 161 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington.

Barnum was intrigued by the money-making opportunity that Joice Heth presented, and proceeded at once to Philadelphia to see her and Mr. Lindsay. Barnum found Heth “a remarkable curiosity”, who, he suspected, “might have been far older than her age as advertised.” She was extremely old and almost completely paralyzed. “She could move one arm at will, but her lower limbs could not be straightened,” Barnum noted. “Her left arm lay across her breast and she could not remove it; the fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and were fixed; the nails on that hand were almost four inches long and extended above her wrist; the nails on her large toes had grown to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; her head was covered with a thick bush of grey hair; but she was toothless and totally blind, and her eyes had sunk so deeply in the sockets as to have disappeared altogether.”

Despite her allegedly great age, Barnum found her to be quite lively. She would talk for as long as people would listen and sing a variety of hymns. “She was quite garrulous about her protege, 'dear little George,' at whose birth she declared she was present.” Heth claimed that she was a slave, bought by Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington, and had long been a nurse in the Washington family. She claimed to have been present at the time of George’s birth and even clothed the newborn infant. As proof of her extraordinary age, Mr. Lindsay exhibited a bill of sale, dated February 5, 1727, where her age was mentioned as fifty-four.

Adequately convinced, Barnum decided to purchase Joice Heth and negotiated a price of $1,000, down from $3,000 that Mr. Lindsay initially demanded. Barnum sold his interest in the grocery business to his partner, and entered upon his career as a showman. At first he began displaying her first at Niblo’s Garden on Broadway and the show ran for two and half weeks. After this, he began to travel with her throughout New England, where she was displayed in taverns, saloons, boarding houses, inns, lodges, museums, railroad houses, and concert halls. They advertised Heth as “absolutely the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world!” and “the greatest natural & national curiosity in the world.”

Heth played her part as well telling stories of young George and singing hymns she supposedly sang to the first President of the United States when he was a child. Her emaciated physical appearance also helped sell Barnum's deceptions about her extreme old age. The New York Evening Star noted that “she is, we should judge from her look, certainly far over 100, whatever doubts we may have of the bill of sale, which, however, has all the marks of authenticity.” However, the article continued: “She enjoys her food with a gusto, and what is astonishing, hears perfectly. She is nothing but skin and bones; lies constantly in bed, eating or smoking her pipe. The latter shows her smell is as good as her taste. The most remarkable circumstance is that her pulse is full, strong, and perfectly regular, and near 180 in a minute, without the slightest ossification of the artery.”

Heth drew crowds wherever she went. Many came to hear her little stories. Others came to judge the authenticity of her claims.

One gentleman wrote to the New York Sun questioning the morality of displaying a woman like a wild beast: “why SHE who nursed the "father of our country," the man to whom we owe our present happy and prosperous condition, should at the close of her life be exhibited as "our rarer monsters are." Is there not philanthropy enough in the American people to take care of her, although her skin be black? She is the common property of our country -- she is identified with the foundation, rise, and progress of our government -- she is the sole remaining tie of mortality which connects us to him who was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”.

After a few months, public interest on Joice Heth began to wane, and in order to reignite interest Barnum sent an anonymous letter to a Boston newspaper alleging that not only the Joice Heth story was “a humbug,” but that Heth was not even human but was rather an automaton made up of India rubber, whalebone, and a number of springs “ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch according to the will of the operator.” The crowds came flocking back to see the allegation refuted.

Phineas Taylor Barnum.

Barnum exploited the frail elderly woman to the best of his abilities, exhibiting her up to 12 hours a day, six day a week, reportedly earning Barnum and his business partners a princely sum of $1,500 per week.

In the following February Joice Heth died, and Barnum exploited her for one last time. He arranged a public autopsy of Heth to determine whether or not she was a “humbug”, and then sold tickets at 50 cents—a great sum at that time. On February 25, 1836, Dr. David L. Rogers cut open the black woman in front of fifteen hundred spectators and frowned; Heth did not look a day over eighty. The public was duped.

It’s likely that Barnum was unaware that Heth was not 161 years old, and was himself defrauded by a crafty old woman. But pride wouldn’t allow Barnum to acknowledge that he had been befooled. So he insisted that the autopsy victim was another person, and that the real Heth was alive, on a tour to Europe. It was only later that the “Prince of humbugs” admitted that Joice Heth was a hoax.

With the death of Joice Heth, Barnum first enterprise as a showman ended, but it did taught him that if you can get “people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about ‘rare spectacle’” you’ll have found success. Over the next five years, Barnum worked tirelessly as a travelling showman, and by 1841, he founded his greatest adventure yet—the Barnum American Museum, which he used a platform to exhibit a host a live acts and curiosities including albinos, giants, little people, jugglers, magicians, exotic women, a menagerie of animals, as well as more hoaxes.

In his later life, when Barnum became a staunch abolitionist and supporter of the Fourteenth Amendment, he regretted buying and exploiting another human being. In his memoir Struggles and Triumphs, Barnum admits: “The least deserving of all my efforts in the show line was the one which introduced me to the business.”

# Joel Benton, A Unique Story of a Marvellous CareerLife of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum
# Wright, J. R., How the Public Autopsy of a Slave Joice Heth Launched P.T. Barnum’s Career as the Greatest Showman on Earth
# Michael Lueger, The Immortal Life of Joice Heth: How P.T. Barnum Used an Elderly Slave To Launch His Career, Jstor


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