A pamphlet advertising the exhibition of Joice Heth
Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum
put on display in 1835, advertising
that she was the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences
with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention.
When the public's interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead was a mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died.
However, even in death Barnum continued to use her to draw crowds. He allowed a public autopsy to be performed on her body for the purpose of verifying her age. Unfortunately for Barnum, the doctor who performed the autopsy declared that she could not have been older than eighty. Barnum struck back by planting a story in the New York Herald
(February 27, 1836) explaining that the body that had been autopsied had not actually been the body of Joice Heth.
The Exhibition of Joice Heth, from the Autobiography of P.T. Barnum
Barnum's collaborator in the scheme, Levi Lyman, later added another chapter to the saga by supplying the Herald
with what he claimed was the real Joice Heth story. This ran in the Herald beginning on September 8, 1836 in a series of six articles. In this article, Lyman claimed that Barnum had discovered the elderly black woman on a plantation and had taught her to pretend she had been George Washington's nurse. But again, this story was also false. The truth was that Barnum had not found Heth on his own. Instead, he had simply bought the rights to exhibit Joice Heth from someone else who was already exhibiting her, and that he had never coached her.
- Reiss, Benjamin. "P.T. Barnum, Joice Heth and Antebellum Spectacles of Race," American Quarterly, Vol.51, No. 1 (March 1999).
- Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman & the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. University of Minnesota Press. 1997.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese