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What is the Joice Heth Exhibit?

Phineas Taylor Barnum was considered one of the most remarkable entrepreneurs and entertainers of the 19th century. He was both ingenious and excellent in marketing tactics. But did you know that his very first exhibit exploited an enslaved person until after her death?

Joice Heth was an elderly, enslaved African American woman. She was the first exhibit of circus magnate P.T. Barnum in 1835, claiming she was 161 years old and George Washington’s nanny.

The Joice Heth Exhibit

In August 1835, P.T. Barnum was just starting his career as a circus owner and showman in the US. He paid promoter R.W. Lindsay a large sum of money amounting to $1,000 for the rights to the story of a certain individual named Joice Heth. (Source: Mount Vernon)

According to Lindsay, Heth was an enslaved person who was once owned by George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington. By 1727, she was sold to Washington’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Atwood. Lindsay’s story that at the time of the purchase, Heth was already 54 years old. And when George Washington was born, Heth was returned to the family to serve as a nursemaid for the baby Washington.

Many promoters have used this story to exhibit Heth but were met with meager success. When Barnum got the rights, he brought the old lady to New York. He and his partner, Levi Lyman, exhibited her in taverns, inns, museums, railway houses, and concert halls. Barnum advertised Heth as 161 years old and had been a nursemaid to the young George Washington, calling her The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World.

Barnum exploited the older adult from August 1835 until her death in February 1836. Heth, at the time, was completely blind and almost paralyzed. Barnum’s exhibit attracted many people who wanted to touch Heth’s hands. It was the hands that cared for George Washington. Heth was also known to tell stories about young Washington during these exhibits.

As the months passed, tickets sales were declining. To boost ticket sales of Heth’s exhibit, Barnum wrote an anonymous letter to a Boston newspaper claiming that Heth was not a real person. Barnum claims that Heth was a machine made up of whale bones and old leather. This led to the rise of ticket sales to Heth’s exhibit once more. (Source: Lost Museum)

The Death and Autopsy of Joice Heth

Heth’s health declined rapidly due to all the exhibits Barnum scheduled. She died in February 1836. But Heth’s death did not stop the showman from making money off her. Barnum organized a public autopsy of Joice Heth on February 25, 1836. (Source: Mount Vernon)

Dr. David Rogers conducted the autopsy and determined Heth’s actual age. Barnum charged almost 1,500 viewers 50 cents each to watch the doctor dissect Heth.

Upon completion of the procedure, Rogers declared Heth’s age to be between 75 to 80, far from what Barnum claimed her age was. Upon the discovery, Barnum claimed that he was cheated by the previous promoter into believing Heth’s age, as was published in the New York Sun.

Barnum’s manipulation of the crowds didn’t stop at that. He understood how to manipulate newspapers and further understood how to use the newspapers’ rivalry to work for him. Despite the New York Sun publication that Barnum wasn’t aware of Heth’s actual age, the newspaper’s rival, the New York Herald, published a different story.

On the same day the Sun published the story, February 27, 1836, the Herald published a headline claiming that the woman Rogers autopsied wasn’t Heth at all. Though unclear of the source of this claim, these headlines helped promote Barnum. (Source: Lost Museum)

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