In 1835, audiences in New England flocked to theatres, taverns, and concert halls to marvel at ‘the Greatest Natural National Curiosity’ in the world. Among throngs of spectators, all paying handsomely to witness such a wonder, sat a 161-year-old enslaved African American woman. This was Joice Heth, the childhood nanny of George Washington.
So that sounds a little far-fetched. If someone had really lived to be 161, you would have already heard of them. Yes, there’s more to Heth’s story than what her audiences were led to believe, and it’s, unfortunately, a tale of exploitation and racism at the hands of one of the biggest movie sensations of the last decade. If you’ve seen the smash-hit movie-musical The Greatest Showman, you might think you’re familiar with the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, but what you’ve seen on the silver screen is not the whole truth. In reality, Barnum’s rags-to-riches success was carried on the back of an elderly enslaved woman, who he cruelly exploited in life and death.
Joice Heth and the businessman
When Joice Heth first met P.T. Barnum, she was enslaved in Kentucky by a man called R.W. Lindsay. At this time, she was already being marketed as George Washington’s childhood nurse. Lindsay had produced several false documents, including a ‘Bill of Slave’ from 1727, which he claimed proved that the first president’s father, Augustine Washington, had bought a 44-year-old slave woman named Joice Heth. Lindsay showed this document to Barnum in 1835 when the two men met in Pennsylvania, and Barnum agreed to lease Heth for a year for the price of 1000 dollars.
Before this, Barnum was a humble grocery store owner with a number of failed business ventures under his belt. When he met Heth, who was already being exploited for profit, Barnum saw her as his next business opportunity. A charismatic salesman with an eye for publicity, he saw gold in Heth’s frail appearance, blindness, and near-complete paralysis, facts that he would go on to use as evidence for her being over 160 years old. Still, this wasn’t enough for him to sell his desired image. Though in her previous performances with Lindsay, he claimed that Heth’s longevity was down to a diet of meat and animal products, which she ate with a ravenous appetite, Barnum sacrificed this detail for further physical drama and had Heth’s teeth extracted to give her an even more aged appearance.
The greatest natural national curiosity
Heth’s tour with Barnum began in August at Niblo’s Garden in New York. Barnum advertised the spectacle with flyers, posters, and a 12-page pamphlet entitled ‘The Life of Joice Heth’ (which was most likely written by his assistant Levi Lyman). The pamphlet claimed that she had been born in Madagascar in 1674 and brought to America as a slave at the age of 15. The pamphlet went on to claim that she was bought by Augustine Washington just five years before young George Washington was born. Burnam presented life with the Washington family as idyllic, all-American bliss. Heth supposedly converted to Christianity and was baptized in the Potomac River while working for them and was treated as ‘more of a hired servant than a slave.’
Spectators flocked to the shows, keen to glimpse a living connection to the infant George Washington. Six days a week and for 10 to 12 hours a day, Heth told stories of her ‘dear little George’ and sang 18th-century hymns, which she claimed to have sung for the child. By some estimates, Barnum made over 1500 dollars each week while touring with Heth, which would amount to weekly profits of just under 60 thousand dollars in 2023.
Playing the press
Despite the eye-watering profits and throngs of curious spectators that Joice Heth drew, not everyone believed that this elderly African-American woman had been the nurse of George Washington. Heth’s shows were frequently discussed and dissected in the press. Experts and laypeople alike wrote to newspapers with evidence that she was a fraud, a conwoman, or even an automaton made of rubber, strings, and whalebone.
Ever the showman, Barnum used this controversy to his advantage. He fueled speculation by adopting pseudonyms and writing letters to competing newspapers, offering fraudulent evidence one minute and damning conspiracy pieces the next. Under his own name, he wrote more leaflets, pamphlets, and publications which claimed to tell the true story of Joice Heth’s life. He even had the bill of sale that he claimed convinced him of her story published for all to see. Each article he wrote proposed even wilder stories than the last, and acted as advertising to draw in further crowds.
In early 1836, Barnum’s empire of lies began to crash down. A respected New York City doctor had published an article slamming the businessman’s claims and arguing that it was impossible for Heth to be over 160 years old. At this, Barnum decided to go nuclear. He announced that Joice Heth would be publicly autopsied when she died to prove once and for all that she was the real thing.
The public autopsy
Joice Heth died of tuberculosis in February 1836, seven months after the traveling exhibit had begun. True to his word, Barnum arranged for Heth to be autopsied at New York’s City Saloon in front of 1500 spectators.
Public autopsies were not uncommon in the early 19th century. Since the taboo around dissecting human bodies had eased, medical science was advancing at breakneck speed. This was, however, not an egalitarian process. Public morality still deemed it unacceptable for ‘respectable’ people to be autopsied, meaning that public demonstrations were usually done on criminals or enslaved people. African Americans were the most likely to be subjected to such treatment as their enslavers would sell their bodies to researchers to make one last profit from them.
What was unusual, however, was a public dissection on such a massive scale. Though open to anyone, most autopsies were only attended by a handful of doctors, medical students, or researchers. The idea of over a thousand members of the public packing into a theatre to watch a post-mortem was unthinkable.
Doctor David Rogers, a well-known surgeon in New York, carried out Joice Heth’s autopsy. As per procedure, he examined every organ, narrating his actions and findings to an audience on tenterhooks. Dispelling any myths that she was an automaton or puppet, he pronounced her body completely normal and natural. When he arrived at Heth’s heart, he made the crucial judgment that the audience had been waiting for. There was no way that she was 161 years old. In fact, Rogers doubted she was little more than 80.
The autopsy was, of course, followed by a veritable feeding frenzy in the press. Barnum sold numerous stories to different newspapers, some claiming that he had replaced the corpse himself and that Heth was touring in Europe. Others stated that the doctor had brought in a different body at the last minute to discredit Barnum. The truth finally came out in 1869, when Barnum admitted that it had indeed been Heth’s body on the autopsy table, though he claimed to have been fully taken in by her stories, and had really believed that she had been over 100 years old.
The greatest conman
It had all been a hoax, but Joice Heth had, against her will, springboarded Barnum into the limelight. He would go on to enjoy a successful (though often controversial) career promoting hoaxes and freakshows with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, leaving behind him a trail of exploitation and tragedy.
Despite her significance to his early career, Barnum rarely spoke about Heth after she died. He buried her in his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut, and announced that the profits from her shows would be used to free her grandchildren from slavery, though this was almost certainly a lie. She was mentioned briefly in his 1869 memoir, Struggles and Triumphs, though here he presented himself as the victim of a clever conwoman.
Unfortunately, we know very little about Heth’s actual life. All of the details were obscured by Barnum and the other men who exploited her for profit. Hopefully, if Hollywood ever decides to make another biopic about P.T. Barnum, the next one will show the real story of how his career got started instead of giving him one of the least-deserved character redemptions in cinema history.