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Joice Heth in Antebellum Period

Joice Heth (c. 1754-1836) was a slave purchased for $1000 and exhibited in 1835 by showman P.T. Barnum. Claiming that she was 161 years old and once the nurse of George Washington, Barnum took her from New York across the North, charging admission to see her and promoting her as a national treasure and a natural wonder.

Whenever public interest in Heth seemed on the wane, Barnum himself would write pseudonymous letters to the local New England papers and charge that Heth was a fraud, or "humbug," which would prompt local residents to go and see her for themselves. When Heth died in 1836, Barnum agreed to a public autopsy on her body that attracted some 1,500 observers. The surgeon announced that she was probably not older than 80 when she died, but Barnum profited nonetheless from all of the notoriety. Historians have since speculated on Heth's true background. Historian Benjamin Reiss suggests that Joice Heth herself may have made up the idea that she nursed Washington, as her original owner enjoyed tall tales and often spoke of entertaining the Founding Fathers in his home. Heth may have developed a routine to amuse both whites and blacks in which she satirized her owner's (and white people's) pretensions.

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