The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Joice Heth

Poster advertising Joice Heth 
At an 1836 meeting in Philadelphia, R W Linsey showed off a performer to a failed newspaper man named Phineas Taylor Barnum.  Barnum needed proof the woman was who Linsey said she was, so Linsey produced a faded bill of sale for a slave.  The documented dated 1727, said Elizabeth Atwood of Virginia paid 33 pounds to her brother in-law Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington for a 54 year old slave named Joice Heth.  At the time, Atwood was neighbors with Augustine Washington and when Augustine's son George Washington was born they in listed their former nurse Joyce Heth to take care of the baby.  Linsey claimed the Joice Heth on the document was his performer, making her 161 years old. Barnum later wrote "This whole account appeared to be satisfactory".

Barnum did need to know how it was possible for a woman to have lived so long with out any one finding out, especially one that was Our First President's baby nurse.  Linsey's tale was that Heth was later purchased by John S Bolling, a Kentukey slave owner.  She lived quietly in one of his out buildings until Bolling's son was doing some research in the Virginia state records.  He found the bill of sale with the name of his slave on it and figured it must be the same Joice Heth.  When he went to confront her, she confirmed it was her.

Barnum inspected her as any common slave buyer would, but he was not looking for strength, ability or work ethic.  He was looking for age, fragility, and intelligence.  Barnum must have known the story was ridiculous.  Even the old looking document wasn't proof of anything.  Documents were commonly made to look older by being soaked in tea or tobacco juice.  Perhaps the obvious flaws in the story, gave Barnum the leverage to negotiate Lindsey down from $3000 to $1000.  Barnum did not hesitate when he got the price he wanted.  He only had $500, but signed a contract under the condition that he would be back in a few day with the rest of Lindsy's money.

P. T. Barnum
Barnum's $1000 paid for the 10 remaining months of a contract 12 month contract to exhibit Joice Heth. At the end of that time all claims to Heth would revert back to Bolling.  This detail allowed Barnum to usually call himself her promoter and not her owner.   He did live off her labors like a slave owner, but her labor was not manual labor or cooking, it was singing and story telling.

If he didn't have any reason to doubt she was 161 years old, as he usually claimed,  Joice Heth was a very risky investment, she could die at any minute.  "The Old One" as Heth was called, was blind, toothless, paralyzed on one side and was her skin was "compared to an Egyptian mummy, a bird of prey, and the shank end of piece of smoked beef."  On Barnum's first sight of her frail body, ads put her weight at just 49lbs, he said her eyes were sunk so far in her head it looked as though they disappeared, the nails on her left hand were 4" long and her toe nails were nearly a quarter inch thick.  She seemed ancient but hadn't lost her power of speech.  She may have been born with a gift of gab and the creativity for story telling, but her time as a slave had taught her how to entertain to whites.

Niblo's Theater in 1887
She was carried in a sedan chair to Niblo's Garden where she began preforming.  Barnum had a wood cut made of her with the words "The greatest curiosity in the world and the most interesting" across the top.  Heth sang old baptist hymns and told stories of  "Little George" including when he chopping down the cherry tree, but in her story it was a peach tree.   She also told of her own life.  She would tell about her baptism in the Potomac and her time as a child growing up a princess in Madagascar.  She quickly became one of the biggest stars in the country.  Her viewers sang along with her, asked questions, and even knelt beside her and stroked her hand.  It was unthinkable for many whites to stroke a black woman's hand, but these hands once held the father of our country.  Barnum had originally scheduled her to be on view 14 hours a day 8:00am-10:00pm, but even though he claimed her health was perfectly good, he reduced it to 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, giving her a day of rest on the sabbath.  The risk paid off.  People paid $.25 a person, $.125 for children.  We will never know exactly how many people came to see her but Barnum claimed they were pulling in $1500 per week.

Her hardy laugh, stories, and songs were packing in sold-out crowds.  Niblo's wanted to keep her on the bill but Barnum had already booked her in other towns.  She traveled for months, hardly ever staying in one town for more then a few days, but even at the age of 161, she never missed a performance.

Eventually Barnum's attention turned to a new act a plate spinner and Barnum became his assistant.  Heth was still traveling from town to town.  In New Haven, Connecticut she became ill, with what the papers were calling a cold.  She was taken to a private black nurse in Boston that Barnum hired for her.

Soon Heth arrived in a horse drawn carriage in front of the boarding house where Barnum was staying.  The driver came to the door and gave him a note that read "Aunt Joyce is no more".  She had died a few days earlier on February 21, 1836 passing peacefully in her bed.  Barnum took her body inside and locked it in a room that only he had the key.  Barnum had already decided her body would be sent to Bethel, New York and interred in the local burial ground, but, he had one last appearance to schedule for her.

He contacted Dr. David L. Rogers, a well known surgeon and a skeptic of Heth's story.  Rogers had mentioned that he wanted to preform an autopsy on the body, believing he could tell scientifically how old the woman was by the calcification of her heart.  Barnum began advertising the spectacle.  Public autopsies were not rare at the time.  Many surgical "theaters" had seating and preformed as a theater. So on Thurs February 25 around 1500 people paid $.50 a piece to watch Heth be cut open.  It was discovered that she had died of tuberculosis and not a cold and when Rogers got to the heart he made another discovery.  He said that after 161 years her heart would be so calcified, he expected to go through many knives, but that was not the case.  He guessed she couldn't have been more then 80 years old.  Barnum claimed to be surprised, she fooled him.  Still exploiting the slave, the newspapers took Barnum's side saying he had believed her on good faith and she was the fabricator.

But Barnum was not done fabricating.  He went to the news papers and let them in on the "real" hoax and it was played on the doctor.  The doctor had been right about the age just not the woman.  That was not Joice Heth.  It was actually "a respectable old Nergas named Aunt Nellie from Harlem" and she had died at about 80. The161 year old Heth was alive and living comfortably in Hebron, Connecticut.

A news paper add for What Is It?
I hope that last part is true.  Barnum made a great career out of exploiting folks.  Around the beginning of the Civil War he did become an abolitionist but still continued exhibiting blacks in his traveling shows, including as late as the 1870's he had a mentally retarded black man that he claimed was the missing link, calling him simply "What Is It?"  It is also an example of the mind set amongst whites at the time.  It was commonly believed that blacks and whites were inherently different.  Blacks were in slavery because they could "handle it".  If they were that different, how hard is it to believe there could be different life spans.
It is also a story of adaptation to survive.  What would be the fate of a half paralyzed, blind, toothless slave.  Heth's creativity, ability to preform, and mental strength, got her a comfortable couch to sit on, adoration, a private doctor, and well fed and clothed at the end of her life.  While this is no life I would ever wish on my enemies, it seems her fate was better then it would have been on a plantation.  While her marketability did have a lot to do with her physical appearance, her songs and stories are really what got her off the plantation where she lacked value.

The facts come from The Sun and The Moon by Matthew Goodman.  It is my interpretation of this story inside his story.  Look forward to a review of that book coming soon.

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