|Poster advertising Joice Heth|
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|
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|
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?|
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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