In the 1800s, he rose from humble origins as a poor rural child to become a great showman. P.T. Barnum, or Phineas Taylor Barnum, was a showman who specialized in presenting unusual attractions to audiences that were looking for something different. According to Smithsonian Magazine, his legacy in the freak show business stretched from the American Museum to his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome (the predecessor of the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” circus) near the conclusion of his life.
He became wealthy as a result of his “shrewd marketing” and “shady commercial tactics.” He was also dubbed the “greatest showman” in a musical about his life. His true narrative, on the other hand, was far from ideal. Barnum’s rise to popularity began with the exploitation of an enslaved lady as a form of public entertainment.
Barnum had worked as a lottery manager, a retailer, and a newspaper editor at the time. He was keen to make money while living in New York City and working at a boarding house and a grocery store. That’s when he got a letter from R.W. Lindsay, a Kentucky showman, about an elderly enslaved Black woman named Joice Heth.
Barnum was intrigued and paid a visit to the showman to see Heth for himself. This occurred in August of 1835.
Barnum described witnessing the woman unable to move from the lounge chair in which Lindsay had placed her in his first autobiography, published in 1855. Her eyes were so profoundly sunken in their sockets that the eyeballs looked to have vanished altogether, and she was completely blind. She didn’t have any teeth, but she had thick, bushy gray hair. Her left hand’s fingers were drawn down almost to the point of closure, and they remained fixed and immovable.” Despite her appearance, Barnum remembered her to be friendly and talkative.
According to Barnum, he paid Lindsay $1,000 for the rights to the Heth story. Lindsay told Barnum that Heth was an enslaved lady owned by Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington, who was sold to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Atwood, in 1727 when she was 54 years old. Heth returned to the Washington family after the birth of George Washington in 1732 to serve as the infant’s nurse.
From August 1835 to February 1836, Barnum marched the blind and nearly crippled Heth across New England, presenting her as a 161-year-old lady who was “the Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World,” according to one report.
Heth made her New York City debut at Niblo’s Garden before performing to packed houses “at bars, inns, museums, railway houses, and music halls,” according to Emory professor Benjamin Reiss. Heth would frequently relate her life story, including that of the first president when he was a small child while fielding questions from large crowds and singing a few hymns. After then, the audience would try to touch the hands that were holding newborn George Washington. Barnum even stoked public curiosity by propagating the allegation that Heth was a ventriloquist-controlled automaton.
“He made his money by transporting Joice, a paralyzed, crippled woman who had her teeth out, around North America. PT Barnum, the so-called “Greatest Showman,” built his career on this “success,” according to British novelist Elizabeth Macneal.
Heth died in February 1836, after 7 months on Barnum’s exhibition circuit. According to sources, she had become frail as a result of the arduous schedule of being on exhibit. But Barnum’s exploitation of the enslaved lady he had “leased” to get around anti-slavery legislation in America’s northern states did not end there. Following her death, Barnum scheduled a public autopsy with Dr. David Rogers. The cost of watching the doctor dissect the woman was 50 cents for about 1500 people. Heth’s true nature was revealed. Dr. Rogers estimated Heth’s age to be between 75 and 80.
Barnum, who found other acts to tour before opening the American Museum in New York in December 1841, claimed he had been duped into believing Heth’s narrative. It is known that later in life when he became an outspoken abolitionist and defender of the Fourteenth Amendment, he was humiliated by the fact that he had bought a human being from another.
May V. Thompson, a research historian, wrote about Heth as follows:
“Just three years after the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and nine years after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Joice Heth burst onto the scene. At a period when sectional tensions were growing leading up to the Civil War, Americans felt the Revolutionary War generation fading away. They were yearning to cling to that older, ‘purer’ era, and were willing to suspend disbelief in order to believe that an elderly African American woman could be over 150 years old and the former nursemaid of an infant George Washington.”
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