Joice Heth Title

Barnum's advertisement for Joice Heth
By 1835, P. T. Barnum was making a modest living as the owner of a grocery store on 156th South Street. In July of that year, however, Barnum would make the acquaintance of a Mr. Coley Bartram who would provide Barnum with a foray into the lucrative world of showmanship. Bartram informed Barnum of a spectacular "exhibit" that he had just sold to Mr. R. W. Lindsay. The "exhibit" was an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth. She was supposedly 161 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington.

Barnum was intrigued by monetary possibility that Joice Heth might offer. He visited Ms. Heth and found her to be quite lively: "She sang a variety of hymns, and was very garrulous when speaking of her protégé "dear little George," as she termed the great father of our country"1.

Ever the astute businessman, Barnum negotiated with Mr. Lindsay to purchase Joice Heth. Lindsay's asking price was $3,000, yet Barnum talked him down to $1,000. With his keen sense of advertising and marketing, Barnum quickly set to work advertising his newest money-making venture. He created flyers for his "exhibit" that claimed, "Joice Heth is absolutely the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in this world!"

Joice Heth on exhibit in Boston's Concert Hall, 1835.
Barnum quickly began to exhibit Joice Heth in Mr. Niblo's dwelling house, and he soon began to travel with her throughout New England. When public interest in his exhibit began to wane, Barnum wrote anonymous letters to local newspapers claiming that Joice Heth was in fact a "humbug" in order to reignite a steady stream of paying patrons. One of his letters argued, "Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman, is simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numbers springs that ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch according to the will of the operator."

On February 19, 1836 Joice Heth passed away. Barnum agreed to an autopsy on her body in order to determine whether or not she was in fact a "humbug." The surgeon revealed to Barnum, "there was surely some mistake in regard to the alleged age of Joice; that instead of being 161 years old, she was probably not over eighty"2. Barnum, who would soon be known as the "Prince of Humbugs" had been humbugged on his first venture into the world of entertainment.

Barnum Quotation

Despite the fact that Barnum had been duped, the Joice Heth experience provided him with the impetus to remain in the world of show business. Barnum had learned that, "everything depended upon getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about "rare spectacle"3. Beginning in April, 1836 Barnum began to work as a ticket-seller, secretary, and treasurer for Aaron Turner's travelling circus. Over the next five years, Barnum grew tired working as a travelling showman, and by the spring of 1841 he was on the verge of beginning his greatest adventure yet: The American Museum.

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