CIRCUS AFRICANUS: JOICE HETH

“The Negro “with us” is not an actual physical being of flesh and bones and blood, but a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying, so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple, and to blot out shame and probity, and the eternal sympathies of nature, so far as these things have presence in the breasts or being of American republicans! No sir! It is a constructive Negro—a John Roe and Richard Doe Negro, that haunts with grim presence the precincts of this republic, shaking his gory locks over legislative halls and family prayers.”

-James McCune Smith, M.D.

 

She was presented to the American public as a medical and historical anomaly. She first came to eyes of the world via the circus of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who had her in his traveling show as one of his curiosities.

Joice Heth (the spelling varies, from Joice Heith, to Joyce Heath), was exhibited in the circus of Barnum during the 1830s. In 1835, the 25-year-old Barnum, who  was just barely making a living in a New York dry-goods store, purchased Joice Heth from R.W. Lindsay.

Joice’s actual origins are unknown,  but, after Barnum purchased her from Lindsay (a promoter who had been unable to capitalize on Joice’s fabricated identity he had created of her as the superannuated mammy of former President George Washington) Barnum’s career as a showman took off like a rocket. The Pennsylvania Inquirer, advertised Joice as “one of the greatest natural curiosities ever witnessed. . . .JOYCE HEITH, a negress aged 161 years, who formerly belonged to the father of Gen. George Washington” and was about to appear at the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia, while still owned by Lindsay. After reading this article, Barnum immediately rushed off to see the blind, paralyzed, toothless, and infirmed Joice Heth, who claimed to have raised Washington. (1)

After getting the amount of $1,000 to buy Joice, Barnum purchased her and planned to exhibit her at Niblo’s Garden, an open-air saloon, in New York City. As he later recalled, “I saw everything depended on getting people to think and talk and to become curious and excited.” Joice Heth was, as Barnum exclaimed in newspaper advertisements, “unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world.” The Evening Star, a popular New York newspaper, compared her appearance to that of an “Egyptian mummy just escaped from its sarcophagus,” and as seen from the weekly cash flow receipts of $1,500 from tickets purchased to see Joice, she proved to be a sensation and Barnum soon displayed her in cities across the northeast, including Boston’s Concert Hall.

Joice Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention.

Image of the exhibition of Joice Heth comes from Barnum’s 1855 autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum Written by Himself. In the book, it illustrates a passage describing how a Boston woman closely examined Heth to determine if she was a machine or a human. Heth, in the background, looks far less grotesque than she did in the poster which Barnum used to advertise her in 1835.

Heth debuted on August 10, 1835, at Niblo’s Garden in New York and was a huge success as Barnum barked the tale of the Greatest Natural Curiosity in the World”, the Black woman who had held the Father of Our Country, her dear “Little George,” to her breast, had given him suck and who had taught him Negro spirituals.” (2)

Poster advertising Joice Heth's apearance at Barnum's Hotel, Bridgeport.  Large titles read "The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World."  Heth is depicted as a brown, shriveled woman in a bonnet with long, bony limbs and a prune-like face.
Somers Historical Society

“JOICE HETH is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World! She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father of Gen. Washington,) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of his Country, ‘she raised him.’ JOICE HETH was born on the island of Madgascar in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing AGE OF 161 YEARS!!!

The appearance of this modern relic of antiquity strikes the beholder with amazement and convinces him that his eyes are resting upon the oldest specimen of mortality they ever before held.”

( December 1835)

The claim that Heth had been Washington’s nurse entailed an even more incredible assertion:  Barnum swore that she was 161 years old–and many people believed him.

Because of the condition of Heth’s body–extremely emaciated to be almost skeletal (Barnum claimed Heth weighed only forty-six pounds), both legs and one arm were paralyzed, her aged skin was leathery and wrinkled,  her teeth all gone, and her long, uncut toenails (“curved like talons”)–helped to deflect the disbelievers.

Upon seeing her, medical people and lay persons alike, were possessed with a desire touch her. Their descriptions identified her both with death and Africa:

“Indeed she is a mere skeleton covered with skin and her whole appearance very much resembles a mummy of the days of the Pharoahs [sic], taken entire from tombs of the catacombs of Egypt,” wrote one anonymous eyewitness. (2)

Many newspapers got into the act in reporting about Heth. Many discussed her claim to longevity, others mused on its medical significance.

But, many viewers still refused to believe that she was 161 years of age.

When the public’s interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead was a mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died.

Even in death, Joice Heth was spared none of the indignities that so often occurred with the bodies of deceased Black people.

Even in death, she was to suffer the same horror of callous disregard that so many Black people before and after her, have had to endure.

Because many viewers refused to believe that Heth was 161 years old, Barnum announced that upon her death, she would be publicly autopsied by a physician to determine whether she was a hoax. Barnum knew she was a hoax because she was his hoax. (2)

Even in death, Joice Heth guaranteed Barnum’s fame, as well as his fortune, when on February 25, 1836, he commissioned New York City surgeon David L. Rogers to dissect her remains publicly–a spectacle for which he sold fifty-cent  tickets. That day, before hundreds of spectators crowded New York City’s Saloon, where the saloon’s exhibition center had been converted into an operating room for Joice’s public dissection, Joice Heth’s remains were cut up to satisfy the crowd that had paid to see the monstrosity that had been on display.

After the autopsy, Rogers declared Heth a fraud, because in spite of her obvious physical frailties and disabilities, her relatively clear cardiac arteries proved that she could have been no more than eighty years old. (2)

Barnum reacted with even more hoaxes.

He visited New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett claiming that the autopsy had been performed not upon Joice Heth, but upon an aged Black Harlemite named Aunt Nelly. Barnum assured the Herald that Heth was still alive and was about to embark on a European tour. The Herald took the bait, another paper, the New York Sun did not, and the race was on in the city’s newspapers debating the results and meanings of the autopsy:  accusing one another of falsifying accounts, misinterpreting the autopsy’s evidence, and of having been duped by Barnum.

Barnum finally admitted that Heth was dead, but the journalist war took eighteen months to end, and in the meantime Barnum suckered another paper into publishing one of several divergent “histories” of Heth that he had fabricated. One such story is that he compelled Heth to masquerade as Washington’s old nurse:

“I soon got Joyce [sic] into training, and from a devil of a termagant, converted into a most docile creature, as willing to do my bidding as the slave of the lamp was to obey Aladdin. I soon discovered her weak point. . . .WHISKEY. Her old master of course, would indulge an old bed-ridden creature no such luxury, and for a drop of it, I found I could mould her to anything.” (2)

Joice Heth is little known to many people.

Joice Heth became like so many Black people put on display as if they were freaks, curiosities, exotica of nature:  Sarah Bartman, Ota Benga, and so many others.

It was not enough to consider her as some form of alien un-human aberration of God’s creation. In the end, it was necessary to confirm that she was not just a quasi-scientific oddity, not just a form of medical display and entertainment.

In the end Joice Heth was treated as an example of the argument for the alien inferiority of black bodies, with no right to compassion, understanding or empathy.

 

REFERENCES AND RELATED LINKS:

 

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