Slavery and the Beginnings of the Greatest Show on EarthPosted on December 10, 2015.
In February 1835, Phineas T. Barnum launched his career as a showman by purchasing a female slave, Joice Heth, from R.W. Lindsay, a Kentucky promoter then working out of Philadelphia. Heth was old, thin, totally blind and partially paralyzed, and had been exhibited by Lindsay in Louisville, Kentucky, as a former nurse to George Washington when the first president was a baby. P.T. Barnum bought her as a slave for $1,000, half of which he had to borrow.
On August 10, 1835, Barnum and his partner, Levi Lyman, exhibited Heth at Niblo’s Garden, one of New York City’s largest theatres, where six months earlier he had applied for a job as a bartender and been turned down. Claiming Heth was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse, Barnum went on to exhibit her in cities throughout New England, in taverns, concert halls, inns, museums, even in railway houses, for the next seven months. Audiences would ask her questions about Washington, and she would recount anecdotes about what “dear little Georgie” said and did as a child, including chopping down a cherry tree and refusing to lie about it. She would also sing hymns and talk about her religious beliefs. Barnum made $1,500 a week exhibiting her.
Newspapers questioned Heth’s veracity. No one, they said, could live to be 161 years old. When attendance began to fall off, a Boston newspaper even claimed that Heth was not a human being at all, but an automaton – a story no doubt fed to the paper by Barnum himself. People who had already seen the Heth exhibit flocked back to see her again.
In February 1836, after an exhausting seven-month tour in which she was exhibited six days a week for up to 12 hours a day, Heth died. Barnum rented New York’s City Saloon and charged fifty cents to watch Dr. David Rogers perform an autopsy on her. Fifteen hundred people filled the theatre as Rogers dissected Heth’s corpse. She weighed 46 pounds.
After the operation, Rogers declared that Joice Heth had been no more than 80 years old, which meant she had been born around 1755. Since Washington was born in 1732, she could not have been his childhood nurse. This disclosure did nothing to tarnish P.T. Barnum’s career. He went on to acquire other “freaks of nature,” including a bearded lady, the world’s fattest woman, the “Fejee Mermaid,” the “Human Skeleton” and, shortly after Joice Heth’s death, Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins.”