In late 1835 and the first weeks of 1836, Americans in cities and towns across the northeast might have seen this poster advertising the exhibit of Joice Heth, an elderly African-American woman.
The Hoax: The 161-year-old nurse to George Washington
Barnum promoted her as being 161 years old and claimed she had been the nurse of the infant George Washington a century earlier.
Portrayal of Joice Heth and P. T. Barnum from the Potsville Herald, 1835
Died: February 19, 1836
Here in an unmarked grave is the stated final resting place of Joice Heth, an enslaved African woman whose birthplace was reported to be on the isle of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. She was boldly advertised as “the 161 year old nursemaid to George Washington when he was an infant, The Father of Our Country to be.”
Her acquisition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1835 by Phineas Taylor Barnum, then a New York City shop owner, would make her exhibition his first attraction. While some scholars may differ on his ownership or lease of Heth, the legendary showman did refer to himself as her “proprietor.” Although blind and paralyzed, Heth was spirited and engaging with her audiences.
Barnum’s profitable tour of Heth came to an end with her death on February 19, 1836. A public autopsy, staged by Barnum himself, would reveal her estimated age to be no more than half that of her widely advertised longevity. He would also relate in his biography, that “the remains of Joice were removed to Bethel and buried respectably.”
Later repentant of this and as many as three other purchases of slaves, he would become an avowed abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. Although judged a controversial but successful “humbug,” the Heth affair would serve as the foundation of a show business career which would lead Barnum to “The Greatest Show On Earth,”circusdoms most celebrated enterprise.