The Lost Museum Archive

Another Hoax, New York Herald; New York Evening Star; and New York Sun, February 27, 1836

Joice Heth was a popular subject for the many newspapers of the brash working-class "penny press" throughout her seven-month exhibit, and controversies surrounding her death provided a windfall of stories for rival papers. Two days after Heth's public autopsy, the New York Herald published the first item, a report claiming that the woman who had been autopsied was not Joice Heth at all. (The Herald relished comparing this latest deception to the "lunar hoax" perpetrated by its competitor the New York Sun six months earlier, when the Sun published reports -- penned by Edgar Allen Poe using the pseudonym R.A. Locke -- of discoveries of bat-men and quartz mountains on the moon that it later admitted were false.) On the same day, February 27th, the Sun reported a different "humbug," that Barnum had admitted to them that Heth was not as old as he had claimed, but that he planned to continue the deception for gullible paying audiences abroad. A third paper, the New York Evening Star held fast to the original claim of Heth's age, citing her physical characteristics as evidence.

Annexed is a long rigmarole account of the "Dissection of Joice Heth," extracted from yesterday's Sun, which is nothing more or less than a complete hoax from beginning to end. Joice Heth is not dead. On Wednesday last, as we learn from the best authority, she was living at Hebron, in Connecticut, where she then was. The subject on which Doctor Rogers and the Medical Faculty of Barclay street have been exercising their knife and their ingenuity, is the remains of a respectable old negress called AUNT NELLY, who has lived many years in a small house, in Harleam [sic], belonging to Mr. Clarke. She is, as Dr. Rogers sagely discovers, and Dr. Locke his colleage [sic] accurately records, only eighty years of age. Aunt Nelly before death, complained of old age and infirmity. She was otherwise in good spirits. The recent winter, however, has been very severe, and so she gave up the ghost a few days ago.

Some person in this city, we believe one of the advertising doctors who had been hoaxed by the Lunar Discoveries, in the manufacture of which it is now believed that Dr. Rogers had a principle hand along with Sir Richard A. Locke, resolved, as soon as he heard of the death of poor Aunt Nelly, to send her body into the city, and contrive to pass her off upon the Medical Faculty for the veritable Joice Heth. The trick took. Several of the hoaxed went, looked, wondered, and held up their hands in astonishment. -- Her death was announced in the Sun, and a post mortem examination prepared. The public swallowed the pill. Aunt Nelly, neglected, unknown, unpitied when alive, became an object of deep science and deeper investigation when she died. She looked old and ugly as Joice herself, and in that respect answered the thing exactly.

Such is the true version of the hoax, as given us by good authority, of the story told in the following piece of humbug, taken from yesterday's Sun.

Thus far the Joice Heth hoax, for the verity of which we have names and certificates in our possession. But before we conclude, we must now put a few plain questions to Dr. Rogers, who figures so conspicuously in the above report. Are you not, Sir, the real author of the Lunar Hoax? Did you not furnish Richard A. Locke with the most of that humbug? Did he not, at your request, undertake to pass for the author of the world? Is it not known to you that he is incapable of writing the scientific portion of that hoax? If Dr. Rogers will deny explicitly, under his own signature, what is conveyed in these queries, through the columns of the Sun, we shall then stir our stumps and see if we can't produce certificates of their truth.

New York Evening Star February 27, 1836:

An Important Discovery. -- It is pretended by an anatomical examination of Joice Heth that she was only about seventy years of age. Nonsense. Her eyes had run out by extreme old age, like those of the aged Arabs of the desert spoken of by Riley. She had claws like an eagle -- long, incurvated, and indurated, and, placing aside all documentary evidence, having proofs that she had been blind for thirty years, there is sufficient evidence that she was at, or nearly at, the age ascribed to her when she died. No post mortem examination on a subject over seventy can indicate the age or near it.

New York Sun February 27, 1836:

Joice Heth. -- The exhibitor of this old negress, admitted their conviction that she was not "the oldest woman in the world," at our office yesterday morning, and took our exposure of the humbug with perfect good humor. We have heard it hinted that they mean to have the body embalmed dry like a mummy, and send it to England with an old male negro who is to rejoice in the name of Joice's husband, and to swear he in 180 years old, with the proper certificates, letters of Gen. Washington &c. to corroborate his story. This will do; Johnny Bull, and all his calves will swallow it with as much avidity as his brother Jonathan; and if the shrewd Yankee proprietors will only take with them a few phials containing a part of the darkness which covered the land of Egypt, they might successfully travel through all the continent of Europe.