The Lost Museum Archive

"Barnaby Diddleum" on Joice Heth, New York Atlas, 1841

In 1841, the New York Atlas newspaper published a series of articles titled “The Adventures of an Adventurer.” Authored by Barnum, who used the thinly veiled pseudonym “Barnaby Diddleum,” the “Adventures” describe the showman’s 1835 exhibition tour of Joice Heth, an elderly slave that he presented as the 160 year old former nursemaid of George Washington (she was neither). The “Adventures” are a complicated source of historical evidence—far more candid on the subject of Heth than Barnum’s later autobiographies, the articles contain invented episodes alongside other incidents that are verifiably true. Yet the overall narrative, and what scholar Benjamin Reiss describes as its “casual, sadistic machismo,” offers a convincing picture of a disturbing episode from Barnum’s earliest career as a showman. In this excerpt, “Barnaby Diddleum” gleefully describes how he used outright deception to sooth the moral qualms of abolitionist ministers in Providence.

I embarked on board of a steamboat, and in due time was in Providence. It is a great manufacturing place. Cotton factories are there in their glory, and a great number of pretty girls, God bless them, and all men love them, are to be found there. The girls in all manufacturing towns are fine creatures for exhibitions. Their sedentary lives, and their many privations, render anything in the shape of amusement a glory to them, and the satisfaction they receive upon all and every occasion, especially when they are escorted by their beaux, and what pretty girl is without them, renders their company as profitable to the exhibition, as it is pleasant to themselves.

The papers came out in grand style on my behalf. There is no half way business in such places as there is in New York They go the whole figure, and d---n the odds. Take for example:--

"To say we were astonished would be but a feeble expression of our feelings. We look on this extraordinary specimen of humanity, with something bordering on awe and veneration, and when we heard her converse on subject or circumstance which must have occurred more than a century, since, and especially those connected with the birth -- the infancy, and childhood of the immortal Washington -- the mind was carried away by an intensity of interest, which no other object of curiosity has ever created in our breast. Before having seen this woman, a person may be inclined to be incredulous as to the story of her very great age. He may think of demanding documentary evidence in proof. But the first glance at the original before him will banish all scepticism on the subject, and on examination, he will find evidence estamped upon it by the hand of nature, too plain and forcible to require corroboration. -- Providence Herald

This was, as the old song says, "A sample of all the rest." I was doing a good business here when suddenly I found a difficulty which I had not forseen, and which threatened to turn all my milk sour. In my pamphlet of the life of the illustrious Joyce, I had never stated that she had been a slave, and that her family were slaves. This was a great point for the priests. They had not had an original subject for a long time. They preached most fervently against the abomination of citizens giving their money to a creature whose family were slaves. My attendance fell off. The priest-ridden people, under the anathemas of the clergy, came no more. Curiosity itself was damped. The pastors triumphed, but they little knew Barnaby Diddleum, the King of Humbugs. I smiled complacently as I said to myself, "Well, I know how fix 'em." I resolved to turn the tables upon them, and I did it. I told one and all, that though it was true the family of Joyce were in bondage -- yea, verily in slavish bondage such as the Israelites suffered under the slavery of the Egyptians -- yet the object of the exhibition was to enfranchise them -- that all the money collected by the exhibition of Joyce, went to this glorious purpose. A sudden revolution followed. The ministers repented then in sackcloth and ashes. More fervently than they had preached against the exhibition they now preached in favor of it. They exhorted their congregations to go -- to contribute their mites (?) in behalf of the glorious cause, and how many quarts of oil they promised them for the single drop, which they gave now, is more than I can say. Enough to say, a reaction took place. My exhibition room was crowded. Emancipation and blarney carried all before them, and I pocketed the rhino. "Vive la humbug!".

Source: “The Adventures of an Adventurer, Being Some Passages in the Life of Barnaby Diddleum,” New York Atlas, 1841