In the antebellum period, autopsies were an important means of scientific inquiry into the workings of the human body, but many whites objected to the use of the corpses of "respectable" people for such a purpose. Thus, the corpses of paupers, criminals, and African Americans (particularly slaves) were most likely to be used for anatomical study. This item from the New York Sun announces Heth's death and urges a "post-mortem examination," or autopsy, which would quickly prove controversial.
The Commercial Advertiser of last evening contains the following momentous obituary:
Yesterday departed this life, at the great age of One Hundred and Sixty-Two Years, JOICE HETH, stated to have been the Nurse of George Washington.
The Commercial heads this notice "Death of the Oldest Woman in the world;" but we would advise him not to be too positive of this, for there are other old women in the world besides Joice Heth and the editors of the "respectable six-pennies."
The Evening Star inquires, whether, "for the sake of science, would not a post-mortem examination of this aged person be of use?" We can only say that an opportunity for illustrating the effects of such extreme old age upon the human system is not likely to occur again very soon, and that the investigation, conducted by a competent hand, would doubtless form an instructive and valuable record in anatomical science. The old woman's soul, we trust, is quite comfortable in heaven, where, perhaps, distinctions of color are of less consequence than they are here; and if the surgeons, by dissecting her body, can trace the causes of her having been so long getting thither, it might be useful to those who are in more haste. But, independently of this consideration, the examinations of the anatomy of very aged persons, affords one of the most curious and instructive studies in the science. The immediate cause of the old woman's death is said to be a severe cold which she caught about a week ago; but she was treated with the utmost attention and care, and died with perfect tranquility.