The Lost Museum Archive

Dissection of Joice Heth -- Precious Humbug Exposed, New York Sun, February 26, 1836

Barnum and his partner Levi Lyman exhibited Joice Heth in taverns, inns, museums, railway houses, and concert halls in cities and towns across the northeast for seven months, until she died in February, 1836. Her death, far from ending the profitable exhibition, provided Barnum with the opportunity for his most bold -- and exploitative -- spectacle yet. On February 25, 1836, 1500 people paid fifty cents apiece to watch Dr. David Rogers dissect Heth's corpse and conclude that the elderly woman was, at most, eighty years old.

The anatomical examination of the body of Joice Heth yesterday at the City Saloon, resulted in the exposure of one of the most precious humbugs that ever was imposed upon a credulous community. We were somewhat surprised that a public dissection of this kind should have been proposed, and were half inclined to question the propriety of the scientific curiosity which prompted it. We felt as though the person of poor old Joice Heth, should have been sacred from exposure and mutilation, not so much on account of her extreme old age, and the public curiosity which she had already gratified for the gain of others, as for the high honor with which she was endowed in being the nurse of the immortal Washington. But the motive which prompted the public dissection was as worthy as the result to the public will be beneficial.

Dr. David L. Rogers, of Chambers street, highly eminent in his profession for anatomical knowledge and skill, on visiting Joice Heth, shortly after her arrival in this city, became perfectly convinced that instead of being one hundred and sixty-one years of age, as universally represented and considered, she could not, at the utmost, have exceeded the age of eighty. He found that her pulse almost invariably beat at the rate of 75, instead of considerably more than 100, which would most probably have been their rapidity at the extreme age which she assumed; for in very old age, it is well known the pulse generally return to their speed in infancy. But, in addition to this, the Doctor found none of the concomitants of an age that had witnessed more than a century and a half of winters and summers; her hearing, her voice, her intellect, and all her bodily functions were not more impaired than those of the generality of persons who had lived but half that period. And her long loss of sight, he was confident, had been the effect of a disease to which she may have been liable at even an early period of life. Under this impression, he informed several of his friends that if she died in this city or its neighborhood, he would endeavor to put his opinion to the test of an anatomical examination which he doubted would not undeceive the public mind. That event having occurred, he made arrangements for a public dissection of the body at the City Saloon.

At twelve o'clock, the hour appointed, our curiosity prompted us to attend, and we found a number of medical practitioners and students already in attendance. The body appeared greatly emaciated, but not so more than is commonly the case in persons of sixty or seventy years of age. Previous to making an incision, Dr. Rogers stated that the most invariable anatomical evidence of extreme age was an ossification (or conversion into bone) of certain parts of the body which, in subjects of ordinary longevity, were cartilaginous. It was common to find ossification in the principal arteries; and in the case of a woman whom he had examined when in Italy, who had died at the age of 115 years, he found the heart almost entirely ossified, and also all the mass of cartilage about the sternum and the other bones of the chest. He then proposed to first examine the abdominal visera, which, on developing, he pronounced to have a perfectly natural and healthy appearance. The viscera of the chest was generally healthy also; the liver was of a proper size, and free from disease. On dissecting the heart he found the cardinary [sic] artery not at all ossified, nor were the valves in general; and it was only at the arch of the aorta (we think he said) that even the slightest degree of ossification was presented.

On examining the lungs he found very extensive adhesions to the left side, which he thought had probably been of long continuance, and also many tubercles in the lobe, which he presumed to be the cause of death. On opening the head he found the brain healthy, and the sutures of the skull not only quite distinct, but easily separable with the hand: phenomena, never before observed in very old subjects.

From these evidences and numerous others in the whole pathological anatomy of the body, which our imperfect acquaintance with the science prevents our describing, it seemed to be the unanimous opinion of all the medical gentlemen present, That Joice Heth could not have been more than seventy-five, or, at the utmost, eighty years of age! There is therefore a moral certainty that her pretensions to the extraordinary longevity of 161 years, all her stories about her suckling George Washington, and about her fondness for "young master George," have been taught her, in regular lessons, for the benefit of her exhibitors. We believe, however, that the person who exhibited her in this city are not inculpated in the deception, but that they took her, at a high price, upon the warranty of others. Still it is probable that $10,000 have been made by this, the most precious humbug of modern times.