Barnum advertised Joice Heth as the "Greatest natural and national curiosity" of the day, emphasizing the two elements of her popular appeal: her exceptional age and her close connection to the revered George Washington. These newspaper items illustrate these two aspects of how the public understood Heth. The first item, from the New York Evening Star, describes in spirited detail her physical attributes and signs of her extraordinary age. The second item is a letter written to the New York Sun protesting the display of Heth for commercial profit precisely because she was the last living link to Washington.
New York Evening Star, August 22, 1835:
Joice Heth, "the old un," who was once Gen. Washington's nurse, and is now exhibiting at Niblo's, is no humbug. She is, we should judge from her look, certainly far over 100, whatever doubts we may have of the bill of sale, which, however, has all the marks of authenticity. Her eyes are entirely run out and closed; the bails of this useful organ, from its constant activity, wearing out soonest. Capt. Riley, of the desert, says he saw many such old persons, in travelling, who were hung by the Arabs under the camels in baskets -- Her nails are near an inch long, and on the great toes horny and thick like bone and incurvated, looking like the claws of a bird of prey. One long tusk is seen in her mouth. She enjoys her food with a gusto, and what is astonishing, hears perfectly. She is nothing but skin and bones; lies constantly in bed, eating or smoking her pipe. The latter shows her smell is as good as her taste. The most remarkable circumstance is that her pulse is full, strong, and perfectly regular, and near 180 in a minute, without the slightest ossification of the artery.
New York Sun, August 20, 1835:
TO THE EDITORS OF THE SUN. --
Allow me to occupy a brief space in your columns, in reference to that relic of gone by days, the old colored woman, JOICE HETH. It is the prevalent opinion that she is the original Joice Heth who was the nurse of Gen. George Washington; and my reasons for troubling you with this communication, is to ascertain why SHE who nursed the "father of our country," the man to whom we owe our present happy and prosperous condition, should at the close of her life be exhibited as "our rarer monsters are." Is there not philanthropy enough in the American people to take care of her, although her skin be black? She is the common property of our country -- she is identified with the foundation, rise, and progress of our government -- she is the sole remaining tie of mortality which connects us to him who was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" -- and as such, we should protect and honor her, and not suffer her to be kept for a show, like a wild beast, to fill the coffers of mercenary men.