The Lost Museum Archive

Letter to the Editor, New York Transcript, March 1, 1836

Joice Heth was only the first attraction for which Barnum publicized an examination by a scientist or doctor who pronounced the attraction either "authentic" or a humbug. These public narratives of scientific authority were central to the popularity of Barnum's attractions in an era when anonymity and deception governed urban social and economic relations. This letter to the editor of the New York Transcript reflects some of the ideas about science, heavily influenced by antebellum ideas about racial difference, that made Heth such a potent and complex symbol.

Messrs. Editors. --

I observed in the "Sun" of Friday last, an article with the specious and imposing caption: "Dissection of Joice Heth. Precious Humbug Exposed." Somewhat allured by the subject, I read the whole article -- only think of reading the whole article in the Sun! -- in hope, though no wise sanguine, that some scientific reasoning would have been given for doubting the extreme age of the subject: but upon perusal, found it as shallow and puerile an article as I have ever punished myself by reading.

I say in hope; for I have always been inclined to doubt the entire authenticity of the whole account given of Joice Heth by the proprietors; but to doubt that she had attained an age far, very far, beyond the usual, and even the unusual duration of the human life, would be to fly in the face of the most tangible indications of longevity. The article in question was evidently written for the mere purpose of advocating the a priori opinion of the Surgeon "highly eminent in his professor for Anatomical Knowledge and skill," who conducted the examination. That gentleman made up his mind that Joice Heth was not a very old woman; and like all theorists, found proofs "as plenty as blackberries," and "strong as holy writ," in support of his preconception -- This opinion he was heard to express within an hour of the inspection of the body. It is unfortunate that the writer of the article in the Sun has said so much -- he should not have told that Dr. Rogers had determined that her age was not at the utmost over eighty -- it would have sounded much better if it had been a spontaneous discovery, and to have let it burst upon us as a new light, in meridian eflulgence [sic] -- something in the order of the "Moon Story."

Now, Messrs. Editors, there are two points I wish to insist upon -- they are that the usual phenomena that occur in old age, were not manifest on the post orbit examination of this subject, (yet she was an old person,) consequently there must have been idiosyncrasy. In the next place, that this very idiosyncrasy was the reason why the functions of the body were preserved to an unusual period. Another important physiological fact should be stated, which is, that blacks have a much greater tenacity for life than whites, and were it not that, like the domestic horse, they are broken down by servitude, they would live to much greater ages than the Circassian race -- and in the case before us, had it not been for the affectation of the lungs, (one lobe of which was tuberculated [sic] with serous effusion in the left cavity of the chest,) together with what must have been fatigue to her, travelling and being subjected to the annoyance and importunity of her visitors, it is not improbable that the vital spark might have continued to flicker considerably longer. This communication is not the offspring of ill feeling towards any person, neither is it the mouth-piece of any interested individual; but simply a defense of what the writer conceives to be the truth. Towards the surgeon who conducted the examination, I entertain no feeling but respect and admiration, and when I look around on those who have honored alike their country and their profession, I always class this distinguished individual in the first rank.