The Lost Museum Archive

P.T. Barnum on Joice Heth, 1855

Taken from Barnum's 1855 autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, this long account of the exhibition of Joice Heth emphasizes Barnum's prowess as a showman and the lengths to which he and his assistant, Levi Lyman, went to keep newspaper and public attention focused on their first human attraction. In another autobiography published in 1869, Barnum disavowed his involvement in the Heth hoax; by contrast, this account describes in boasting detail his acquisition, exhibition, and deliberate attempts to create public doubt about Heth.

In the latter part of July, 1835, Mr. Coley Bartram, of Reading, Ct., and at present a resident of the same State, called at our store. He was acquainted with Mr. Moody and myself. He informed us that he had owned an interest in an extraordinary negro woman, named Joice Heth, whom he believed to he one hundred and sixty-one years of age, and whom he also believed to have been the nurse of General Washington. He had sold out his interest to his partner R. W. Lindsay, of Jefferson County, Kentucky, who was now exhibiting her in Philadelphia, but not having much tact as a showman, he was anxious to sell out and return home.

Mr. Bartram also handed me a copy of "The Pennsylvania Inquirer," of July 15, 1835, and directed my attention to the following advertisement, which I here transcribe verbatim:

CURIOSITY. -- The citizens of Philadelphia and its vicinitv have an opportunity of witnessing at the Masonic Hall one of the greatest natural curiosities ever witnessed, viz., JOICE HETH, a negress aged 161 years, who formerly belonged tot he father of Gen. Washington. She has been a member of the Baptist Church one hundred and sixteen years, and can rehearse many hymns, and sing them according to former custom. She was born near the old Potomac River in Virginia, and has for ninety or one hundred years lived in Paris, Kentucky, with the Bowling family.

All who have seen this extraordinary woman are satisfied of the truth of the account of her age. The evidence of the Bowling family, which is respectable, is strong, but the original bill of sale of Augustine Washington, in his own handwriting, and other evidence which the proprietor has in his possession, will satisfy even the most incredulous.

A lady will attend at the hall during the afternoon and evening for the accommodation of those ladies who may call.

The New-York newspapers had already furnished descriptions of this wonderful personage, and becoming considerably excited upon the subject, I proceeded at once to Philadelphia and had an interview with Lindsay at the Masonic Hall.

I was favorably struck with the appearance of the old woman. So far as outward indications were concerned, she might almost as well have been called a thousand years old as any other age. She was lying upon a high lounge in the middle of the room; her lower extremities were drawn up, with her knees elevated some two feet above the top of the lounge. She was apparently in good health and spirits, but former disease or old age, or perhaps both combined, had rendered her unable to change her position; in fact, although she could move one of her arms at will, her lower limbs were fixed in their position, and could not be straightened. She was totally blind, and her eyes were so deeply sunken in their sockets that the eyeballs seemed to have disappeared altogether. She had no teeth, but possessed a head of thick bushy gray hair. Her left arm lay across her breast, and she had no power to remove it. The fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and remained fixed and immovable. The nails upon that hand were about four inches in length, and extended above her wrist. The nails upon her large toes also had grown to the thickness of nearly a quarter of an inch.

She was very sociable, and would talk almost incessantly so long as visitors would converse with her. She sang a variety of ancient hymns, and was very garrulous when speaking of her protege "dear little George," as she termed the great father of our country. She declared that she was present at his birth, that she was formerly the slave of Augustine Washington, the father of George, and that she was the first person who put clothes upon him. "In fact," said Joice, and it was a favorite expression of hers, "I raised him." She related many interesting anecdotes of "her dear little George," and this, mixed with her conversations upon religious subjects, for she claimed to be a member of the Baptist Church, rendered her exhibition an extremely interesting one.

I asked Mr. Lindsay for the proofs of her extraordinary age, and he exhibited what purported to be a bill of sale from Augustine Washington, of the county of Westmoreland, Virginia, to "Elizabeth Atwood," of "one negro woman, named Joice Heth, aged fifty-four years, for and in consideration of the sum of thirty-three pounds lawful money of Virginia." The document bore the date "fifth day of February, one thousand seven hundred and twenty-seven," and was "sealed and delivered in presence of Richard Buckner and William Washington."

The story told by Lindsay and "Aunt Joice" was, that Mrs. Elizabeth Atwood was a sister-in-law of Augustine Washington, that the husband of Joice was a slave of Mrs. Atwood, and for that reason the above sale was made. As Mrs. Atwood was a near neighbor of Mr. Washington, Aunt Joice was present at the birth of "little George," and she having long been the old family nurse, was the first person called upon to clothe the new-born infant.

The story seemed plausible, and the "bill of sale" had every appearance of antiquity. It was exhibited in a glass frame, was very sallow in appearance, and seemed to have been folded for such a great length of time that the folds were worn nearly through, and in some parts entirely so.

I inquired why the existence of such an extraordinary old woman had not been discovered and made known long ago. The reply was that she had been lying in an out-house of John S. Bowling of Kentucky for many years, that no one knew or seemed to care how old she was, that she had been brought thither from Virginia a long time ago, and that the fact of her extreme age had been but recently brought to light by the discovery of this old bill of sale in the Record office in Virginia, by the son of Mr. Bowling, who, while looking over the ancient papers in that office, happened to notice the paper endorsed Joice Heth, that his curiosity was excited, and from inquiries made in that neighborhood he was convinced that the document applied to his father's old slave then living, and who was therefore really one hundred and sixty-one years of age; that he thereupon took the paper home, and became confirmed in regard to the identity of Joice with the slave described in that paper.

This whole account appeared to me satisfactory, and I inquired the price of the negress. Three thousand dollars was the sum named, but before leaving Philadelphia I received from Mr. Lindsay a writing, stipulating that I should have the right at any time within ten days to become her owner upon paying to him the sum of one thousand dollars.

With this paper I started for New-York, determined if possible to purchase Joice Heth. I did not possess more than five hundred dollars in cash, but my glowing representations to a friend, of the golden harvest which I was sure the exhibition must produce, induced him to loan me the other five hundred dollars, and after a few days, during which time I sold my interest in the grocery store to my partner, Moody, I returned to Philadelphia with the money, and became the proprietor of the negress, as appears by the following document:

Whereas, by articles of agreement dated June 10th, A. D. 1835, John S. Bowling, the owner of an African woman called JOICE HETH, and R. W Lindsav, of Jefferson County, Commonwealth of Kentucky covenanted and agreed for the term of twelve months to participate equally in the gains and losses in exhibiting the African woman, Joice Heth, in and amongst the cities of the United States: And whereas, R.W. Lindsay says, that John S. Bowling transferred all his right, title, interest, and claim arising out of said agreement to Coley Bartram, and whereas, the said Coley Bartram by a writing dated at Philadelphia, July 24th A.D. 1835, did transfer to R.W. Lindsay all his interest in the colored woman, Joice Heth, aged 161 years, sold to him by John S. Bowling, of Kentucky, dated June 15, A.D 1835: Now know all men by these presents, that I, the said R.W. Lindsay, for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand dollars to me in hand paid by PHINEAS T. BARNUM, at or before the sealing of these presents, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have bargained, sold, transferred, and delivered, and by these presents do bargain, sell, transfer, and deliver unto the said Phineas T. Barnum, his executors, administrators or assigns, the possession of the person of the African woman, Joice Heth, and the sole right of exhibiting her during the unexpired term of the twelve months mentioned in the agreement dated June 10th, A.D. 1835, in and amongst the cities of the United States, and all my right, title, interest, or claim whatsoever, to the possession of the said Joice Heth, and to the right of exhibiting her as aforesaid. And I do hereby for myself, my heirs, executors, and administrators, covenant, promise, and agree to and with the said Phineas T. Barnum, his heirs and assigns, by these presents, that I, the said R.W. Lindsay, and my heirs, have and do enjoy the just and legal possession of the said Joice Heth, and the sole right of exhibiting her in and amongst the cities of the United States during the unexpired time of the twelve months commencing June 10th, A.D. 1835. And I do further covenant, promise and agree, that the possession of Joice Heth, and the right of exhibiting her as aforesaid, and all my title and interest in Joice Heth, hereby transferred and delivered unto the said Phineas T. Barnum, his heirs and assigns, against me, R.W. Lindsay, and my heirs, and against Coley Bartram, and against John S. Bowling and his heirs, and against all and every other person and persons whatsoever, lawfully claiming or to claim by, from, or under him, them, or any of them, shall and will warrant and for ever defend by these presents.

Provided, always such claims shall be made previous to the tenth day of June, A. D. 1836. I hold myself clear of till covenants and agreements for the possession of the person of Joice Heth, or the right of exhibiting her after the tenth day of June, A. D. 1836.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal this sixth day of August, Anno Domini one thousand eight hundred and thirty five

Sealed and delivered in presence of Saml. H. Traquair, R. W. Lindsay, W. Delany.

Received, August 6, 1835, from Phineas T. Barnum, one thousand dollars, being the full consideration of the within conveyance and of the covenants and agreements contained therein. (Signed) R.W. Lindsay.

I engaged Lindsay to continue the exhibition in Philadelphia for a week, in order to allow me time to make the necessary arrange-ments for her reception in New-York.

I applied to Mr. William Niblo, who, I believe, had seen the old negress in Philadelphia. He did not recognize me as the person who a few months previously had applied to him for the situation of bar-keeper. We soon made a bargain for the exhibition of Aunt Joice in one of the large apartments in his dwelling-house its the vicinity of his saloon, which was at that time a large, open and airy establishment where musical and light entertainments were given, the guests during the intermission, as well as at other times, being supplied with ice-creams and other refreshments, in little alcove-boxes fitted up with tables, and running nearly all the distance around his garden.

These alcoves were tastefully decorated on the outside with festoons of lamps of variegated colors, and the grand walk through the middle of the garden was illuminated on each side by chaste and pretty transparencies, about seven feet high and two feet wide, each surmounted with a large globular lamp. These transparencies were then new in the city of New-York, and were very attractive. They were gotten up by W.J. and H. Hannington, who have since become so celebrated for glass-staining and decorative painting. Mr. H. Hannington prepared me several transparencies, two feet by three in size, which I had placed upon a hollow frame and lighted from the inside. It was painted in colors with white letters, and read "Joice Heth, 161 Years Old."

The terms of my engagement with Mr. Niblo were these: He was to furnish the room and lights, pay the expense of printing, advertising, and a ticket-seller, and retain therefor one half of the gross receipts. The result proved an average of about $1500 per week.

I engaged as an assistant in exhibiting "Aunt Joice" Mr. LEVI LYMAN. He was a lawyer by profession, and had been practising in Penn Yan, N.Y. He was a shrewd, sociable, and somewhat indolent Yankee; possessed a good knowledge of human nature; was polite, agreeable, could converse on most subjects and was admirably calculated to fill the position for which I engaged him.

Of course, in carrying out my new vocation of showman, I spared no reasonable efforts to make it successful. I was aware of the great power of the public press, and I used it to the extent of my ability. Lyman wrote a brief memoir of Joice, and putting it into a pamphlet form, illustrated with her portrait, sold it to visitors on his own account, at six cents per copy.

I had the same portrait printed on innumerable small bills, and also flooded the city with "posters," setting forth the peculiar attractions which "the nurse of Washington" presented. Here are a few specimens of advertisements and notices of that day:

NIBLO'S GARDEN. --. The greatest curiosity in the world and the most in interesting, particularly to Americans, is now exhibiting at the Saloon fronting on Broadway, in the building recently erected for the dioramic view, JOICE HETH, nurse to Gen. George Washington, (the father of our country,) who has arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years, as authentic documents will prove, and in full possession of her mental faculties. She is cheerful and healthy, although she weighs but forty -nine pounds. She relates many anecdotes of her young master; she speaks also of the red coats during the Revolutionary War, but does not appear to hold them in high estimation.

She has been visited by crowds of ladies and gentlemen among whom were many clergymen and physicians, who have pronounced her the most ancient specimen of mortality the oldest of them has ever seen or heard of and consider her a very great curiosity.

She has been a member of the Baptist Church for upwards of one hundred years, and seems to take great satisfaction in the conversation of ministers who visit her. She frequently sings and repeats parts of hymns and psalms."

Another advertisement contained a still closer appeal to both patriotism and curiosity:

JOICE HETH is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world. She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father of George Washington,) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant who was destined in after days to lead our heroic fathers to glory, to victory, and to freedom. To use her own language when speak-ing of her young master, George Washington, 'she raised him.'

Editorial notices were abundant in many papers of the day, news, literary, political, and religious -- of which the following may serve as samples:

"JOICE HETH. -- The arrival at Niblo's Garden of this renowned relic of the olden time has created quite a sensation among the lovers of the curious and the marvellous; and a greater object of marvel and curiosity has never presented itself for their gratification. From the length of her limbs and size of her bones, it is probable she was a large, stout woman in her day, but now she comes up exactly to one's idea of an animated mummy. Her weight is said to be less than fifty pounds; her feet have shrunk to mere skin and bone, arid her long, attenuated fingers more resemble the claws of a bird of prey than human appendages. Notwithstanding her burden of years and infirmities, she is lively, and seems to retain all her senses wonderfully. Her hearing is almost as acute as that of any person of middle age." -- New-York Sun

"The 'old one' has arrived, and crowds of ladies and gentlemen have visited her at Niblo's. She is lively, and answers every question cheerfully. From the bill of sale of this old lady from General Washington's father, we can have no doubt that she is 160 years of age. Her appearance is very much like an Egyptian mummy just escaped from its sarcophagus." -- New-York Evening Star.

"We venture to state, that since the flood, a like circumstance has not been witnessed equal to one which is about to happen this week. Ancient or modern times furnish no parallel to the great age of this woman. Methuselah was 969 years old when he died, but nothing is said of the age of his wife. Adam attained nearly the age of his antiquated descendant. It is not unlikely that the sex in the olden time were like the daughters at the present day - unwilling to tell their age. Joice Ileth is an exception; she comes out boldly, and says she is rising l6O." -- New-York Daily Advertiser.

"This old creature is said to be 161 years of age, and we see no reason to doubt it. Nobody indeed would dispute it if she claimed to be five centuries, for she and the Egyptian mummy at the American Museum appear to be about of an age." New-York Courier and Enquirer.

"The dear old lady, after carrying on a desperate flirtation with Death, has finally jilted him. In the future editions, we shall expect to see her represented as the impersonation of Time in the Primer, old Time having given her a season ticket for life. The Wandering Jew and herself are the only two people we wot of that have been put on the free-list of this world for the season of eternity." - New-York Spirit of the Times.

Joice was an inveterate smoker, and Grant Thorburn (better known as Lawrie Todd) gave some occasion of triumph to many editors by publishing an article in the Evening Star, from which the following is an extract:

I have been to see Joice Heth today. I find that with all her other rare qualities, she is a profound smoker. Her attendants are obliged to abridge this luxury, else the pipe would never be out of her mouth. I asked her how long she had used the pipe, and she answered, 'One hundred and twenty years!' So, if smoking be a poison, it is, in her case at least, a very slow poison."

Our exhibition usually opened with a statement of the manner in which the age of Joice Heth was discovered, as well as the account of her antecedents in Virginia, and a reading of the bill of sale. We would then question her in relation to the birth and youth of General Washington, and she always gave satisfactory answers in every particular. Individuals among the audience would also frequently ask her questions, and put her to the severest cross-examinations, without ever finding her to deviate from what had every evidence of being a plain unvarnished statement of facts.

Joice was very fond of church-music, to which she would beat time by waving her long withered arm. On one occasion in New-York an aged Baptist minister stood by her side as she was singing one of her favorite hymns, and he joined her, and lined each verse. She was much pleased by this circumstance, and sang with renewed animation. After the hymn was finished, the clergyman lined off the verse of another hymn, and Joice immediately remarking, "I know that hymn," joined him in singing it. He lined in this manner several hymns which were entirely new to me, and in each case Joice knew them, and in one or two instances refreshed his memory when he found himself at a loss to recall the exact language of the verses. Joice loved to converse upon religious subjects, and frequently insisted on the attendance of clergymen for that purpose.

The question naturally arises, if Joice Heth was an imposter, who taught her these things? and how happened it that she was so familiar, not only with ancient psalmody, but also with the minute details of the Washington family? To all this, I unhesitatingly answer, I do not know. I taught her none of these things. She was perfectly familiar with them all before I ever saw her, and she taught me many facts in relation to the Washington family with which I was not before acquainted.

From Providence, where the exhibition was highly successful, we went to Boston. This was my first appearance in the modern Athens, and I saw much that was new and interesting to me. I attended various churches, and was pleased to see such an almost universal observance of the Sabbath. The theatres, too, were not permitted to be open on Saturday evenings, and my mind reverted to the customs of many of our neighbors in Connecticut, who, according to the old Puritan fashion, "kept Saturday night," that is, they considered that the Sabbath commenced with the setting of the sun on Saturday and closed at sundown on Sunday, at which time they would recommence their labors and recreations.

We opened our exhibition in the small ball-room of Concert Hall, at the corner of Court and Hanover streets. The fame of Joice had preceded her, the city was well posted with large bills announcing her coming, and the newspapers had heralded her anticipated arrival in such a multiplicity of styles, that the public curiosity was on tip-toe. I remember that one of the papers, after giving a description of Joice Heth, and the great satisfaction which her exhibition had given in New-York, added, "It rejoice-heth us exceedingly to know that we shall be permitted to look upon the old patriarch."

The celebrated Maelzel was exhibiting his equally celebrated "automaton chess-player" in the large ball-room of Concert Hall; but the crowd of visitors to see Aunt Joice was so great, that our room could not accommodate them, and Mr. Maelzel was induced to close his exhibition, and give us his large room. I had frequent interviews and long conversations with Mr. Maelzel. I looked upon him as the great father of caterers for public amusement, and was pleased with his assurance that I would certainly make a successful showman.

"I see," said he, in broken English, "that you understand the value of the press, and that is the great thing. Nothing helps the showmans like the types and the ink. When your old woman dies," he added, "you come to me, and I will make your fortune. I will let you have my 'carousal,' my automaton trumpet-player, and many curious things which will make you plenty of money."

I thanked him for his generous proposals, and assured him that should circumstances render it feasible, I should apply to him.

Our exhibition room continued to attract large numbers of visitors for several weeks before there was any visible falling off. I kept up a constant succession of novel advertisements and unique notices in the newspapers, which tended to keep old Joice fresh in the minds of the public, and served to sharpen the curiosity of the people.

When the audiences began to decrease in numbers, a short com-munication appeared in one of the newspapers, signed "A Visitor," in which the writer claimed to have made an important discovery. He stated that Joice Heth, as at present exhibited, was a humbug, whereas if the simple truth was told in regard to the exhibition, it was really vastly curious mid interesting. "The fact is," said the communication, "Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber. and numberless springs ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The exhibitor is a ventriloquist, and all the conversations apparently held with the ancient lady are purely imaginary, so far as she is concerned, for the answers and incidents purporting to be given and related by her, are merely the ventriloquial voice of the exhibitor."

Maelzel's ingenious mechanism somewhat prepared the way for this announcement, and hundreds who had not visited Joice Heth were now anxious to see the curious automaton; while many who had seen her were equally desirous of a second look, in order to determine whether or not they had been deceived. The consequence was, our audiences again largely increased.

On one occasion, an ex-member of Congress, his wife, two children, and his aged mother, attended the exhibition. He was one of the first men in Boston, a gentleman highly esteemed; and as his family approached the bed where Joice was resting, the visitors respectfully gave way for them. I was soon engaged in conversation with the gentleman, answered the numerous questions which he asked, and directed several of my remarks to his wife. In the mean time, his old mother was closely scrutinizing Aunt Joice, under the immediate direction of my helpmate, Lyman.

Presently the old lady spoke up in an audible tone, and with much apparent satisfaction, "There, it is alive after all!"

I caught the remark instantly, and was glad to perceive that her son did not hear it. I kept up a conversation with him, in order that he should not notice the tete-a-tete which his mother and Lyman were enjoying; at the same time, however, I listened anxiously to their conversation.

"Why do you think it is alive?" asked Lyman, quietly.

"Because its pulse beats as regularly as mine does," responded the old lady.

"Oh, that is the most simple portion of the machinery," said Lyman. "We make that operate on the principle of a pendulum to a clock."

"Is it possible?" said the old lady, who was now evidently satisfied that Joice was an automaton. Then turning to her son, she said:

"George, this thing is not alive at all. It is all a machine."

"Why, mother," said the son with evident embarrassment, "What are you talking about?"

A half-suppressed giggle ran through the room, and the gentle man and his family soon withdrew. Lyman maintained the utmost gravity of countenance, and the keenest observer would have failed to detect in his visage any evidence of his having played off a joke upon the unsophisticated old lady.

From Boston we went to Hingham, and thence in succession to Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford, meeting with most satisfactory success. Everywhere there appeared to be conviction of the extreme longevity of Joice.

We hastened our return to New-York to fill a second engagement I had made with Mr. Niblo. The American Institute held its annual Fair at his garden, and my engagement was to commence at the same time. The great influx of visitors to the Fair caused our room to be continually crowded, insomuch that we were frequently compelled to announce to applicants that the hall was full, and no more could be admitted for the present. In those cases we would hurry up the exhibitions, cut short a hymn or two, answer questions with great rapidity, and politely open the front door as an egress to visitors, at the same time opening the entrance from the garden for the ingress of fresh customers.

From Niblo's we went to New-Haven for three days where the crowds were as large as usual. We then returned to New-York and proceeded to Newark, where I met with the natal success. From Newark we returned to New-York and went to Albany for a week to fill an engagement made with Mr. Meech, the proprietor of the Museum.

. . .

Meanwhile poor old Joice had sickened, and with her attendant, a faithful colored woman whom I hired in Boston, had gone to my brother's house in Bethel, where she was provided with warm apartments and the best medical and other assistance.

On the 2lst of February, 1836 my brother's horses and sleigh stopped at the door of my boarding-house in New-York. The driver handed me a letter from my brother Philo, stating that Aunt Joice was no more. She died at his house on Friday night the 19th, and her body was then in the sleigh, having been conveyed to New-York for me to dispose of as I thought proper. I at once determined to have it returned to Bethel and interred in our village burial-ground, though for the present it was placed in a small room of which I had the key.

The next morning I called on an eminent surgeon who, upon visiting Joice at Niblo's, had expressed a desire to institute a post-mortem examination if she should die in this country. I agreed that he should have the opportunity, if unfortunately it should occur while she was under my protection. I now informed him that Aunt Joice was dead, and he reminded me of my promise. I admitted it, and immediately proceeded to arrange for the examination to take place on the following day.

In the mean time a mahogany coffin and plate were procured and taken to the hall where the examination was to take place. A large number of physicians, students, and several clergymen and editors were present. Among the last named class was Richard Adams Locke, author of the celebrated "Moon Hoax," who was at that time editor of the New-York Sun.

An absence of ossification of the arteries in the immediate region of the heart was deemed by the dissector and most of the gentle-men present an evidence against the assumed age of Joice.

When all had withdrawn excepting the surgeon, his particular friend Locke, Lyman, and myself, the surgeon remarked, addressing me, that there was surely some mistake in regard to the alleged age of Joice; that instead of being 161 years old, she was probably not over eighty.

I stated to him, in reply, what was strictly true, that I had hired Joice in perfect good faith, and relied upon her appearance and the documents as evidence of the truth of her story. The same gentleman had examined her when alive on exhibition at Niblo's. He rejoined that he had no doubt I had been deceived in the matter, that her personal appearance really did indicate extreme longevity, but that the documents must either have been forged, or else they applied to some other individual.

Lyman, who was always ready for a joke, no matter what the cost nor at whose expense, here made a remark regarding the inability of the faculty to decide with much precision in regard to a ease of this kind. His observations wounded the feelings of the surgeon. and taking the arm of his friend Locke, they left the hall -- I fear in not very good humor.

The "Sun" of the next day (Feb.25, 1836) c

Source: Excerpt from The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855