The Lost Museum Archive

The Joice Heth Hoax, New York Herald, September 8, 1836

Several months after the Joice Heth controversies, and their feverish coverage in the "penny press" subsided, the New York Herald announced its plans to publish a series of articles exposing the "humbug" in its every detail. In this first installment, both Heth's physical features and habits (particularly her fondness for whiskey) are described in mocking detail. The supposed sophistication of eastern urbanites (compared to their naive brethren in the western reaches of Cincinnati) and the scientific authority of doctors are also derided. Scholar Benjamin Reiss suggests that this series was based on an exclusive interview given to the Herald by Levi Lyman, Barnum's partner in the Heth exhibit. The Herald stories ceased after seven installments and failed to describe the controversial autopsy; Reiss speculates that Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett abruptly cancelled the series when he realized Lyman was deceiving him yet again.

Every body recollects the exhibition of the famous Joice Heth, who was represented as having been the nurse of Washington, and had reached over 150 years of age. Few curious people, either in science or common life, have not seen her while she was here. Within the last few days we have learned the origin, conception, progress, and close of this most extraordinary hoax, not only upon the credulity of mankind, but upon the medical profession itself. To deceive ordinary people was nothing, but to pass off a woman whom we now have the materials of proving was only about sixty years of age -- to pass such off upon the greatest medical men in the country for 150 years, was a bold conception, equally characteristic of the greatness of genius in the art of humbug and the littleness [sic] of science and common sense in the world.

We shall now proceed and give a brief sketch of the affair.

A gentleman from New England, the mother land of everything droll in human nature -- for the life of a Yankee is one long hoax -- was in Washington a few years ago. Forming an acquaintance with a Virginian, also an original, they set out to Kentucky and the West, in the spring of-------. Travelling together, they amused themselves the best way they could, till they reached Paris, Bourbon county, Kentucky. The Virginian here had an acquaintance whose name was William Bolen, a planter, residing in the immediate neighborhood of Paris. The compagnons du voyage continued here several days. Here they learned by mere accident that Mr. Bolen had an old negro woman who had been blind and in her bed for 30 years, and otherwise was a great natural curiosity.

"Come," said the Virginian to the New Englander, "let go and see her, she is a great curiosity.

They accordingly made a call upon Mr. Bolen. They were shown Aunt Joice as she was called -- looked at her -- examined her -- found her a most singular and outre being -- almost a mummy alive -- and more curious than any thing they had ever seen. The New Englander did not say much at first -- but thought hard and steady at the rate of twelve knots an hour. On leaving the habitation of Joice, he said to the Virginian, "I guess something could be made out of this cretter [sic]."

"How?" asked the Virginian.

"By exhibiting her as a negro woman of extraordinary age over the country. She looks as old as the hills and a bit older."

The conception struck the Virginian with great force. He admitted the feasibility of the project at once.

In a few days from the inception of this first idea, the affair was so explained and matured to Mr. Bulen, who was to have an interest in the speculation, that Joice Heth, otherwise aunt Joice, was purchased of her owner and bundled up for a tour through the country to make the people stare -- the curious wonder -- and all contribute their half dollar to see the sight.

After some little preparation, Joice was taken off her bed on which she had groaned, and cursed, and swore; and drank whisky, for she did all these, for 30 years, and first reached Louisville, about sixty miles from the former place of her residence. Here her exhibitors hired a room, got hand bills struck up -- advertised in the newspapers -- begged a puff from this paper -- a notice from another, &c. &c. She was simply called a negro woman of a remarkable old age, probably the oldest in the world. Her singular emaciated condition -- her extreme blindness -- her general debility -- all conspired to convince the ordinary spectator of the truth of these representations.

According to the best information obtained from her owner, William Bolen, Joice was about 65 years of age -- but her ingenuous exhibitors set her down at the lowest notch, at 110 years, remarking shrewdly, "she will grow older as we get along -- and pre-haps by the time we get to Philadelphia and New York, she may reach 150 years -- who knows?"

They had a considerable number of visitors, but not near so many as they had expected. An indefinite old age did not draw much attention. Besides there were no old historical recollections to excite the imagination and make people stare, open their mouths, and connect the past and present times together.

From Louisville her exhibitor proceeded to Cincinnati. On his way he meditated a good deal on the nature and effect of the experiment he had made in Louisville. Thought he to himself, "this won't do. The old slave of Bill Bolen creates no attention -- who the devil cares for her -- 'Joice Heth be damned,' the people will say -- but Joice Heth of the family of Washington, might create some stir."

The conception was not lost sight of. On reaching Cincinnati, our adventurer determined to shake another reef out of his sail -- to play another card -- and then lay low and watch the game.

Joice Heth was accordingly announced as having been born, and having lived in the family of the sainted Washington. Patriotic sentiments were mixed up with her curious appearance, and run through the advertisements, puffs, handbills, and notices, like a vein of gold through an old hill in North Carolina. Joice herself, after a good deal of trouble was taught her lesson -- how to respond to questions respecting Washington. In completing this part of the business they had some difficulty. She would occasionally get cross and angry. On such occasions she burst forth "God damn you" -- by Christ" [sic] -- damn me if I don't tell Bill Bolen of you." It was difficult sometimes to smooth her down, but generally a stiff glass of Monongahela would mollify her temper amazingly, and restore her to peace and equanitrity -- "well massa, dat be good."

After the exhibition closed at night, she went through her part -- rehearsed -- was taught replies to a few more questions relative to the habits, looks, and family affairs of Washington. "Now aunt Joice," her exhibitor would say to excite her exertion -- "you have no memory -- you cannot remember what you have just now replied to my questions."

"Yes I have a good memory -- G-d damn you, don't I remember every word old massa Bolen told me fifty years ago. I have a good memory."

In this way her exhibitor impressed on her mind all replies to questions relative to the great and good Washington, which the patriotism of her admiring audience prompted them to make.

But not only did her exhibitor pay particular attention to the "venerable historical studies of aunt Joice," as he called it with a leer and a look that spoke volumes, he was exceedingly careful of her health, appearance, and general habits. She had a wild, huge, and unregulated appetite, and would eat as much, and more than any ordinary person in good health. As her exhibitor was a great friend of temperance in eating and drinking he wisely concluded to put her under a good and well devised regimen. She was therefore fed for weeks of eggs and whisky, till she was brought down to mere muscle and bone. Her memory and mental powers improved daily under this course -- she gradually looked older and older, and, said her exhibitor one day to a friend in the secret, in Cincinnati, "I have no doubt Pythagoras was right. Aunt Joice improves daily -- by the time we reach New York, she will remember the smallest secrets and incidents in the life of Washington -- nothing like whisky and eggs to restore a good memory."

During the exhibition in Cincinnati, no papers -- no old documents were exhibited, or had been thought of. All the authenticity of the story of her age -- and of her having been in the service of Washington, rested entirely on the goodness of her memory over night -- the aptness of her replies to visitors -- and the clearness of mind, caused by the best of eggs and the purest of whisky. Yet she passed off without any special remark in Cincinnati. It is a quiet, pleasant, stiring [sic] business place. The city is young -- the people are of yesterday -- and they are not such nice judges of antiquity as many imagine. The people of Cincinnati, dear souls, can swallow any reasonable hoax, and their medical faculty, when perfectly awake and not eating pork, are the most reasonable men in the world.

At length it was time to move. The exhibition room gradually became empty -- the dollars disappeared -- Aunt Joice lost her temper -- swore again like a trooper, and whisky could not still her. She accordingly was bundled up and carried up the river to Pittsburgh -- and here we shall close with our narrative to-day.

The exhibition in Cincinnati was a raw experiment, but it was fruitful in hints, thoughts, ideas, and conceptions to be carried into effect as they passed the mountains and came into more civilized regions. There is no difficulty in hoaxing the youthful races of the west with any droll or common piece of antiquity, but in approaching the regions of science, civilization, infidelity, sagacity, and profound skill, it was necessary to have everything prepared -- everything cut and dried -- Philadelphia, New York, and Boston -- these are the right eyes of the new world. Here man is sagacious, witty, scientific, learned, erudite, profound, acute and unhoaxable. Here we have the great nurseries of medical men, from whose august portals we send out every year, 1,000 young savans, to bleed, purge, murder and cure the blockheads who trust them. Here science can detect every error -- and expose every absurd dogma. A full and accurate account of the hoax, perpetrated by Joice Heth and her friends, upon the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and particularly the medical faculty of each, will be one of the most interesting histories of this singular exposition of human ingenuity on the one side -- and human credulity on the other. Some of the most eminent medical men in these three cities, and especially the famous Doct. Warren of Boston, figured most conspicuously in this laughable development. There can be no mistake about the facts related, because, we have taken them down from the lips of the very individual who originated, and carried into effect this most stupendous hoax, illustrative of the accuracy of medical science -- the skill of medical men and the general good nature and credulity of the public. The ingenuous gentleman not only made $20,000 out of the hoax of Joice Heth, but he was highly amused with the whole affair, and has drank in lessons of philosophy and practical wisdom, that he can never forget, and probably worth $500 or more, in better money than Patterson bills. N. B. Doct. Rogers of this city is also another distinguished figurant in this exquisite hoax, but enough to-day.