He moved from humble beginnings as a poor country boy into a legendary showman in the 1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum – better known as P.T. Barnum – specialized in displaying intriguing attractions to audiences who were hungry to see something out of the ordinary. Becoming one of the famous people in the freak show business, his legacy in the business stretched from the American Museum to his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome (the predecessor of “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” circus) near the end of his life, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
He became rich thanks to his “clever marketing” and “underhand business practices”. And in a musical about his life, he was described as the “greatest showman”. However, his real story was far from great. As a matter of fact, Barnum’s path to fame began by exploiting an enslaved woman as entertainment for the masses.
Barnum had at the time tried working as a lottery manager, a shopkeeper and newspaper editor. While living in New York City, working at a boarding home and in a grocery store, he was eager to make money. That was when he received a letter about an elderly enslaved Black woman named Joice Heth from a Kentucky showman, R.W. Lindsay. Intrigued, Barnum paid the showman a visit to see Heth for himself. This was in August 1835.
In Barnum’s first autobiography, published in 1855, he recounted seeing the woman unable to move from the lounge chair in which Lindsay had placed her. 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 she possessed a head of thick, bushy gray hair. The fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it and remained fixed and immovable.” In spite of her appearance, she was friendly and talkative, Barnum recalled.
Barnum wrote that he paid Lindsay $1,000 for the rights to the story of Heth. The story, Lindsay explained to Barnum, was that Heth was an enslaved woman owned by Augustine Washington — the father of George Washington — who was sold in 1727 when 54 years old to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Atwood. Following the birth of George Washington in 1732, Heth returned to the Washington family to serve as a nurse for the infant.
With this story, Barnum paraded the blind and almost paralyzed Heth across New England from August 1835 to February 1836 advertising her as a 161-year-old woman who was “the Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World”, according to one account.
Heth made her debut at Niblo’s Garden in New York City before playing to eager crowds “in taverns, inns, museums, railway houses, and concert halls,” Emory professor Benjamin Reiss said. Heth would often recount her backstory including that of the first president as a young boy while answering questions from huge crowds gathered and singing a few hymns. The audience would then try to touch the hands that held baby George Washington. Barnum even helped fuel popular interest by spreading a rumor that Heth was actually an automaton controlled by a ventriloquist.
“He made his money through Joice – a paralysed, disabled woman whom he lugged across North America having had her teeth removed. It was on this ‘success’ that PT Barnum, the so-called ‘Greatest Showman’, launched his career,” British author Elizabeth Macneal wrote.
After seven months on Barnum’s exhibition circuit, Heth died in February 1836. Sources said she had grown weak from the grueling schedule of being on display. But that was not the end of Barnum’s exploitation of the enslaved woman who he had “leased” to get around anti-slavery laws in America’s northern states. Following her death, a public autopsy was organized by Barnum, with Dr. David Rogers. About 1500 spectators were charged 50 cents to watch the doctor dissect the woman. The truth about Heth emerged. Dr. Rogers declared Heth to be between 75 to 80 years old.
Barnum, who found several other acts to tour before becoming the proprietor of the American Museum in December 1841 in New York, said he had been deceived into believing Heth’s story. It is documented that in later years when he emerged as a staunch abolitionist and supporter of the Fourteenth Amendment, he became embarrassed about the fact that he purchased a human being from another.
Research Historian May V. Thompson wrote the following about Heth:
“Joice Heth came on the scene just three years after the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and nine years after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Americans were feeling the Revolutionary War generation slipping away, at a time when sectional differences leading up to the Civil War, were escalating. They were desperate to hold on to that earlier, ‘purer’ time, and thus were willing to suspend rational thought to believe that an elderly African American woman could actually be over 150 years old and the former nursemaid of an infant George Washington.”