161 Year Old Joice Heth

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The Museum of Hoaxes has a good article on PT Barnum’s first “exhibition”, 161 year old former nurse of George Washington, Joice Heth.

Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention.

When the public’s interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead was a mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died.

However, even in death Barnum continued to use her to draw crowds. He allowed a public autopsy to be performed on her body for the purpose of verifying her age. Unfortunately for Barnum, the doctor who performed the autopsy declared that she could not have been older than eighty.

There is a cool twelve page biographical pamphlet here:

JOICE HETH, the subject of this short memoir, was born on the Island of Madagascar, on the Coast of Africa, in the year One Thousand Six Hundred and Seventy-four. Of her parents little or nothing is known, save what she herself relates of them, in which her recollections are so indistinct, that but very little can be satisfactorily learnt.

At the age of fifteen, she was cruelly torn from the bosom of her parents and her native land by one of those inhuman beings, who, in those days, to enrich themselves, made merchandize of human flesh.

She was imported into America, and sold as a slave to Thomas Buckner, an extensive planter of Virginia. She remained with him several years, when she came into the Washington family, who were then living on an extensive domain, called the Chotank Plantations.