Most of us have heard of Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. During his life, P.T. Barnum was a businessman and politician but was most famously known for being an entertainer. His name became synonymous with circuses, sideshows, and showmanship.
Before he introduced bearded ladies and 800-lb men into his “freak show” circuit, Barnum’s first human “curiosity” in 1835 was an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. Surprisingly, the story of Heth is forever linked to young George Washington.
Joice Heth was advertised by R.W. Lindsay, one of a long line of owners and the last before Barnum, as the oldest living human at 161 years old. Lindsay also claimed she was the former nursemaid to the infant George Washington. As described in The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America, the definitive account of Heth’s life and exploitation, Lindsay exhibited Joice in multiple American cities where she shared imaginative – yet convincing – retellings of her time on the Washington family farm.
According to her story told during these exhibitions, Joice was born in Madagascar in 1674. She was captured at the age of 15 by slave traders. Eventually, she found herself “in service of the Washington Family” on Virginia’s Northern Neck. The Northern Neck was where Augustine Washington, George’s father, spent his youth and where George was born at Pope’s Creek. R.W. Lindsay even possessed documentation supposedly proving that Joice was once owned by Augustine.
Joice was said to have married an enslaved man named Peter on a neighboring plantation and was baptized in the Potomac River in 1720. She later ran the kitchen and nursery (presumably at Pope’s Creek) and was the first to swaddle the newborn George, or “Georgy” as she affectionately called him. At this point in sharing her account, she recalled several stories of her role in George’s upbringing, enthusiastically recounting the future first president in many tall tales. Heth even told a version of Mason Locke Weems’s cherry tree tale. In her version, Joice said that George broke some branches on a peach tree with some playmates before confessing his part in the misdeed to Augustine.
At the age of 54, Heth said she was sold to the neighboring Atwood Plantation home of the owners of her husband Peter. There she stayed with the Atwood family – who were cousins of the Washingtons – for several years, outliving most of her relatives. She presumably was then bought in old age to be shown as an exhibit of “living antiquity” and as the last living person to have personally known young Washington.
Astonishing? Yes. Completely fabricated? Yes. Historians agree that Joice was likely born around 1756 when George Washington was 24-years-old. She was never his nursemaid.
Still, her story compelled P.T. Barnum to purchase her in 1835. Barnum, who later became a staunch abolitionist, said in his autobiography that he purchased not Joice herself, but the rights to her story from R.W. Lindsay for $1,000.
Regardless, Barnum exhibited Heth at taverns, inns, concert halls, etc., allowing paying customers to see her in person and to listen to her fantastical stories of how she helped raise the first president. Joice was disabled, and quite old for the time. If she was born in 1756, then she would have been 79 years old in 1835. Blindness, paralysis, and unusually long fingernails added credibility of her claimed age to the curious observer.
Some credibility was lost however, when Joice didn’t remember certain facts or got key information wrong about the first president’s life. Yet, at the same time, she could remember historical events that occurred in her actual 80 years of life with reliability. Skeptics noted that Joice seemed to have a good memory, and keenly recounted many tales of young Washington, but just not with the accuracy her still-sharp mind would have had if she actually had been there.
Customers were allowed to touch Joice and to take her pulse to prove that she was a real human. A rumor spread that she was an automaton, a mechanical device made to imitate a human being. Barnum himself may have spread this rumor, as popularity of the exhibition dwindled and sales began to drop. He wanted to bring Joice back into the public eye and hoped that people would come back to see if this rumored robotic forgery was real. Barnum continued exhibiting Joice Heth until her death only one year later.
But the story of Joice Heth doesn’t end there. It gets even stranger.
Barnum, ever the entrepreneur, was not ready to let Joice go. Just as poor Joice was exhibited in life, she was exhibited in death. Barnum hired Dr. David L. Rogers, a respectable physician, to preform Joice’s autopsy in hopes of gathering scientific data about allegedly the world’s oldest person. Her autopsy was made public and gawkers were charged 50 cents per person to view the procedure. At least 1,500 people attended the macabre spectacle, only to be told that Joice Heth could not possibly be over 80 years of age, just as Dr. Rodgers had assessed during examinations before she died. Dr. Rogers had visited Joice during her lifetime, and reported her to have “none of the concomitants” of great age. He ruled that she displayed the health of a woman of around 75 years old, which she probably was, and that her blindness likely was a result of an illness experienced in early childhood. Embarrassed, Barnum yielded and stated the he, the great P.T. Barnum, had been swindled by this “Humbug” himself and was convinced of Joice’s authenticity by R.W. Lindsay.
Joice Heth, a real human being, experienced slavery’s dehumanization in both life and in death in a unique way. Historians can only learn so much about Joice because her enslavers – Barnum, Lindsay, and others – took great lengths to hide her actual identity and history in order to exploit her. Even if the story she told was a hoax, she was no doubt a fascinating individual. Why Joice went along with fabricating the story of nursing young George Washington, and what it meant to her to be regarded in this way, is lost forever. Historians note that an enslaved woman who was blind, paralyzed, and elderly would perhaps acquiesce to this way of life as a way to ensure her basic needs were met since she was physically unable to work as a domestic laborer, agricultural worker, or in some other trade. Given her condition and age, who would have bought her besides those seeking to capitalize on the story of her as George Washington’s supposed nanny? Ultimately, her motivations and view of her life are buried under a created identity. What could have been learned from this talented storyteller and incredible woman is lost to history.
Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director & Lab Technician