“The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World”: Joice Heth, P.T. Barnum, and …George Washington?

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.

Handbill describing and illustrating the exhibition of Joice Heth, proclaimed to be nurse to Gen. George Washington age 161 years, at Barnum’s Hotel, Bridgeport, December 11 & 12 [1835] Credit: New York Heritage

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

Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0


What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.