“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

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.