Barnum in 1851. (Harvard Library/Wikimedia Commons)
P.T. Barnum And Joice Heth
Despite their incredible claim, Lindsay and Bartram had little success peddling Heth around Louisville, so they sold her to P.T. Barnum. Heth was actually his first exhibition, but Barnum was already a master of marketing and showmanship. He further embellished her history, claiming she nursed the future president from her own body and was the first person to diaper and clothe him, and presented a document (either forged or coincidentally referring to a different slave of the same name) purporting that Augustine Washington, George’s father, had owned a 54-year-old slave named Joice Heth in 1727 to back up his story. Barnum exhibited Heth throughout the United States, and wherever he went, he convinced local newspapers to run Heth’s unbelievable biography.
Unfortunately, his success was short lived. Joice Heth was already frail and in poor health when Barnum purchased her, and she died of natural causes on February 19, 1836, but Barnum wasn’t ready to disembark his gravy train. He sold about 1,500 tickets for 50 cents each to a public autopsy of Heth on the pretense of proving she was in the latter half of her second century when she died, but Dr. David L. Rogers announced that she was, in fact, about 80 years old. Barnum quickly changed course, insisting that Heth was actually alive, well, and on tour in Europe and the body examined by Dr. Rogers was a ringer, and boy, did he fool you, but the public finally started to suspect there was something fishy about Barnum’s story. He was eventually forced to admit that it was all a hoax.