Joice Heth- The story you didn’t see in “The Greatest Showman”

In this ‘woke’ era it surprises me that the musical “The Greatest Showman” didn’t get cancelled. Even more amazingly it was a huge success, even though it probably was one of the biggest history revisions ever to hit the cinema and later on TV and streaming services.

Joice Heth was one of the ‘performers’ of the P.T Barnum show.

Often buried deep within the Barnum mythology is the shocking story of how P.T Barnum got his start, leasing an elderly Black slave who he’d exhibit as President George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid.

Heth was offered to Barnum for $1000. With slavery illegal in the North, Barnum instead negotiated to “lease” Heth for a year, paying for his half with a loan, and recruiting a business partner, Levi Lyman, for the rest.

Barnum and his partner Levi Lyman drew the curious to see Joice Heth using posters and advertisements . The advertisements provided the story that would entice readers to see the “real thing” by highlighting Heth’s connection to the revered George Washington as well as the curiosity of her extreme age.

Heth was, toward the end of her life, blind and almost completely paralyzed when Barnum started to exhibit her on August 11, 1835, at Niblo’s Garden in New York City. For skeptics that discounted the legitimacy of Heth’s age, her body aided in the belief of her exaggerated age. Harriet Washington, an American writer and medical ethicist, states that at the time of her display, Heth had a very small frame, deep wrinkles, was toothless, and had fingernails that resembled talons. Washington explains that Heth’s toothless mouth was a result from Barnum forcefully extracting her teeth so that she would look older. As a 7-month traveling exhibit for Barnum, Heth told stories about “little George” and sang a hymn. Eric Lott claims that Heth earned the impresario $1,500 a week, a princely sum in that era.Barnum’s career as a showman took off. Her case was discussed extensively in the press. As doubt had been expressed about her age, Barnum announced that upon her death she would be publicly autopsied. She died the next year in Bethel, Connecticut, at the home of Barnum’s brother Philo, on February 19,1836.

Nearly a week later on February 25, 1836, Heth’s corpse was cut open in New York’s City Saloon, in front of 1,500 paying spectators. The doctor, David L. Rogers, came to some interesting conclusions. Heth was not, as P. T. Barnum had claimed, 161 years old. That, in turn, cast doubt on her alleged connection to George Washington, whom she supposedly nursed when he was a child.

Barnum insisted that the autopsy victim was another person, and that Heth was alive, on a tour to Europe. Later, Barnum admitted the hoax.

Not only exploited Barnum her in her last months of her life, he also exploited her in death. Those 1500 spectators all had pay 50 cents each to see the autopsy. By any standard and measure those are not the deed of a noble man, as he is portrayed in the musical. It was an utterly despicable way to treat a human being.



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