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Joice Heth (c.1756 – February 19, 1836[1]) was an African American slave who was exhibited by P. T. Barnum with the claim that she was the 161-year-old nursing "mammy" of George Washington.



Little is known of Heth's earlier life. The promoter R. W. Lindsay introduced her as the nurse of former President George Washington, but lacking success sold her in her old age to the upstart Barnum.[2] She was toward the end of her life, blind and almost completely paralyzed (she could talk, and had some ability to move her right arm)[3] when Barnum started to exhibit her on August 10, 1835, at Niblo's Garden in New York City.[2][4] As a 7-month traveling exhibit for Barnum, Heth told stories about "little George" and sang a hymn.[5] Eric Lott claims that Heth earned the impresario $1,500 a week, a princely sum in that era.[6] Barnum's career as a showman took off.[7] Her case was discussed extensively in the press. Because doubt had been expressed about her age Barnum announced that upon her death she would be publicly autopsied. She died the next year; probably her actual age at the time of her death was no more than 80 years.[1][4]

Public autopsy

Barnum engaged the service of a surgeon, Dr. David L. Rogers, who performed the autopsy on February 25, 1836, in front of fifteen hundred paying spectators in New York's City Saloon. When Rogers declared the age claim a fraud, Barnum insisted that the autopsy victim was another person, and Heth was alive, on a tour to Europe. Later Barnum admitted the hoax.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b Museum of Hoaxes.
  2. ^ a b c Harriet A. Washington (2006). Medical Apartheid. New York: Doubleday. p. 86ff. ISBN 0-385-50993-6.  
  3. ^ Benton
  4. ^ a b The University of Virginia American Studies page on Heth
  5. ^ The University of Virginia American Studies page on Heth cites this to Phineas T. Barnum, Barnum's Own Story ed. Waldo R. Browne. (Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1972) 49.
  6. ^ Lott 1993.
  7. ^ "P.T. Barnum", Britannica Eleventh Edition mentions the claim to have been nurse of George Washington and lists his exhibiting her as the first significant event in Barnum's career.


  • "P.T. Barnum", Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.
  • Joel Benton. Life of Phineas T. Barnum.  , Edgewood Publishing, 1891. Accessed 3 December 2007. The most detailed of these accounts, including information about Barnum's purchase of Heth, a detailed description of her appearance, how Barnum exhibited her, etc.
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2. p.76–78
  • Joice Heth, Museum of Hoaxes. Accessed online 8 April 2007.
  • Joice Heth, part of a University of Virginia American Studies Department site about Barnum. Accessed online 8 April 2007.

External links



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