The Greatest Showman, a musical about entertainer P.T. Barnum, debuted on Thursday to so-so reviews. Many critics felt the film overly sanitized Barnum, who first made a name for himself by selling tickets to see Joice Heth, an enslaved woman (and when she died, he sold tickets to her autopsy, too). It was Heth who helped propel Barnum to fame—yet as these critics pointed out, her name is conspicuously absent from the The Greatest Showman’s cast list.
Beginning in 1835, the 25-year-old Barnum advertised Heth as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World.” He claimed that she was 161 years old, and had been President George Washington’s “mammy,” or nursemaid. And like the other human “curiosities” he would later add to his show, he took Heth on tour so people could pay to see her.
“She was the source of the original act that made Barnum famous and set him on the track toward his career in show business,” says Benjamin Reiss, author of The Showman and the Slave. “She was also for a time in the 1830s one of the most famous people, arguably, in America; one of first real media celebrities in American culture.”
On the road, Heth was on public display for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. White ticket buyers would come to listen to her recount stories about Washington, sing hymns, and get up close to her.
“They could take her pulse, touch her, shake hands with her,” Reiss says. “So she was almost treated not just like an animal in a zoo, in some ways, but like an animal in a petting zoo. And yet at the same time she was advertised as this great national historical treasure; the last living link, or one of the last living links, to George Washington.”
The claim about her age and her connection to Washington was, of course, a lie. Reiss says that Barnum would also fabricate other stories about her, too, depending on what he thought would sell more tickets in a particular town. For instance, when preachers in Providence, Rhode Island, protested Barnum’s show because Heth was enslaved, Barnum responded by planting a story in the press that she was no longer enslaved, and that the money from the show would go toward freeing her relatives.
That was certainly not the case. Although she was traveling in the north, Heth was still legally enslaved to a slaveholder in Kentucky, and Barnum had paid $1,000 to take her on tour for twelve months. She made no money from the tour, and there was no agreement that she or any of her family would earn freedom. Yet for Barnum, these lies were part of the business. Throughout his career, he deliberately told fabricated, contradictory stories about himself and the people in his show to drum up public interest.
In another instance, Barnum planted a story in a Boston newspaper claiming that Heth was a hoax. She wasn’t actually a 161-year-old woman, he said: she was an “automaton,” or machine, made of whale bone and old leather. All of these competing stories about Barnum and her authenticity tapped into white people’s interest in contemporary scientific racism, as well as their fascination with non-white figures like Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus” in London. Bluford Adams, author of E Puluribus Barnum, says that “Barnum and the other men exhibiting [Heth] weren’t hesitant about raising questions about where she fit on a kind of spectrum of human and non-human.”
Unfortunately, Barnum’s multiple false accounts have made it difficult for historians to uncover what Heth’s life was like before she met him. “He took great pains to obscure that history, because of course he wanted to tell a story about her having been George Washington’s nurse,” Reiss says. “And so he had to fabricate lots of documents and to make sure she stuck to the script.”
We know that when Barnum met her in 1835, she was already touring with another white man, telling a similar story about being unusually old and having known George Washington. Reiss speculates that the general idea for this story may have originated with Heth herself.
“I was able to trace a plausible path back toward a Heth family in Kentucky who lived near where she got her start in doing this act,” he says. Reiss discovered that the plantation owner, William Heth, had bragged in his diary about his connection to George Washington. Given this, Reiss theorizes that Joice Heth’s story may have “started as a kind of plantation entertainment where she was sort of riffing on [William’s] stories about how close he had been to Washington, and kind of subtly making fun of him.”
By the time she met Barnum in in 1835, “she was not 161 years old, but she was an old woman,” Reiss says. “She was dying throughout the entire time of her tour. She had evidently had a major stroke, she was blind; she was very frail and feeble.”
She died February 1836, just months after becoming part of Barnum’s show. But unbeknownst to her, she was still the main attraction. Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy, which a surgeon performed in front of some 1,500 onlookers, according to Harriet A. Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid. That surgeon concluded that Heth couldn’t be more than 80, which prompted Barnum to declare that her death had been a hoax. This time, he said he’d given the surgeon a different body, that Heth was alive and well, and that she would one day return to the spotlight.
During the short time he knew her, Barnum’s multiple lies about Heth—that she was a century and a half old, that she was a fraud, that she was a robot, that she’d faked her death—sparked sensational press coverage. Before Heth, Barnum was virtually unknown. But by the end, this press coverage had catapulted him onto the national stage, effectively launching his career off of her back.
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