Joice Heth: The Enslaved African Who Was Exhibited in Circuses as George Washington’s Childhood Nurse

Joice Heth was an enslaved African woman who found herself thrust into the spotlight as she was exhibited as the purported childhood nurse of George Washington, the first President of the United States.

Joice Heth: The Enslaved African Who Was Exhibited in Circuses as George Washington's Childhood Nurse

According to some accounts, Joice Heth was born around the 1750s in Africa. Her journey as an enslaved person began at a young age when she was captured and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of America, where she suffered a lifetime of hardship and servitude. However, her exploitation did not end with her physical enslavement; it continued even in her old age.

In 1835, a frail and elderly Joice Heth found herself under the ownership of P.T. Barnum, an ambitious young showman eager to make a name for himself. Her advanced age, blindness, and paralysis made her an easy target for exploitation. Barnum capitalized on her vulnerability, weaving a narrative that she was an astonishing 161 years old and had been the cherished nurse of George Washington during his childhood.

Joice Heth: The Enslaved African Who Was Exhibited in Circuses as George Washington's Childhood Nurse

Barnum began showcasing Joice Heth in a traveling circus spectacle, billing her as “The Oldest Woman in the World” and “The Mammy of the Father of His Country.” Audiences were regaled with tales of her remarkable life, ostensibly spent nurturing the young George Washington. Though evidence and historical records discredited the claim, Barnum’s showmanship and the allure of seeing a living link to the revered Founding Father drew crowds.

Posters advertising her shows in 1835 included the lines, “Joice Heth is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World! She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father of Gen. Washington) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of this Country, ‘she raised him’. Joice Heth was born in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years

Joice Heth: The Enslaved African Who Was Exhibited in Circuses as George Washington's Childhood Nurse

Despite her physical challenges, Joice Heth was forced to work tirelessly for 10 to 12 hours per day under Barnum’s control. She was exhibited in cities across the eastern United States, attracting both genuine curiosity and morbid fascination. With her enchanting songs and captivating tales, she mesmerized audiences, becoming a lucrative asset for Barnum, filling his coffers with a substantial fortune. It is believed that she generated an impressive $1500 per week for him.

According to Harriet Washington, author of medical apartheid, at the time of her display, she had a very small frame, deep wrinkles, and had fingernails that resembled talons. Additionally, she had no teeth because Barnum had forcefully extracted them, all in an effort to make her look older and fit the narrative he was presenting.

As Joice Heth’s exhibition continued, doubts about the authenticity of Lindsay’s claims grew. Skeptics questioned the veracity of her alleged connection to George Washington and suspected the entire spectacle was a ruse. Given the doubts surrounding her age, Barnum decided to publicly announce that an autopsy would be conducted after her death.

In February 1836, Joice Heth’s unfortunate journey came to a tragic end. At approximately 80 years old, she passed away while touring with Barnum’s circus, succumbing to her ailments. However, instead of granting her a dignified farewell, Barnum seized one last opportunity for a spectacle. He organized a public autopsy of Heth’s body, charging spectators 50 cents each to witness the examination. The autopsy, carried out in front of a total of 1500 people, revealed that Heth could not have been older than 80 years, which was far from the age Barnum had previously claimed.

Even after the autopsy revealed that the age claim was a fraud, Barnum refused to accept the truth. He insisted that the autopsy victim was another person entirely and claimed that Joice Heth was still alive, supposedly on a tour to Europe. However, as time passed, Barnum eventually admitted to perpetuating the hoax and deceiving the public for his own gain.

Despite this misleading start to his career, Barnum went on to further fame in the business of spectacle and curiosity.

You might also want to read up on The Tragic Story of George and Willie Muse, the Black Brothers Who Were Kidnapped and Forced to Perform in Circuses and the history of human zoos in the West

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.


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