Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25

On this date in 1836, hundreds of witnesses observed the dissection of Joice Heth, an African American woman whom Phineas T. Barnum had been displaying to live audiences for much of the previous year. Though Barnum claimed that Heth was 161 years old, it was more likely -- as the autopsy revealed -- that she was no older than 90.

An enslaved woman who had long been the property of a Kentucky family, Heth came to Barnum’s attention during the summer of 1835. At the time, she was being shown to audiences in Philadelphia on the pretense that she had actually been present at the birth of George Washington and had helped raise the nation’s eventual father figure during her years in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Her owners were, however, looking to sell Heth for a reasonable price, and after inspecting the woman and reviewing her paper trail, Barnum agreed to take possession of the blind, toothless and paralyzed woman. On August 6, 1835, the as-yet-unknown P.T. Barnum became a slaveholder. Heth cost him $1000, half of which he borrowed from a friend.

Following her purchase, Heth accompanied Barnum to New York, where she appeared for an extended run at a saloon called Niblio’s Garden. There, Heth earned about $1500 a week for her owner; during her appearances in New York, Providence, and Boston, she amused her white audiences by telling stories stories, singing hymns, answering questions from the curious, and smoking prolific quantities of cigarettes (a habit she claimed to have picked up 120 years previous). When audiences dwindled, Barnum boosted them again by claiming that Heth was in fact an “automaton” made of rubber and whale-bone.

After nearly seven months in the service of P.T. Barnum, Joice Heth died on February 19, 1836. Though autopsies were not commonly performed on whites, doctors used the procedure much more frequently on the bodies of slaves, paupers and criminals. A few days after Heth’s passing, the New York Evening Star applauded Barnum’s willingness to subject the elderly woman to the knife.
We can only say that an opportunity for illustrating the effects of such extreme old age upon the human system is not likely to occur again very soon, and that the investigation, conducted by a competent hand, would doubtless form an instructive and valuable record in anatomical science. The old woman's soul, we trust, is quite comfortable in heaven, where, perhaps, distinctions of color are of less consequence than they are here; and if the surgeons, by dissecting her body, can trace the causes of her having been so long getting thither, it might be useful to those who are in more haste. But, independently of this consideration, the examinations of the anatomy of very aged persons, affords one of the most curious and instructive studies in the science. The immediate cause of the old woman's death is said to be a severe cold which she caught about a week ago; but she was treated with the utmost attention and care, and died with perfect tranquility.
The next day, the autopsy of Joice Heth revealed a woman who was generally quite healthy except for the tuberculosis in her lungs.