May 07, 2020 - Sale 2534

Sale 2534 - Lot 247

Price Realized: $ 4,750
?Final Price Realized includes Buyer’s Premium added to Hammer Price
Estimate: $ 1,500 - $ 2,500
FIRST WEEK OF P.T. BARNUM'S FIRST SHOW (ENTERTAINMENT--CIRCUS.) Early appearance of Joice Heth, said to be George Washington's nursemaid. Letterpress broadside, 9 1/2 x 5 inches; horizontal folds and wrinkling, unrelated 1836 memorandum on verso. [New York], circa 10 August 1835

Additional Details

Joice Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was exhibited as a circus attraction in the final year of her life, with the outrageous claim that she was 161 years old and had nursed the infant George Washington. After making a few appearances with promoters in Kentucky and Philadelphia, she was sold to 25-year-old P.T. Barnum in August 1835. It was his first venture into show business, and set him on the path to a great fortune.
This handbill dates from the first week of the debut New York exhibition at Niblo's Garden, a large event venue. It reads: "Niblo's Garden. The greatest curiosity in the world, and the most interesting, particularly to Americans, is now exhibiting (for six days only) at the saloon fronting on Broadway . . . Joice Heth, nurse to Gen. George Washington (the Father of our Country), who has arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years. . . . She is cheerful and healthy, although she weighs but 49 pounds, she relates many anecdotes of her young master, as she calls him. . . . She frequently sings and repeats parts of hymns and psalms."
Blind and nearly paralyzed, Heth toured throughout New York and New England for the new few months, and died the following February. Her autopsy was treated as another public spectacle, with a doctor pronouncing her less than 161 years old, and Barnum disputing the charge. Joice Heth's sad history was an important example of white America's commodification and morbid obsession with race.
We have traced several other Joice Heth broadsides, including one at Brown University which advertises her extended booking at Niblo's, but this seems to be the only one dating as early as her first week in New York.