The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America 9780674042650

Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's firs

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Camblidge, Massachusetts, and London, England

Copyri?;ht © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard Colle?;e All ri?;hts reserved PJinted in the United States of Amelica First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 2010

Library ,if Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Reiss, Benjamin. The showman and the slave: race, death, and memory in Barllll111'S America/ Benjamin Reiss. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-674-00636-2 (cloth) ISBN 97S-0-674-0,5,564-3 (pbk.) 1. Popular culture-United States-HistOly-19th centmy. 2. Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor), 1810-1891. :3. Heth, Joice, d. 1836. 4. Women slaves-United States-Bio?;raphy. ,5. Freak shows-Social aspects-United States-HistOly-19th centmy. 6. Whites-United StatesRace identity. 7. Af,ican Amelicans in popular culture-United States-HistOly-19th centmy. 8. Racisim in popL,lar cLlltLlre-United States-History-19th centLIl)·. 9. Death in popL,lar culture-United States-HistOly-19th centmy. 10. Northeastern States-Race relations. I. Title. E16,5 .R:36 2001 :306'.0973'09034-dc21





Introduction: The Dark Subject




1. Possession


2. The Celebrated Curiosity


3. Private Acts, Public Memories


4. Sacred and Profane


5. Culture Wars


6. Love, Automata, and India Rubber


7. Spectacle




8. Authenticity and Commodity


9. Exposure and Mastery


10. Erasure




11. A Speculative Biography


Note to the 2010 Printing







1. Portion of the bill of sale for Joice Heth (Boston Public LibrarylRare Books Department; courtesy of The Trustees) 25 2. Corner of Broadway and Ann Street, New York, 1831 (The Old Broadway Stages, lithograph: Pendleton, 1831, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2185) 31 3. Advertisement for the Joice Heth exhibit (Somers Historical Society, Somers, N.Y.) 34 4. Rembrandt Peale, George \Vashington, Patriae Pater (U.S. Senate Collec-



5. Christian Gullager, George 'Washington (oil portrait, 1789, Massachusetts Historical Society, image number 389) 48 6. Phrenological portraits of George \Vashington and an "African" (from O. S. and L. N. Fowler, The Illustmted Self-Instructor in Phrenology and PhYSiology, New York: Fowler and Wells, 1849) 49 7. Pamphlet biography of Joice Heth (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society) 80 8. B. J. Harrison, Fair of the American Institute at Niblo's Garden (watercolor drawing, c. 1845, Museum of the City of New York, .51.119) 108

9. New York Hemld front page, September 24,1836 (© Collection of The NewYork Historical Society) 161 10. P. T. Barnum (autographed engraving, 1844, Museum of the City of New York, Theater Collection/Circus, 44.83.39) 172



11. Caricature of "Judy Heath" (from The Autobiography of Petite Bunkum, The Yankee Showman, New York: P. F. Harris, 1855) 200

12. Diary of William Heth, Saturday, March 2, 1793 (Library of Congress, Manuscripts Collection) 217


My thanks go first to Aida Donald, whose faith in this project and steady hand at the tiller saw me through the publication process. I also owe special thanks to Mitchell Breitwieser at the University of California, Berkeley, for his wise suggestions and for helping me see the potential in what I had found. Also of profound help to me at Berkeley was Sam Otter, whose encyclopedic knowledge of antebellum culture was both an inspiration and a great resource. Alexander Saxton generously agreed to read an early version of this project and gave me terrific feedback. Janet Adelman provided me encouragement just when I needed it most, and Frederick Crews offered what turned out to be excellent advice on publishing. In that regard, Rick Balkin also deserves thanks. David Zimmerman let me bend his ear out of shape and gave me countless suggestions and offerings of moral support. Josh Sens and Andy Cameron read an early draft of the first few chapters, and helped me find a voice. The rest of my Bay Area friends are all over the margins of this book, having given me such a rich life in the present to balance my generally solitary meditations on the past. Along the way I had many generous respondents and correspondents who sent me their manuscripts, pointed me to valuable documents, and offered thoughtful perspectives on my work. An incomplete list includes Bluford Adams, Rachel Adams, Robin Bernstein, Russ Castronovo, Jay Cook, Lucinda MacKethan, Fred Pfening III, Michael Sappol, A. H.



Saxon, and Rosemalie Garland Thomson. Lucy Maddox and the editOlial board at American Quarterly helped me shape an earlier article related to this project. At Tulane, I've been fortunate to have a supportive network of faculty colleagues; I especially thank Teresa Toulouse, Geoffrey Harpham, and Lawrence Powell for their insights, encouragement, and company. At Harvard University Press, I had the benefit of two thoughtful, constructive reader's reports. The first reader was anonymous; the second started out that way and then turned into Bryan \Volf. I also thank Elizabeth Suttell for all her help at the Press, and Elizabeth Gilbert for her excellent copyediting. This work could not have been completed-or even begun-without financial support from a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities. Two additional dissertation-year fellowships and two research travel grants from the University of California, Berkeley, and summer research fellowships from both UC Berkeley and the Tulane University Committee on Research allowed me to follow through. Thanks also to librarians and archivists Dorothy Koenig and Michaelyn Burnette at UC Berkeley, Jim Prichard of the Kentucky State Archives in Frankfort, and Mary V. Thompson of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. As I retraced some of Barnum and Heth's path, I had many excellent hosts: Stuart and Marcella Bernstein, Jeffrey Gordon and Alice Oldfather, Rick Heyman and Maria Vanoni, Andrea and Patlick Page-McCaw. My parents, David and JoAnn Reiss, contributed both the genes and a good bit of the environment that enabled me to write this book; I'm not sure which to thank them for most. This book is for Devora, who has given me love, trust, laughter, and the best gift of all: Isaac.



It was not a story to pass on. -Toni Morrison, Beloljcd

IN THE SUMMER OF 183.5, a twenty-five-year-old dry goods salesman named P. T. Barnum quit his day job to go on the road with 'The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World," thus launching one of the most remarkable careers in American show business. This curiosity was an old and infirm black slave woman named Joice Heth, who had supposedly "anived at the astonishing age of 161 years" and been the former nurse of the infant George Washington. On the strength of these claims, she had been exhibited in towns and cities across Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania by a hapless itinerant showman from Kentucky named R. \V. Lindsay. When Lindsay couldn't turn a profit, he sold his interest in the exhibit to Barnum, who after a brief but tumultuous reign as a newspaper editor in his native Connecticut had held a valiety of odd jobs in New York. As Heth's new manager and virtual owner, he found fortune and fame; but Heth became, after a life of slavery, the butt of a long-running practical joke that would outlive her by decades. In fact, wrote one commentator, "the funniest part came when the old wench died." 1 Barnum's display of Heth started with a two-and-a-half-week stay at the fashionable Niblo's Garden in New York, where thousands came to marvel at this living historical relic. Similar engagements followed in Providence, Boston, Hingham, Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Newark, Paterson, Albany, and many towns in between, ,vith several return visits to the city of New York. Newspapers reported Heth's



comings and goings avidly, and crowds flocked to hear her tell stories about how she had witnessed the birth of "dear little George" and been the first to clothe and even breast-feed him; to ask her questions about the upblinging of the Father of the Nation; to join in ,vith her as she sang the hymns she had supposedly taught him; and to laugh at her impertinent stories about the redcoats and at her haughty pretensions to be "Lady \Vashington." Her debility was a draw, too, and many came to gaze oneven to touch-her amazingly decrepit body. Joice Heth was advertised as weighing only forty-six pounds; she was blind and toothless and had deeply wrinkled skin; she was paralyzed in one arm and both legs (apparently the result of a stroke); and her nails were said to curl out like talons. "Indeed," wrote one observer, "she is a mere skeleton covered with skin, and her whole appearance very much resembles a mummy of the days of the Pharaohs, taken entire from the catacombs of Egypt."2 In the course of Heth's northern tour, several controversies arose over her identity, most of them eitl1er planted or manipulated by Barnum. \Vas she still a slave? If so, who owned her, and who profited from her exhibit? How had she achieved her extraordinary longevity, and what, if anything, did this achievement reveal about tl1e nature of tl1e different races and the propriety of slavery? \Vere blacks somehow more hardy than whites, or did they simply flourish under the permanent custody of whites? Was she the real thing? In one of the more absurd attempts to drum up publiCity, she was said to be not just a fraud but not even a human being at all: a story planted in a New Haven newspaper-and taken seriously by more than one visitor and at least one editor-asserted that Heth was in fact an automaton made of India rubber, whalebone, and metal springs, whose voice was ventriloquized by an offstage puppeteer. Her death on February 19, 1836, occasioned the greatest controversy of all and provided the opportunity for spectacle that helped turn Barnum into a cultural icon. And as a few upstart New York commercial newspapers covered the story, they found novel ways to increase their circulation and visibility. Heth had become one of the first true American media celebrities, but ultimately-as a corpse and then as a memory-she became an advertisement for Barnum and tl1is new mass media even more than they advertised her. In order to gratify public curiosity about Heth's longevity, Barnum arranged to have an autopsy performed in public (charg-



ing .50 cents admission, of course). Over a thousand spectators gathered around a surgical table in a makeshift operating theater in New York's City Saloon and watched as the respected surgeon David L. Rogers carved into her body. Tens of thousands more followed the story as it was covered in clinical detail and debated in the local papers. Rogers's surprising conclusion was that Heth could not have been more than eighty years old and that every aspect of her story was therefore a hoax. A surreal journalistic war erupted in the wake of these findings, as papers outdid themselves trying to discover the "real" story. Barnum and his associate, a quick-witted lawyer named Levi Lyman, fed the flames for months, planting more hoaxes and bogus exposures, playing off journalistic rivals who were only too ready to expose each other's gullibility while neglecting the possibility of their own. Barnum and Lyman claimed that Heth was alive and well and living in Connecticut and that the body on the operating table had belonged to someone else; they claimed that Heth's remains were to be embalmed and sent on tour in Europe; they claimed to have invented Heth's story; they claimed to have been taken in like everyone else. What eventually emerged from this series of improvisations on the corpse's identity was the celebrity of Barnum, who, through his pioneeling interventions in the development of commercial culture, practically invented the modem notion of fame and-not surprisingly-became the most famous of all nineteenth-century Americans.:] Barnum's fame mounted steadily after his orchestration of the Heth affair: he toured with the Fejee Mermaid (actually half a skeleton of a fish ingeniously melded to half a skeleton of a monkey), Tom Thumb (the amusing "little General" Charles Stratton, who famously charmed the queen of England), and Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale, whose rapturous voice enthralled millions of Americans); he became the Wildly successful proplietor of the American Museum (which housed an eclectic assortment of human "freaks," savages, exotic curiosities from the natural realm, works of art, and dramatic performances); he embarked on political campaigns (he became mayor of Bridgeport and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress after the Civil War); and finally, he collaborated with James A. Bailey in "The Greatest Show on Earth." He promoted his own name and image tirelessly by means of publicity stunts such as having an elephant plow his Connecticut farm every time a train passed, or loudly broadcasting his of-



fer to buy the house in which Shakespeare was born and have it removed in sections to his museum in New York. But who was Joice Heth? In his many autobiographical writings (the final version of which was perhaps the second most widely read book of the nineteenth century, after the Bible),4 Barnum revisited the question many times, but ultimately he concealed as much as he revealed. In the earliest version (a lightly fictionalized selies of newspaper sketches in 1841), she is entirely Barnum's invention, a "worthless" old slave whom he discovers languishing on a Kentucky plantation and who inspires his first great money-making enterprise. Despite tl1e fact that tl1is narrative was written after the emancipation of slaves in all northern states and in it Barnum's self-styled narrator refers to himself as a "Yankee," he speaks casually of "owning" Heth. As if in proof, she is portrayed as little more than a puppet whose words, actions, and even appearance are controlled by her "master." He delights in contriving ingenious methods to compel her to work when she resists his control; he even pulls out all her teeth to make her look older (a claim he would later deny). His absolute mastery of her-his negation of her will, and his ability to fashion her into whatever audiences would pay him to see-is virtually tl1e entire point of his story.5 But by the 1869 edition of his autobiography, Stmggles and Triumphs, Barnum was telling an entirely different story about his relation to Heth. Although the book includes an account of the exhibit in a chapter called "My Start as a Showman," Barnum tries to distance himself from responsibility for it, claiming even to have believed in the genuineness of her claims. It was "a scheme in no sense of my own devising; one which ... I honestly believed ... to be genuine; something, too, which, as I have said, I did not seek, but which by accident came in my way and seemed almost to compel my agency." As for tl1e results of the autopsy, whose utter mystification Barnum spent seven months laboring to produce, all he could say was that "tl1e doctors disagreed, and this 'dark subject' \vill probably always continue to be shrouded in mystery."6 \Vhose agency was compelled by whom? Joice Heth had become not a marionette but a "dark subject," a controlling phantasm who "seemed almost to compel my agency." I have spent the last few years recovering the lost story of Heth and Barnum from a Babel of newspaper and journal accounts, from diaries,


court records, and state archives, from letters and short stories, pamphlets, drawings, advertisements, poems, memoirs, jokes, histories, genealogies, and biographies. From this sWirling collection of voices, though, the mystery of her identity has often only taken new shapes. For all her fame, Heth led a life that was doubly erased-once through slavery and once through imposture. Because slaves were not citizens and indeed were considered less than fully human, they have little autonomous presence in the records that historians and genealogists use to resuscitate the dead. Unlike most slaves, though, she went on, in old age, to lead a public life, an exhaustive record of which needed only to be unearthed. But that record is little more than a thorough account of who Joice Heth was not. This book is mainly an attempt to reconstruct Heth's public persona as the nurse of Washington and the oldest living human, partly an attempt to track down the private Joice Heth, and throughout an effort to explore the cultural Significance of both. How does one read tl1e fragmentary, perplexing, often even deliberately mystifying traces of Heth's career? Carlo Ginzburg has written that histOlical evidence is not like a \vindow onto another world, but neitl1er is it like a wall; instead, it is like bits of distorted glass. "Without a thorough analysis of its inherent distortions (the codes according to which it has been constructed and/or it must be perceived), a sound histOlical reconstruction is impossible.'" The peculiar difficulty in this case is that we have records of a public responding to deliberate distortions of a woman's life, and so behind the distorted bits of glass are more bits of glass-and behind tl1ese, a woman acting. And yet when tl1e distorted and obscurely referential fragments are viewed from a certain angle, the bits of glass mirror those who would look tl1rough them. To piece them togetl1er, tl1en, is to catch a slice of mid-nineteenth-century Amelica off guard. Visitors who left responses to Heth's exhibit are informants on a state of collective fantasy, in which Heth became practically whatever her observers wanted her to be. That fantasy, tl10ugh, was never more than a distorted vision of her visitors' everyday social lives. In the way that a dream tells us about an individual's unconscious, these records can tell us about a society's unspoken assumptions, its underlying and competing fictions of national, racial, regional, class- and gender-based, religious, and individual identities. It is often the clash of representations that I \vill focus on here-the ways in which dissonance and even open argument over Heth symbolized



and sometimes deflected wider issues of power, possession, and publicity in the antebellum period. 8 Heth's exhibit received many readings that bolstered dominant cultural assumptions, others that shored up a weak point, and yet others that posed problems or signified dissent-at least in a minor key. The conflicts that arose were inevitable because the claims surrounding the exhibit almost deliberately provoked disbelief, skepticism, or argument. They also arose because of the liminal status of the exhibited woman herself: at times Heth conformed to the classifications of human identity underlying her audience's sense of themselves and the world around them, and just as often she unsettled those classifications. Heth belonged to a degraded race, but was exalted for her role in history; she was paralytic and half dead but curiously animated; she was a human but was viewed as a trained animal; she was a slave in the "free" North. These ambiguities pressed on the boundaries of the normal and, in so doing, helped bring those boundaries into sharper focus. As recent scholars on the history of wonders and curiosities have written, "no one was ever indifferent to wonder," for to contemplate the singular, the odd, or the unnatural was "to challenge the assumptions that ruled ordinary life."Y Indeed, to make sense of this singular curiosity was also to make sense of normality, to wrestle with the meanings of ordinary life that stood in implicit contrast to the vision of her extraordinariness. To take a tour ,vith Barnum and Heth is also to take a tour of antebellum cultural history. The story of who Joice Heth was not-the story of Barnum's Heth in the eyes of her publics-appears in retrospect not just as distorting and reflecting glass but as a wondrous magnet, attracting and reworking many of the most potent cultural forces of the period: the new role of medical science in understanding the human body; the importance for a divided nation of sustaining (or inventing) memOlies of revolutionary unity; shifting attitudes toward death and religion; the changing roles of women in public life; the effects of urbanization on culture and social life; competition between classes for control of the political and cultural spheres; and the emergence of the mass media and a genuinely capitalist culture. Most telling, though, and connected to each of the above, are matters of race and slavery. The Barnum-Hetl1 tour was a traveling, shapeshifting, improvised forum for public discussion-and, just as often, public avoidance-of the racial issues that were coming to dominate political