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Who Made P.T. Barnum Famous?

Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) was probably the greatest American showman, presenting popular performers, oddities, freaks and curiosities to the public, including such stars as singer Jenny Lind and midget Tom Thumb. Originator of "The Greatest Show on Earth," his name and extravagance live on in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, and worked at a variety of odd jobs, including editing an abolitionist newspaper.

He hit upon his lifetime career when he read of an unsuccessful Philadelphia show featuring Joice Heth, an African American woman who was purportedly the nurse of George Washington. There was even an accompanying slave bill of sale, supposedly signed by Augustus Washington, George's father. Barnum bought for $1,000 the rights to exhibit her, and he put Heth on display at Niblo's Garden in New York on August 10, 1835. He billed her as "The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World."

Supposedly born in Madagascar in 1674, Joice Heth was advertised to be 161 years old and to weigh only 46 pounds. She was blind and toothless, her skin was shriveled, and she was partly paralyzed. She told paying customers of caring for George Washington as a baby, recalling events in his young life (including the story of the cherry tree), and singing the hymns she had taught him. Joice Heath was an instant and sensational success, which meant that Barnum was well on his way to wealth and fame.

On February 19, 1836, Joice Heth died. An autopsy revealed she had reached only the age of 80. Barnum reveled in the publicity of the hoax, feeding the press with stories ranging from bragging about the deception to being outraged by it himself. Exploiting Joice Heth even in death, Barnum buried her in his own family's cemetery plot.

Barnum went on to become an incredibly successful impresario, and to have a deep and lasting impact on American popular culture. It all began with an old black woman named Joice Heth.


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