1835 | Philadelphia

Setting His Stage

P.T. Barnum discovers there’s no business like show business.

It was clear to my mind that my proper position in this busy world was not yet reached. I had displayed the faculty of getting money, as well as getting rid of it, but the business for which I was destined—and I believe made—had not yet come to me; or rather, I had not found that I was to cater for that insatiate want of human nature—the love of amusement—that I was to make a sensation on two continents, and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear before the public in the character of a showman. These things I had not foreseen. I did not seek the position or the character. The business finally came in my way; I fell into the occupation, and far beyond any of my predecessors on this continent, I have succeeded.

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama, which entrances empires and secures for the gifted artist a worldwide fame which princes well might envy. Such art is merchantable, and so with the whole range of amusements, from the highest to the lowest. The old word “trade” as it applies to buying cheap and selling at a profit is as manifest here as it is in the dealings at a street-corner stand or in Stewart’s store covering a whole square. This is a trading world, and men, women, and children—who cannot live on gravity alone—need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the author of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.

Whether I may claim a preeminence of grandeur in my career as a dispenser of entertainment for mankind, I may not say. I have sometimes been weak enough to think so, but let others judge; and whether I may assume that on the whole I have sought to make amusement harmless and have succeeded to a very great degree in eliminating from public entertainments certain corruptions which have made so many theatrical “sensations” positively shameful, may safely be left, I think, to the thousands upon thousands who have known me and the character of my amusement so long and so well.

I shall by no means claim entire faultlessness in my history as a showman. The least deserving of all my efforts in the show line was the one which introduced me to the business: a scheme in no sense of my own devising, one which had been sometime before the public and which had so many vouchers for its genuineness that at the time of taking possession of it I honestly believed it to be genuine—it seemed almost to compel my agency—such was the “Joice Heth” exhibition which first brought me forward as a showman.

In the summer of 1835, Mr. Coley Bartram of Reading, Connecticut, informed me that he had owned an interest in a remarkable Negro woman whom he believed to be 161 years old, and whom he also believed to have been the nurse of General Washington. He then showed me a copy of the following advertisement in the Pennsylvania Inquirer, of July 15, 1835:

Curiosity: The citizens of Philadelphia and its vicinity have an opportunity of witnessing at the Masonic Hall one of the greatest natural curiosities ever witnessed, viz., Joice Heth, a Negress, aged 161 years, who formerly belonged to the father of General Washington. She has been a member of the Baptist Church 116 years and can rehearse many hymns and sing them according to former custom. She was born near the old Potomac River in Virginia, and has for ninety or one hundred years lived in Paris, Kentucky, with the Bowling family.

All who have seen this extraordinary woman are satisfied of the truth of the account of her age. The evidence of the Bowling family, which is respectable, is strong, but the original bill of sale of Augustine Washington, in his own handwriting, and other evidences which the proprietor has in his possession, will satisfy even the most incredulous.

A lady will attend at the hall during the afternoon and evening for the accommodation of those ladies who may call.

Mr. Bartram further stated that he had sold out his interest to his partner, R. W. Lindsay, of Jefferson County, Kentucky, who was then exhibiting Joice Heth in Philadelphia, but was anxious to sell out and go home—the alleged reason being that he had very little tact as a showman. As the New York papers had also contained some account of Joice Heth, I went on to Philadelphia to see Mr. Lindsay and his exhibition.

Joice Heth was certainly a remarkable curiosity, and she looked as if she might have been far older than her age as advertised. She was apparently in good health and spirits but from age or disease, or both, was unable to change her position; she could move one arm at will, but her lower limbs could not be straightened; her left arm lay across her breast and she could not remove it; the fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and were fixed; the nails on that hand were almost four inches long and extended above her wrist; the nails on her large toes had grown to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; her head was covered with a thick bush of gray hair, but she was toothless and totally blind, and her eyes had sunk so deeply in the sockets as to have disappeared altogether.

Nevertheless she was pert and sociable and would talk as long as people would converse with her. She was quite garrulous about her protégé, “dear little George,” at whose birth she declared she was present, having been at the time a slave of Elizabeth Atwood, a half sister of Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington. As nurse she put the first clothes on the infant and she claimed to have “raised him.” She professed to be a member of the Baptist church, talking much in her way on religious subjects, and she sang a variety of ancient hymns.

In proof of her extraordinary age and pretensions, Mr. Lindsay exhibited a bill of sale, dated February 5, 1727, from Augustine Washington, County of Westmoreland, Virginia, to Elizabeth Atwood, conveying “one Negro woman, named Joice Heth, aged fifty-four years, for and in consideration of the sum of thirty-three pounds lawful money of Virginia.” It was further claimed that, as she had long been a nurse in the Washington family, she was called in at the birth of George and clothed the newborn infant. The evidence seemed authentic, and in answer to the inquiry why so remarkable a discovery had not been made before, a satisfactory explanation was given in the statement that she had been carried from Virginia to Kentucky, had been on the plantation of John S. Bowling so long that no one knew or cared how old she was, and only recently the accidental discovery by Mr. Bowling’s son of the old bill of sale in the Record Office in Virginia had led to the identification of this Negro woman as “the nurse of Washington.”

Everything seemed so straightforward that I was anxious to become proprietor of this novel exhibition, which was offered to me at one thousand dollars, though the price first demanded was three thousand. I had five hundred dollars, borrowed five hundred dollars more, sold out my interest in a grocery business to my partner, and began life as a showman. At the outset of my career, I saw that everything depended upon getting people to think and talk and become curious and excited over and about the “rare spectacle.” Accordingly, posters, transparencies, advertisements, newspaper paragraphs—all calculated to extort attention—were employed, regardless of expense. My exhibition rooms in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Albany, and in other large and small cities were continually thronged and much money was made. In the following February, Joice Heth died, literally of old age, and her remains received a respectable burial in the town of Bethel.


P.T. Barnum

From Struggles and Triumphs. After this first success, Barnum acquired the American Museum in New York City in 1842, installing various live “freaks,” among them the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. When he advertised a twenty-five-inch-tall boy as General Tom Thumb, he promptly sold 20 million tickets. Barnum partnered with James A. Bailey to create “the greatest show on earth” when he was a sexagenarian.