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10
Joice Heth, 161-Year-Old Woman

Hokum for Sale

P.T. Barnum and his British counterpart Tom Norman had few reservations about marketing hokum, the showman jargon for tricking an audience, to curious crowds. Norman once bluntly admitted:

..You could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told. [source: National Fairground Archive]

Billed in 1835 as the "The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World," Joice Heth endured poking, prodding and general gawking, as onlookers puzzled over her withered appearance and gnarled, clawlike fingers. Could she really be 161 years old, as the music hall and hotel advertisements for her traveling attraction proclaimed [source: Lost Museum]? Had the withered African American woman really cared for George Washington in his infancy? Certainly not, but P.T. Barnum didn't mind. As long as Heth's looks piqued curiosity regarding her true age and identity, America's original huckster profited.

Barnum purchased his first "freak," former plantation slave Heth, from Kentucky showman R.W. Lindsay, and trotted her around the Northeast for seven months as her health declined [source: Reiss]. For the price of one quarter, visitors could see Heth up close, her wrinkled skin and undisturbed demeanor provoking some to assume that she was merely a well-disguised automaton [source: Curry]. Indeed, the toothless and crippled elderly woman was alive, but not for long [source: Thomson]. After she died in February 1836, Barnum continued to cash in on the Heth hoax. He charged 50 cents for admission to the medical autopsy of her corpse, and the doctors reported to the 1,500 attendees that, indeed, Heth was far from 161 years old; she likely passed in her 70s.

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