Joice Heth (claimed 1674 - 19 February 1836) was an American longevity myth. She was an African-American slave who was exhibited by P. T. Barnum with the false claim that she was the 161-year-old nursing "mammy" of President George Washington.
Next to nothing is known of Heth's entire life up until 1835, when she was held as a slave by John S. Bowling and exhibited in Louisville, Kentucky. In June 1835, she was sold to promoters R.W. Lindsay and Coley Bartram. Lindsay introduced her as having been the childhood nurse of George Washington, but, lacking success, he sold her in her old age to P. T. Barnum. Posters advertising her shows in 1835 included the lines, JOICE HETH is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World! She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father Gen. Washington) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of this Country, 'she raised him'. JOICE HETH was born in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years.
She was, towards the end of her life, blind, toothless, and almost completely paralysed (she could talk, and had some ability to move her right arm) when Barnum started to exhibit her on 10 August 1835, at Niblo's Garden in New York City. As a 7-month travelling exhibit for Barnum, Heth told stories about "little George" and sang a hymn. Eric Lott claims that Heth earned the impresario $1,500 a week, a princely sum in that era. During this time, Barnum's career as a showman took off. Her case was discussed extensively in the press. As doubt had been expressed about her age Barnum announced that upon her death she would be publicly autopsied. She died the next year. Barnum stated that Joice's remains were "buried respectably" in his home town of Bethel, Connecticut.
Joice Heth died on 19 February 1836 at the claimed age of 161. To gratify public interest, Barnum set up a public autopsy. Barnum engaged the service of a surgeon, Dr. David L. Rogers, who performed the autopsy on 25 February 1836, in front of fifteen hundred spectators in New York's City Saloon, with Barnum charging fifty cents admission. When Rogers declared the age claim a fraud, Barnum insisted that the autopsy victim was another person, and that Heth was alive, on a tour to Europe. Later, Barnum admitted the hoax; the autopsy showed Heth to be around 79, and actually born around 1756.