How the public autopsy of a slave Joice Heth launched P.T. Barnum's career as the Greatest Showman on Earth Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • P.T. Barnum's career as the Greatest Showman on Earth began in 1835, when he "leased" and then publically exhibited a frail African American slave Joice Heth, who was reportedly the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington, throughout New England; the contract was a lease, as slave ownership had recently become illegal in northern states. Barnum exhibited Heth 6 days a week for up to 12 hr a day. Under this grueling schedule, Heth became ill and died while under contract. Barnum sold tickets for her autopsy, which was performed by David L. Rogers, an accomplished New York surgeon, in front of an audience of 1,500 paying customers. Roger's autopsy determined that Heth was no more than 80 years old, and the penny newspapers, a new form of public media, called this a "humbug" and then published dozens of fabricated "fake news" stories about Barnum, Rogers, and Heth. Barnum and his business partner generated valuable publicity by telling different penny newspapers different stories. This whole spectacle launched Barnum's career as an entertainer. Five years earlier, Rogers performed a public dissection of Charles Gibbs, an infamous Caribbean pirate who was tried, convicted, and hung in New York City. This article describes the bizarre nature of American politics and culture in the 1830s that made all of these seem normal. I will also distinguish between "public dissection" and "public autopsy," and put these into an historical context. Finally, I will address the macabre concept of autopsy as a form of entertainment. Clin. Anat. 31:956-965, 2018. © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

publication date

  • October 2018