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* Barnum first heard about Joice Heth, purported to be a 161-year-old slave and former nursemaid to the infant George Washington. Upon hearing of a business opportunity involving Heth, who was already on exhibit in Philadelphia as "one of the greatest natural curiosities ever witnessed," Barnum went to that city to see her and to make inquiries of R. W. Lindsay, her current "manager." Apparently satisfied by a 1727 bill of sale for a 54~year~°ld Joice Heth and by Lindsay's story placing her at the birth scene of Washington, Barnum "determined if possible to purchase [her]," which he did for one thousand dollars.6 One of the anomalous (and captivating) elements of Heth's story, of course, is that an African woman—a slave woman—is tied familiarly to the origins of the new American republic. Positioned so surprisingly as the "honored" one who "raised" George Washington, she not only assumes the status of true patriot but also, in effect, gains eminence as the "mother" of the "father" of the country. In addition, the marvel of her ostensible age seems a physical rendering of the fame that immortalizes her in her close association with Washington. Barnum, in his 1855 autobiography, describes his first impression of Heth's appearance: she is immobile, paralyzed in her "lower limbs," permanently bent, blind, toothless, seemingly helpless.7 What is the significance of associating a woman of this description with the celebrated figure of American patriotism ? Exalted and trivialized at the same moment, Heth appears as different from General George Washington as she could possibly be: black, female, enslaved, disabled, impossibly old. An incarnation of the devalued and dismissed, Joice Heth exemplifies, in composite form, everything undesirable 281 SANDRA RUNZO in nineteenth-century America, as scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson asserts. In calling her "the quintessential American freak,"8 Thomson emphasizes Heth's exclusion from American cultural norms; indeed, the extremeness of her persona emphasizes how different she is from "America," even if "America" is dependent on her. The mystery of Joice Heth intensified when she appeared in Boston in l835- -^11 anonymous letter appeared in a local newspaper asserting that Heth was a hoax, a "humbug," a mechanical contraption—"a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numberless springs." The letter succeeded in drumming up business, as people, with renewed curiosity, returned to the exhibit to determine her constitution. Intended as a publicity ploy, the charge that Heth was "not a human being" did impart some truth; perceived and presented as a money-making opportunity , a slave, a machine, a puzzle, an alien, Heth was not thought of as a human being at all. Made famous by her juncture with the consummate American, she herself was fabricated into something foreign and aberrant.9 Barnum's "What Is It?" exhibit became another famed icon of cultural Otherness. Although several incarnations of the character appeared over several decades, the exhibit always posed a racial query—a racial image—that was tied inextricably to the question of humanness. Barnum distanced himself from the first attraction labeled "What Is It?"—a show that was quickly closed in London in 1846 because it caused such protest —but it became a standard act after i860 at Barnum's museum (and later in his circus).10 Many scholars point to William Henry Johnson as the person who assumed the role of "What Is It?" for Barnum in i860.11 Johnson would continuously play the part for more than sixty years, embodying a character described in a caption of an 186OS Currier and Ives lithograph as a combination of "ORANG OUTANG" and human, "captured in a savage state in Central Africa"; by the turn of the century the character had transformed into "Zip," a more clownish version.I2Johnson, born around 1840, was probably a black man from New Jersey. A very short individual with microcephaly, he appeared with his 282 DICKINSON'S AMERICAN MUSEUM small head shaved except for a topknot, grinning, grunting, never speaking, wearing a fur suit; whether he was mentally impaired or not is a matter of disagreement.13 "What Is It?" seems designed to connote "blackness," although the advertised "controversy" over the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 276-305
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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