Skip to main content

“i Had Hired Joke In Perfect Good Faith”

July 2024
1min read

If we are to believe P. T. Barnum’s autobiography—and some people will believe anything—he made his debut in show business with the imaginative humbug described in this old broadside. He was 25, and had been a drummer, a boardinghouse keeper, and very nearly a barkeep; he was a partner in a grocery when, in 1835, opportunity knocked. It took the form of tiny, toothless, pipe-smoking, prevaricating Joice Heth, whose proprietors offered her to Barnum for a mere $3,000. He beat the price down to $1,000, and began exhibiting her. She grossed $1,500 weekly. The public and most of the press swallowed Joice whole; after all, there was the bill of sale signed by Augustine Washington. Could the father of the Father of His Country tell a lie? When the old woman died a little later, and the examining doctors concluded that she was scarcely eighty, Barnum offered no argument to the cries of fraud. He had taught her none of her tall tales, he protested, but “had hired Joice in perfect good faith.” The return on his capital had been satisfying, and he had discovered a great principle of show business—that even exposure makes good publicity. With smug piety, he buried Joice at Bethel, Connecticut.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.