Heth was skeletally thin, paralyzed from a stroke, toothless, and weighed 46 pounds. And by 1835, she was famous. Benjamin Reiss, author of “The Showman and the Slave,” told Biography, “She was for a time in the 1820s one of the most famous people, arguably, in America.”
Barnum advertised extensively, both through traditional posters and planting stories in the press. He hailed her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World,” according to The New Yorker. In one instance, he planted a story that she wasn’t human at all, but just a machine made of whalebone and leather. When ticket sales dried up in New York, he took her around New England, claiming that proceeds from her exhibition would be used to free her family from slavery.
In truth, Heth received no money during her time with Barnum, where he displayed her for six days a week, up to 12 hours a day, for nine months until she died in 1836.
Even after her death, Barnum found a way to profit. He announced that Heth would be publicly autopsied, and you, too, could view it — for a price. According to Smithsonian, 1,500 people paid 50 cents each to watch the autopsy in a New York saloon. Using those numbers, Barnum netted $750, or $21,500 in 2018 dollars.
And when doctors claimed she had died around the age of 80, Barnum announced that her death was a hoax — the real Joice Heth was alive and well — the cut-up body on the table was another’s corpse.
Barnum had found his calling.