Cover image for The showman and the slave : race, death, and memory in Barnum's America
The showman and the slave : race, death, and memory in Barnum's America
Reiss, Benjamin.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
x, 267 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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E165 .R36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this story about one of the 19th century's most famous Americans, Benjamin Reiss uses P.T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's first exhibit as a showman, Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was said to be the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. Seizing upon the novelty, the newly emerging commercial press turned her act - and especially her death - into one of the first media spectacles in American history.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

P.T. Barnum's first triumph as a showman was passing off Joice Heth, an elderly slave, as the 161-year-old ex-wet nurse of George Washington. A consummate spin doctor, Barnum squeezed profit even from Heth's death: tickets to her autopsy cost 50 cents, "the equivalent of a good seat at the opera." Reiss, an assistant English professor at Tulane, examines the cultural meanings of the Heth hoax for insight into racial attitudes in antebellum America. This wholehearted postmodernist explores the ascendance of newspapers and autopsies, our fascination with cannibalism and other phenomena. More attention to literature on contemporaneous freak shows (e.g., Bondeson's 2001 The Feejee Mermaid) might have added depth. Dollops of lingo (Heth as a "deeply ambiguous somatic symbol" of "struggles over cultural propriety and social hierarchy") lard every chapter, but patient readers will be rewarded. The last chapters treat head-on the two lead characters in the story, Barnum and Heth, and their respective roles in the hoax. While digressions can be interesting (a few paragraphs on abolitionist and ex-slave Harriet Jacobs are welcome), some of the relevance claims can be annoying (e.g., the scrap of the NY Herald Jacobs sent to her former master to make it seem she was living in New York may or may not have had an article about Heth). Reiss undercuts his strong concluding argument for Heth's cleverness by speculating that she may have suffered from dementia. 12 illus. (Oct. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Reiss (English, Tulane Univ.) uses P.T. Barnum's first hoax, the exhibiting of Joice Heth, allegedly a 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington, to look at race relations in the antebellum North. This was one of the first media spectacles in US history; as such it provides a mirror of mid-19th-century society. Heth was really only about 75 or 80 years old, so she was also acting, perhaps reluctantly, as a participant in Barnum's distortions. The ruse was successful, because those who viewed Heth were living in a state of collective fantasy in which she "became practically whatever her observers wanted her to be." Her exhibition and its aftermath brought into prominence several facets of antebellum cultural history, including the role of medical science, the importance of memories of revolutionary unity, attitudes toward death and religion, the role of women in public life, class competition, the effects of urbanization on culture, and the emergence of the mass media. Above all, exhibiting Heth provided ample opportunity for discussion of race and slavery (paramount issues of the day), and for supplying evidence of northern psychological and material involvement in southern slavery. This should become a classic study of antebellum history. All collections and levels. W. K. McNeil Ozark Folk Center

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Dark Subject Death and Dying
1 Possession
2 The Celebrated Curiosity
3 Private Acts, Public Memories
4 Sacred and Profane
5 Culture Wars
6 Love, Automata, and India Rubber
7 Spectacle Resurrection
8 Authenticity and Commodity
9 Exposure and Mastery
10 Erasure Life
11 A Speculative Biography Notes Index