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Little is known of Heth's early years. In 1835 she was held as a slave by John S Bowling and exhibited in Louisville, Kentucky. In June 1835, she was sold to promoters R. W. Lindsay and Coley Bartram. R. W. Lindsay introduced her as the nurse of former President George Washington, but lacking success sold her in her old age to PT Barnum. Posters advertising her shows in 1835 included the lines, "Joice Heth is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World! She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father Gen. Washington) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of this Country, 'she raised him'. Joice Heth was born in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years".
She was toward the end of her life, blind and almost completely paralyzed (she could talk, and had some ability to move her right arm) when Barnum started to exhibit her on August 10, 1835, at Niblo's Garden in New York City. As a 7-month traveling exhibit for Barnum, Heth told stories about "little George" and sang a hymn. Eric Lott claims that Heth earned the impresario $1,500 a week, a princely sum in that era. Barnum's career as a showman took off. Her case was discussed extensively in the press. Because doubt had been expressed about her age Barnum announced that upon her death she would be publicly autopsied. She died the next year; probably her actual age at the time of her death was no more than 80 years. Barnum stated that Joice's remains were "buried respectably" in his home town of Bethel, Connecticut.
Heth died on February 19, 1836, and in order to gratify the public interest in her life, Barnum set up a public autopsy. Barnum engaged the service of a surgeon, Dr. David L. Rogers, who performed the autopsy on February 25, 1836, in front of fifteen hundred spectators in New York's City Saloon, with Barnum charging fifty cents admission. When Rogers declared the age claim a fraud, Barnum insisted that the autopsy victim was another person, and that Heth was alive, on a tour to Europe. Later Barnum admitted the hoax.