On or about December of 1835, in a gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, used for the display of freaks, machines, and oddities, American pop culture officially began. Virginia Woolf first made the historical arrogance of such a statement possible in her famous declaration that “on or about December 1910 human character changed,” though the very definition of human was still in question in the summer of 1835. This was when the notorious P. T. Barnum—father of American sideshows, founder of the American Museum, and progenitor of the modern circus—“bought,” or acquired, the rights to display the slave woman Joice Heth from an itinerant showman named R. W. Lindsay.
So-called nursemaid to George Washington and property of his father, Augustine, this slave was said to be 161 years old, with skin so dark and textured with age that it was impossible to doubt its longevity and hard not to see the gnarled past in it. She had witnessed the nation’s birth, the billing claimed. Word was she had secrets about those origins and would gladly share them with whoever came close enough for her near-blind eyes to confirm the will to believe. Though a slave, this creature had helped make the country possible by being mammy to its epic hero: democracy incarnate, its contradictions intact. Touch her.
The claim that she was 161 years old came from either Barnum or Lindsay. Barnum would eventually suggest that it came from Heth herself, for reasons obscure to him but which nevertheless impelled his trust, as only slaves could in a time when total subjection was imagined as purest affection.
Barnum’s ownership of whom or what he called “Aunt Joice” remains as unclear as the nature of their relationship. That relationship would transform from outright slavery to sideshow collusion and artistic collaboration; from the multiple exploitations necessary for carnival show business to Barnum’s eventual suggestion that it was Heth who duped him—America’s greatest con man—as he moved his spectacle from free states to slave states and from sideshows to museums in those years where the difference between the latter pair were as negligible as those between the former.
Their relationship got murkier in later years, as Barnum began to reinvent himself as something more than a confidence man, a huckster, a performer, a slave owner, and an entrepreneur. “Aunt Joice” became a ghost in his story just as Barnum became his own greatest creation. By then, Barnum could boast of being even more important than the great George Washington himself. He had, after all, pioneered a new type of celebrity—a sort that would make his beloved country always seem bigger than it was and more enduring than any of its founding documents could promise.
Joice Heth stayed ghostly for a very long time. We find her haunting Barnum’s desire to inform the future that he was its necessary past, and, in so doing, providing an origin to the century that was already set to begin in the factories of New England and the restless cotton fields of the South. It was the age of industry, after all, of technology, and of the idea that the future was now absolute and guaranteed. It was still the age of slavery, however, where the labor of blacks could mean the difference between wealth and poverty for whites, and where racism promised that the past would never be so easy to shake. The Civil War was still decades off.
Heth, however, was not entirely lost to those of us obsessed with beginnings and who see American history as a relentless sequence of attempts to start over. People like us know that a nation with such frayed edges and multiple histories will forever fuss over origins. Although his timing was off by some five months, the historian James W. Cook gave us this: “Indeed, if we were to pick a single moment to mark the birthdate of modern American popular culture, this just might be the one: on that fateful afternoon in July 1835, when an aspiring impresario from Bethel, Connecticut took off his grocer’s apron and began to think seriously about how to market Joice Heth as a popular curiosity in New York City.”
Most of the elements of what would become American pop culture were present in this transaction: slavery, show business, deception, and a certain city, as well as performance, media spectacle, and the type of mass curiosity that sustains industries. But the selling of Joice Heth to the American public was only getting started.
“Aunt Joice” was called everything from “the dark daughter of Madagascar” to an “Egyptian mummy,” from “the Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World” to “the venerable nigger.” She made Barnum famous in the way we have now come to define fame: that combination of relentless publicity and increasingly vague intentions, of permanent visibility undercut by the ever-floating suspicion of fraud. The Barnum effect, after all, was named for this man: the process by which, in a culture committed to facts and evidence, we are all secretly praying to be deceived and will go so far as to pay for the privilege. As Barnum purportedly said, there’s a sucker born every minute. His innovation was in his understanding that the will to gullibility is one of the great pleasures of democracy.
We may have forgotten Joice Heth, but Barnum never did. How could he? He had built his career on her. It was the “accident” of her, he wrote in his autobiography, that “seemed almost to compel my agency.” This “accident” and his compulsion were carefully chosen to emphasize his innocence—perhaps his most consistent habit. The implication was that Joice Heth was the one responsible. She was his catalyzing agent, who, he wrote, “first brought me forward as a showman.” She served as his introduction to an American public life that he irrevocably altered, and to a circus culture that he transformed into the modern media.
Cook describes the first meeting of Heth and Barnum, in July of 1835, as our popular culture’s date of conception. In fact, this date should be pushed five months later. In December of that year, Heth was displayed for the first time alongside the object known as the Mechanical Turk, which would complete the dynamic of the organic and the inanimate, show business and art, and truth and fiction at the core of a culture that sustains itself on the assumption that origins do not exist.
The infamous Turk is perhaps the most famous machine of the previous century, known as the age of both wonder and reason. Invented in 1769, this chess-playing contraption has a better-documented history than Heth’s. After all, the idea that machines could possess intelligence was an even older notion than the idea that African slaves could. The Turk was a plaything, a curiosity. It fascinated writers ranging from E. T. A. Hoffman to Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce to Walter Benjamin. It defeated Napoleon Bonaparte three times in Vienna and conquered Benjamin Franklin while he was serving as American ambassador in Paris.
The great Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen built the Turk as a gift for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Von Kempelen also invented the first speech synthesizer, which he began constructing in 1769, the same year he started working on his swarthy chess player. The synthesizer was completed thirty-five years later, and its design inspired American telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
The Turk wore a turban, smoked a pipe, and sported a broad mustache straight from exotic tales and fantasies of the so-called “mystical” Orient. Its exoticized features were so exaggerated that one wonders why von Kempelen designed the machine as this type of human. Why dress a machine as an Arab? At the height of what would soon be called modernization and then modernity, wouldn’t something that resembled earlier European automata make more sense? A genteel high-court lady with a quill, for example, or the famous monk who, in a mechanical semblance of piety, could kiss his own cross?
The Turk held the thrill of the exotic, to be sure, the shock of the new described in the imagery of the old. Perhaps it reminded its audience that though chess came from India, Persia, and the Islamic world, to mechanize the game, to render it soulless and therefore subject to science, was to contain the fear of what was thought once to have been a superior culture.
It’s also likely that European fabricators of automata knew the Arab world had a tradition of such inventions going back to medieval times, most perfectly represented in the work of the brothers Banu Musa, in their Book of Ingenious Devices (published in Baghdad in 850 CE). This book proves with little doubt that the Islamic world had gone further than the ancient Greeks in imagining artificial life: machines for perpetual music, devices we would now convincingly call cybernetic—fully formed visions of an industrial age that never happened and a Koranic science fiction that could still appear.
What we do know is that the Turk stunned, terrified, and entertained much of Europe for years with its eerie mimicry of human beings by playing a game already established as a visible display of intelligence. Almost a century later this “thinking machine” would be acquired by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel was the court mechanic of the Hapsburgs, a musician who was very close to Ludwig van Beethoven, a purveyor of dioramas and, like Barnum, a total hustler.
Of course, this early example of artificial intelligence was eventually revealed to be a hoax, fifty or so years after flummoxing even some of the greatest minds in Europe. It worked by a steady sequence of diminutive chess prodigies bent and contorted among the cogs and wheels and levers inside the machine, covered by its exotic robes. There was even a voice box that allowed the machine to speak in French, terrifying its audience with a vision of imminent technological replacement. Reason, it seemed, was no longer an exclusively human quality.
Barnum tells us that the pairing of Joice Heth and the Turk happened in Boston. There, in December of 1835, the two inventions went on display in adjacent rooms. That was when Barnum first met Maelzel, who inspired him to reinvigorate that rich European tradition of automata for an American audience still in thrall to European high culture, but also eager to rival it with something more appropriate for a new nation and a people young enough to define the new.
Maelzel considered Barnum his protégé, and in his will he left his collection of automata to his American disciple. Barnum had a passion for lifelike machines, and mechanical oddities became as much a part of his repertoire as the freaks, monstrosities, and exotic peoples he toured around the country. However, flesh would eventually supersede fabrication in his shows. Barnum would initiate a transition in public taste by diminishing the presence of mechanical curiosities in favor of human oddities.
But there was something else now driving that transition: blackface minstrels. That was where the money was: white men, skin darkened by burned cork, playing “Negroes” and singing songs that would eventually be called “coon songs.” This was now the cutting edge. This was, after all, a mere three years after T. D. “Daddy” Rice’s staggeringly successful performance of the dance and persona “Jim Crow” in (again) New York. This performance by the noted “Ethiopian delineator,” as minstrels were often called, gave birth to this enduring phenomenon. It may be the only popular dance that would become the namesake for a brutal form of repression.
Barnum may have been as committed to sleight of hand in his autobiographies as he was in his business dealings, but it is still best to have him tell the story of what happened next:
When the audience began to decrease in numbers, a short communication appeared in one of the newspapers, signed “A Visitor,” in which the writer claimed to have made an important discovery. He stated that Joice Heth, as at present exhibited, was a humbug, whereas, if the simple truth was told in regard to the exhibition, it was really vastly curious and interesting. “The fact is,” said the communication, “Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously-constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The exhibitor is a ventriloquist, and all the conversations apparently held with the ancient lady are purely imaginary, so far as she is concerned, for the answers and incidents purporting to be given and related by her are merely the ventriloquial voice of the exhibitor.”
In other words, Heth and the Turk were the same: machines, lifeless, without souls, uncanny. According to “A Visitor,” Heth was like the minstrels Barnum exhibited, a black face through which a white voice could issue words: the mechanization of racial power, an ideological critic could call it. A less sanguine one could see in it a future where race was as easily separated from identity as sounds are separated from their source.
It is more than likely that Barnum (or Levi Lyman, his business partner and co-conspirator) was actually “A Visitor.” It’s also likely that the very idea of suggesting to the public that Joice Heth was a machine came from Maelzel, given his long history of passing off a machine for a human. After all, the Turk was ultimately the impersonation of a machine by someone clothed in the skin of The Arabian Nights—a machine-mask, one could say, a human passing for a machine. Heth was merely the opposite, a machine passing for a human.
What made this back-and-forth between human and machine even stranger was the obvious but easily forgotten fact that, as a black slave, Heth was already not considered a human being. She had always been a commodity, a thing, and existed within a series of ambiguities characteristic of American law, religious habit, and cultural custom. She existed somewhere between animal and human, without the capacity to reason (chess would have been impossible for her) and—as the debates continued—likely without a soul. And due to the fact that slaves were also mindless forces of labor, it is no accident that they were often described as automatons, or at best what we would now call prosthetic devices. One wouldn’t be going too far in suggesting that the Turk had more rights than Joice Heth did.
It is still stunning that Barnum’s audience so easily accepted that Heth was a machine. That story quickly obscured the story that she was 161 years old, had nursed the father of the country on her bosom, and had whispered stories about Washington’s true character and by extension the true character of the nation. This lie was somehow more believable, more likely: a machine, not even a Negro, much less an ancient one. It was an answer to the mysteries of the nation’s past through a sudden glimpse of its future.
Barnum admits that the Turk had some impact on conditioning the public:
Maelzel’s ingenious mechanism somewhat prepared the way for this announcement, and hundreds who had not visited Joice Heth were now anxious to see the curious automaton; while many who had seen her were equally desirous of a second look, in order to determine whether or not they had been deceived. The consequence was, our audiences again largely increased.
Hoax and counter-hoax, innocence by a perpetual deferral of truth, finding profit in the seams between what could and what couldn’t be possible: what better way to start the American century?
Where the Turk’s dark skin was a sign of old Europe’s greatest fears, in Heth’s case race masked the machine in the flesh and withered femininity of an intimate, local, and familiar possession. Her dark skin was now coated with the sheen of artifice, of an industrial age that had leaped over the Atlantic and taken root in America. It was ours now; we owned it completely, its power and its promises, too. Touch her. Her sunken teats began to draw the curious caresses of a new intimacy. The modesty that came from racial disgust was no longer necessary.
It’s easy to forget that, despite Barnum’s familial intimacies and the hyperbolic antislavery rhetoric typical of his multiple up-by-my-bootstraps autobiographies, Heth was, and remained, a thing. She was a lucrative act and object of display even after her death, when Barnum charged fifty cents for public entry to an autopsy held in a saloon in New York City.
Still, the performance continued. As her body was reduced to its component parts under a surgeon’s knife, and as those who’d been duped for so long came to discover the final truth about this enigma, Barnum went so far as to claim it wasn’t actually her body. It was as if the wily slave woman had outwitted her masters, conned the conman. Checkmate. Joice Heth, Barnum announced, had escaped to Europe to continue her own arts of deception. Slave, machine, black, woman, she was always something else, less than life and now more than death. He did not free her—she escaped, suggesting that her time with him was likely voluntary all along. This might have been a way for Barnum to confirm his innocence, washing his hands of the taint of slave ownership.
Or maybe it was an act of love. Barnum knew Heth well: they’d traveled the byways of early American media spectacle together. It wouldn’t have been the kind of love a master could have had for a slave, though that kind of love is inexhaustibly suggestive. Barnum’s love for Heth was the kind of love we now have for our machines, as they become less and less uncanny and more like us than we are. She could have become human to him, or something even better. Maybe this final gesture was a way for him to free her from history, using his considerable powers of deception and ambiguity to finally grant her freedom in immortality.