His first popular attraction was an elderly African-American woman named Joice Heth, who was reputedly 160 years old. And as if that wasn't remarkable enough, it was also claimed that she had been the nursemaid to George Washington as an infant. Barnum began to exhibit her at a theater in New York in 1835.
The old woman would sit on a couch and talk to curious onlookers, and the newspapers, of course, denounced it all as a hoax. Some detractors even claimed she wasn't even a real person, but some sort of cleverly constructed "automaton."
Barnum was thrilled. The skepticism only encouraged more patrons to buy a ticket to see the old woman tell her stories about babysitting George Washington many decades earlier.
When Heth died a year later, an autopsy concluded she was about 80 years old. Barnum expressed surprise. He later wrote that the experience taught him that the public enjoys being entertained, even if it suspects it's being fooled.
In the years following his early success with Joice Heth, Barnum took to the road, putting on traveling shows in the south and west. He finally returned to New York in 1840, tired and poor. Sensing a chance to succeed, he went into debt to buy a failing business in lower Manhattan, Scudder's American Museum, a collection of historical artifacts and "curiosities."