Praise for The showman and the slave:

"[An] intriguing and thoughtful book…[a] remarkable and disturbing story."—Gary Gerstle, The Washington Post

"Compelling…cogent…provocative…revealing… Reiss uses out-of-the-ordinary events and atypical historical actors to explore cultural norms and social tensions…" —Edward Balleisen, Reviews in American History


"A good and engaging read. A mystery story, an attempt to sort through conflicting, often fragmentary, evidence to give the most plausible account of a bizarre, perhaps transformative, moment in American popular culture."—Ronald G. Walters, Johns Hopkins University

"This book shares in a long and distinguished tradition of social and cultural histories that transform ‘ordinary’ events in the past into extraordinary windows onto their worlds."—Bryan J. Wolf, Yale University

The Showman and the Slave:
Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America

In this compelling story about one of the nineteenth 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.

In piecing together the fragmentary and conflicting evidence of the event, Reiss paints a picture of people looking at history, at the human body, at social class, at slavery, at performance, at death, and always—if obliquely—at themselves. At the same time, he reveals how deeply an obsession with race penetrated different facets of American life, from public memory to private fantasy. Concluding the book is a piece of historical detective work in which Reiss attempts to solve the puzzle of Heth’s real identity before she met Barnum. His search yields a tantalizing connection between early mass culture and a slave’s subtle mockery of her master.

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Media and reviews

Superb...Benjamin Reiss [writes] the history of entertainment exactly as it should be written: as a sophisticated interaction between presenters and observers that reveals much about the values of the age...Required reading for those interested in the broad sweep of nineteenth-century social history, as well as the history of entertainment, the popular press, science, race relations, slavery, abolitionism, business, gender studies, and historical memory. (Paul Reddin American Historical Review)

Compelling...cogent...provocative...revealing...Reiss uses out-of-the-ordinary events and atypical historical actors to explore cultural norms and social tensions....He effectively probes the exhibition [of Joice Heth] as an indicator of northern racism's depth and complexities...As such, his book enriches a now familiar story laid out by historians like Leon Litwack, Winthrop Jordan, and Reginald Horsman, elucidating, through Geertzian thick description, some of the most innovative means in antebellum America for reproducing and disseminating racist ideas...Reiss has given historians an enticing vantage point from which to pursue the integration of social and cultural history. (Edward Balleisen Reviews in American History)

This is a painful story of violence, white supremacy, and the exploitation of women. It must be passed on with great sensitivity and self-scrutiny on the part of the teller. Benjamin Reiss is that sort of teller. With The Showman and the Slave, he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of antebellum history and culture. (Bluford Adams Ethnic and Racial Studies)

[An] intriguing and thoughtful book...[a] remarkable and disturbing story. (Gary Gerstle Washington Post)

Benjamin Reiss's The Showman and the Slave is...[a] wonderful piece of scholarship that demonstrates how mining the intricacies of a moment may in turn shed new light on an entire age...As wonderful as this book is in terms of its cultural acumen and playful sleuthing through the murky history of popular culture, it is equally impressive as a demonstration of historiographical method...I cannot recommend this book highly enough, particularly to young scholars wondering how to weave multiple scholarly threads into a coherent and compelling narrative of the highest quality. (Stephen John Hartnett Rhetoric and Public Affairs)

Combining incisive media analysis with careful historiography and literary critical readings... Reiss's study reveals how Barnum's representation of Heth and its public reception indexed emerging canons of taste and notions of class propriety; conflicting views about the body, sexuality, and gender; as well as anxieties and fantasies about technology and empire. Reiss forcefully argues that these various glimpses of "Barnum's America" must be understood within the context of shifting social attitudes about race and slavery in the antebellum North...Heth's story provides a salient marker for the centrality of the freak show to the national culture. (Eden Osucha American Literature)

In his rich study about Joice Heth and her exhibitor, Reiss shows us a Barnum as complex as he is transparent, and no less mysterious in his chicanery than the "dark subject" who launched his career. Reiss, through an expert use of thick description, recovers and retells the story of Barnum and Heth from "a Babel" of primary sources that includes newspaper accounts, court records, letters, drawings, pamphlets, diaries, and Barnum's own autobiographies. In this fascinating narrative and cultural analysis of Barnum's maiden humbug (this book is a page turner despite/ because of its great erudition), Reiss outlines Heth's experiences with Barnum in three parts that chronicle her exhibition, her death and reemergence in culture and her "speculative biography"… Reiss does an excellent job in chronicling and changing ideas about racial identity in America as they relate to Barnum's relationship with Heth, before and after her death…It is not simply Barnum's personal opinions toward race that Reiss scrutinizes, but antebellum societal discourse as well, phrenology and all…[The Showman and the Slave is a] wonderful, readable, smart book. (Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix Theatre Journal 2004-05-01)