A GREAT CURIOSITY

Henry Moss, a man of African descent who was born in Virginia, first began to experience depigmentation of his skin at the age of 38 years, beginning on his hands and eventually extending to his arms, legs, and face. Four years later, in the summer of 1796, he exhibited his body for a fee in taverns in the Philadelphia area as well as before members of the American Philosophical Society. Moss quickly became a popular attraction.

 

On a hot July day in 1796, curious citizens of Philadelphia pushed and shoved as they lined up under the sign of the Black Horse, which hung outside Mr. Leech’s tavern on Market Street. They were all there to witness a “Great CURIOSITY”: a man named Henry Moss who was born “entirely black” but after thirty eight years had miraculously “become as white and fair as any white person.” According to a broadside dated July 23, it was reported that Moss’s “natural colour began to rub off” and his “wool” was being replaced by “straight hair similar to that of a white person.” How, they wondered, could this be true? From eight in the morning until eight in the evening, Moss entertained visitors, who plunked down a half shilling for the chance to view this wonder.

 

The public’s preoccupation with Moss was unmistakable. According to Dr. Charles Caldwell, for at least those two summer months, the people of Philadelphia were utterly transfixed by the spectacle of Moss. As Caldwell noted in his Autobiography, “[T]he cause of this singular change of complexion was a theme of wonder to everyone.” The doctor went so far as to assert that Henry Moss’s name was as well known to periodical readers as that of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Although Caldwell was prone to exaggeration, we do know that Moss’s popularity prompted him to take his show (which was literally himself) on the road. He toured several American cities where he also drew crowds of curious onlookers.


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