My Visit to the Gorilla

DO not expect, fastidious reader, to be regaled with a dish of spicy adventure from the wilds of Africa, where the gorilla is "at home” to all inquiring friends ; for I am sorry to say that I have never visited that most delightful region. My exploits as a hunter have been neither numerous nor wonderful, and I have never been able to fare sumptuously every day on stewed tigers and rhinoceros steaks. To be sure, I have had many imaginary adventures in which all the pleasures of the chase were experienced without any of the perils, and in fancy I have often bagged a hippopotamus and throttled a giraffe. As a matter of fact, however, I have seldom slaughtered any game more dangerous than tomcats ; and my weapons in those exciting combats were neither rifles nor revolvers, but simply brickbats. However, it is the spirit in which warfare is conducted that determines its character and dignity, and I am convinced that as much courage may be shown in a struggle with a tom-cat as in an encounter with a lion.

The most trivial circumstances often develop a hardihood which will prove itself equal to the most terrible emergenciesIt was the pursuit of hares and foxes which produced in the perfumed loungers of Pall Mall the dauntless heroism that scaled the Redan. And the simple out-door sports, the athletic exercises, and the mimic conflicts of the gymnasium, did much to nurture the unrivalled valor which shone so conspicuously on the battlefields of the Rebellion. As for quickness of eye and steadiness of nerve, so essential to the hunter whether of beasts or men, there is no comparison between the complete self-mastery required in skilfully firing a revolver and in successfully shying a brickbat. The dead-shot who can snuff a taper with his ride, would find it no easy matter to hit a tom-cat on the wing with a brickbat, or bring down a gutter-snipe with a paving-stone. Have you ever seen a tom-cat at bay, Mr. Tompkins ? If not, your education has been sadly neglected. To confront that infuriated beast with his breast swelling with the unbridled passions of a Bengal tiger, his back arching fearfully, his hair bristling like quills upon the fretful porcupine, his jaws disclosing teeth of quite tremendous power, and spitting rage and fury at every breath, might well appall the heroic soul of a Wallace or shake the iron nerves of a Gérard.

It was said of that mighty hunter, that modern Nimrod, Gordon Gumming, who left as many bones to bleach on the forest floor of the tropics as whitened any of the battle-fields of Napoleon, that he quitted Great Britain to take part in a war against savages, and abandoned that kind of amusement because “ warring with mere men yielded no relish to his splendid and bloody ambition.” At last he returned home, “ weeping because there were no more animals to vanquish, and desolate because the megatherium was disposed of before he took to shooting.” Circumstances have prevented me from imitating his illustrious example, and, instead of hunting wild beasts in the wilderness, I have been obliged to moralize over them in the menagerie. That institution is my pet fancy, and as George Selwyn was certain to be in attendance at an execution, so I am always present whenever there is any excitement among the animals. I have punched the lordly lion in the superb collection at Regent’s Park, snubbed the sagacious elephant in the Jardin des Plantes, fluttered the eagles in the Prater at Vienna, and been hugged by the affectionate bears at Berne. My greatest happiness consists in seeing some new specimen of animated nature, and I would travel far to

“ Behold the naturalist that in his teens
Found six new species in a dish of greens.”

When Mr. Barnum announced that he had a live gorilla on exhibition at his Museum, I was seized with an irresistible, and, as my friends said, a feverish desire to see it, partly because it was a decided novelty, but principally on account of its affinity to the human species. As a student of Monboddo, as a follower of Lamarck, as a disciple of Darwin, I have availed myself of every opportunity to trace the connection between man and the monkey, and to ascertain the exact point at which the lower animal assumes the functions of the higher. I must confess, however, that in my investigations I have met with many disappointments. At last I have been forced to the conclusion that, although there are many men possessing the qualities of monkeys, there are no monkeys with the higher faculties of men. It may be difficult to decide whether it is easier to lift a monkey up or to drag a mortal down, but I am satisfied that the millennium of monkeys is yet in the distant future. When the lamb can lie down with the lion without being inside of him, the grotesque parody on human nature may become its perfect counterpart.

Everybody remembers the lines in Pope’s Essay on Man in which the poet represents the inhabitants of the celestial regions as so pleased with the discoveries of Sir Isaac that they

“Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And showed a Newton as we show an ape.”

I have always regarded this as rather a dubious compliment to the philosopher, but not without value as an indication of the esteem in which the little hunchback of Twickenham held the members of the apish family with whom the scurrilous dunces of Grub Street delighted to compare him.

As it was impossible for me to meet the gorilla on his “native heath,” to waylay him in the jungle or entrap him on the mountain, I thought the next best thing was to confront him at BarBum’s. Being in New York soon after his arrival, I walked down Broadway, and, on approaching the Museum, my attention was attracted by a large picture suspended over the street in iront of that renowned establishment. It represented the gorilla carrying off a female African under one arm, while with the other he brandished a club at a hunter, who was discharging his ride at this ruthless destroyer of domestic happiness. At the same time another gorilla was overpowering an unfortunate darkey,—perhaps the husband of the wretched female previously mentioned. The painting seemed to me very striking and impressive, and well calculated, as the play-bills felicitously say, to convey a great moral lesson. It is true that a severe critic might have found fault with it as a work of art, and pronounced the coloring gaudy, the drawing defective, and the attitudes unnatural. But the enthusiastic admiration of the multitude outweighs the censorious judgment of the connoisseur. The picture was certainly very attractive to crowds of coon-faced countrymen and ragged newsboys, whose encomiums were earnest, if not elegant. “That big monkey must be a stunner,” said an admiring urchin in my presence ; “just see how jimmy he grabs that nigger-woman ! ” The rhetoric of Buskin could hardly add force to that crude but comprehensive criticism.

Doubtless not a few of the rude rustics who gazed so intently on the pictorial gorilla cheerfully paid their thirty cents in the expectation of seeing the animal as he was depicted on the glowing canvas, but they were doomed to disappointment. So were the confiding creatures who read and believed the accounts in the newspapers of the exploits of the gorilla, when he was first taken to the Museum, in bending a solid bar of iron two and a half inches in diameter, and in performing various other surprising feats of strength. They undoubtedly expected to see a huge creature, whom one could hardly look at without fainting, securely fastened by an enormous chain-cable, and confined in a cage with iron bars at least six inches thick, — the said bars having deep indentations made by the teeth of the gorilla, and twisted into uncouth shapes by his relentless paws. They were probably prepared to find him. chewing cast-iron instead of sprucegum or “ Century,” and nibbling steel nails to keep his teeth sharp and his digestion sound. Readers of Du Chaillu, who remembered bow that adventurous traveller heard the roar of the gorilla three miles off, and the noise of beating his breast with his fists at a distance of a mile, must have expected to be almost deafened by the yells and appalled by the hideous appearance of the horrid insect. To be sure, this was said to be but a baby gorilla, a mere infant only two and a half years old ; although the advertisement mentioned its height as five feet two inches, which, according to the best authorities, is not far from the average height of the fullgrown animal.

On entering the Museum and making the necessary preliminary inquiries, I proceeded, not without some trepidation, to the hall of the gorilla. As I approached his cage, the first object that caught my eye was a sign, on which were these warning words, “On account of the fierce nature of the gorilla, he must not be disturbed.” This was to me a very provoking announcement, for I brought my cane with me on purpose to stir him up and make him lively. As he sat on his haunches, looking idiotically at the spectators, it was evident to every unprejudiced observer that he needed the healthy stimulus which a stick is so well calculated to afford. Although my cane was a valuable one, I was prepared to saciifice it, if necessary, for the good oi the gorilla, and would actually have seen it shivered to splinters without a pang. In the cause of science, in the interest of humanity, who would not cheerfully part with the fripperies of fashion and the superfluities of society? As a member of the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, I have always been in favor of giving caged beasts this kind of excitement. It quickens their sluggish circulation, rouses them from their savage lethargy, and lends a pleasing variety to the dismal monotony of their wearisome confinement.

But, as the French say, let us return to our monkeys, and examine the gorilla, which I barely got a glimpse of on my arrival on account of the crowd around his cage. I remember reading an anecdote of a young man who, while visiting a menagerie in some Western town, amused himself by poking a rather quiet orang-outang with his cane. The animal seemed unusually restive under this treatment, and at last exclaimed, much to the astonishment of the spectators, “ If you punch me any more, Jim Wilson, I ’ll come out and whip you out of your boots.” Anywhere but in Mr. Barnum’s establishment the printed warnings about not disturbing the gorilla might have excited suspicion that they were designed to prevent an examination which might reveal a power behind the throne, or, to speak more plainly, a man in the gorilla’s skin. Whether it was a real gorilla or not was quite another question. Though not of a sceptical turn of mind, I found it hard to believe that I stood in the presence of what the enthusiastic Du Chaillu calls “ the king of the African forest,” and what even his detractors admit to be the most powerful and ferocious of the simian kind. An animal that, according to Du Chaillu, is feared by the tiger, and has no peer but in the crested lion of Mount Atlas, ought to have pride in his port, defiance in his eye, and really look the great sublime he is. To be sure, this specimen was called a baby, though he seemed to me an enormous infant, and, as the boys say, extremely large for his size. He was confined in an ordinary cage with iron bars of about one half inch in diameter, which seemed rather a frail barrier to those who remembered the newspaper reports which represented the gorilla on his first appearance at the Museum as bending with ease bars of five times the thickness. He also had an ornamental chain about his graceful neck. Let me frankly confess, at the outset, that I am not an indiscriminate monkey-fancier, or amateur in apes, although I know a thing or two about them. Even if I can tell a Ring-tailed Squealer from a Red Howler, a Malbrouck from a Douroucouli, and a Cacajao from a Chimpanzee, it by no means follows that I make any pretensions to a profound and exhaustive knowledge of the whole subject.

It is sagaciously remarked by an eminent naturalist, Professor Huxley, in his interesting and suggestive work on “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature,” that “any one who cannot see the posterior lobe in an ape’s brain is not likely to give a very valuable opinion respecting the posterior cornu or the hippocampus minor.” This lucid observation suggests one of the limitations of my own knowledge. The learned professor has, unconsciously perhaps, described my personal predicament. I frankly confess that I can’t see it, i. e. the posterior lobe, and therefore refrain from expressing any opinion on the hippocampus minor, which I really couldn’t distinguish from a drum-major. But although I know little or nothing of the internal organization of the simian kind, I am tolerably familiar with their external appearance. It was with considerable confidence, therefore, on first beholding the so-called gorilla, that I pronounced him an unmitigated humbug. From numerous descriptions and illustrations, I felt myself as well acquainted with the genuine animal as if I had been introduced to the whole family, and hob-a-nobbed with them in the most friendly manner. From the absence of the bony frontal ridge and of the peculiarly projecting nose bone which are distinguishing features of the gorilla, the size and shape of the head and body, the appearance of the hands and feet, the dog-like face, the length of the limbs, the inferior muscular development, the mild expression of the countenance, so different from the ferocious aspect of the gorilla, and various other indications which it is unnecessary to enumerate, I was satisfied that this was an animal of an inferior kind.

It is well known that the adult gorilla is utterly untamable. Du Chaillu, who had four young ones in custody at a very early age, found them perfectly intractable ; and although Mr. Winwood Reade saw one in captivity as docile as a young chimpanzee, this appears to be an exceptional instance. The animal at Mr. Barn urn’s was as quiet as a kitten and as silly as a sheep. He was only too glad to cat anything that was given to him, while it is well known that the real gorilla refuses to eat anything but the fruits and juicy plants of his own wilds ; and Du Chaillu, in his Journey to Ashango Land, remarks that this repugnance to any other food will always be a difficulty in the way of bringing him to a foreign country alive. The longer I looked at the animal in the Museum, the more 1 became convinced, not only that it was not a gorilla, but that it was not even one of the anthropoid apes. The reader who is interested in the Subject will find a Diagram in Professor Huxley’s book, representing in order the skeletons of the Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Orang-Outang, and Gibbon; these four are the anthropoid or manlike apes, — the crime dc la creme of the fraternity, — and it was with unfeigned regret that I could not admit Mr. Barnum’s animal to their select fellowship.

For some time the “gorilla” rested quietly on his haunches, and seemed indisposed to move, so that I could not get a satisfactory view of him. At last he ceased to squat, and got upon allfours, when, to my mingled sorrow and delight, he switched out from under him a long tail. This was enough for me, and confirmed my previous impressions as to his character; for, though all other signs might fail, the presence of this caudal continuation proved conclusively that he was not a gorilla or any manlike ape. None of this higher class of apes are cursed with this Satanic1 appendage, which is the mark of a greatly inferior type. A gorilla with a tail would be a monstrosity confounding all canons of anthropoidal organization, and confusing all theories of natural selection. A six-legged calf may be regarded as a harmless variation, but a tailed gorilla would be as alarming and preposterous a creation as a griffin or a centaur, and almost as unnatural as a Yahoo ora Houyhnhnm.

As is well known to the learned, men originally had tails ; but that was in the primitive condition of the race, when, as geologists inform us, the delicate megatherium crawled upon the land, and the festive icthyosaurus gambolled in the water. The invention of chairs is supposed by some ingenious writer to have had the effect of gradually wearing them down, until at last they disappeared entirely. Ill-natured punsters, however, have been heard to declare that man is still a tale-bearing animal. The precise time when man lost the last vestige of caudal creation, when, in legal phrase, he ceased to be “seized in tail,” is lost in the twilight of fable, and all my researches, in the geological records, as well as among Egyptian papyric and Assyrian manuscripts, have led to no satisfactory conclusion in regard to it. But though tails probably went out of fashion at an early period in the history of the primeval man, if indeed they were not worn off by rubbing against the Old Red Sandstone, yet reports of their reappearance have occasionally startled the curious. In fact, it was once believed by intelligent foreigners that all Englishmen were thus distinguished ; and John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, a zealous reformer in the time of Edward VI., complains in his Actes of English Votaries, “that an Englishman now cannot travayle in another land by way of marchandyse or any other honest occupyinge, but it is most contumeliously thrown in his tethe that all Englyshmen have tails.” I am inclined to regard as equally unworthy of belief the stories of tailed men told by Struys, D’Abbadie, Wolf, and other travellers in Abyssinia and Formosa. Whatever ingenious theorists or imaginative travellers may say to the contrary, it is one of the plainest of physiological truths, that a caudal elongation of the spinal vertebrae is a physical impossibility in the present condition of mankind. The os sacrum, or sacred bone, which terminates the spine, prevents “ the human form divine” from being profaned by that brutal appendage popularly called a tail. It is true that no less a philosopher than Lord Monboddo entertained a contrary opinion, and regarded a tail as essential to the perfect man. and invaluable as an index of emotion ; but this was one of his lordship’s weak points. “ Other people,” said Dr. Johnson, " have strange notions, but they conceal them. If they have tails, they hide them ; but Monboddo is as jealous of his tail as a squirrel.”

SOUTHEY, The Devil’s Walk.

My experience with the “gorilla ” was indeed disheartening. With a person of my sensitive and confiding nature such a shock is not easily overcome, and it naturally resulted in a severe sickness. None of my friends knew the cause of the malady, and my liver received the blame which rightfully belonged to the amorphous ape. Let me make a brief statement of that day’s experience. I went to the Museum as a philanthropist and philosophical observer, expecting to see an animal who in structure is nearer akin to man than he is to the lower apes, and who, as the representative of the advanced development of his race, is, in the opinion of many eminent naturalists, the progenitor of our poor humanity, the type of the primeval Adam. I went to greet him as a man and a brother, and, discarding all traditional notions and unworthy prejudices, to extend to him the right hand of fellowship, — figuratively, of course, for I confess that I thought I might possibly be overpowered by the warmth of his reception, and should be afraid to trust my feeble fingers in his friendly but tremendous gripe.

I found a creature of a much lower kind, who can hardly be said to have any standing among his fellows, inasmuch as he does not stand at all, but grovels in the dust, and goes upon allfours. In brief, instead of a glorious gorilla, I found a maudlin monkey, a bloated baboon. Indeed, I almost fancied that the soi-disant gorilla had a sneaking consciousness that he was not what he was represented to be, that in fact he was a shameless impostor. How else account for the furtive glances and the uneasy demeanor, which it is impossible to simulate, of one who dreads detection and yet repels repentance ?

In despair of ever being able to see the gorilla in a menagerie, I have almost determined to seek for him in his native wilds, and meet Bombastes face to face ; but I am afraid my stern resolve will gradually fade away, and I shall die without the sight. It is somewhat singular that, though the gorilla was one of the earliest known apes, it should be the last to be scientifically investigated, and that there still exists so much difference of opinion in regard to its character and habits. Whether the gorilla is the wild man seen by Han no, the ancient Carthaginian voyager ; whether it belongs to the nation of wood-eaters, who had no arms but sticks, mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, and referred to by Monboddo in his curious treatise On the Origin and Progress of Language ; or whether it is the Pongo seen by the adventurous soldier, Andrew Battell, who, in a passage quoted in that quaint old book, Purchas his Pilgrimes, describes it as engaged in the pleasant occupation of clubbing elephants and killing negroes, — is by no means easy to determine.

It is certain, however, that the stories told by the natives of its carrying off females from their villages, of its clutching travellers in its claws, pulling them up into trees, and choking them to death, are mere fanciful inventions. That the gorilla does not build a house of leaves and twigs in the trees, and sit on the roof yelling like a howling dervish, may be affirmed with confidence. He is no such fool. Neither does he speculate in stocks, nor attend masked balls. He is wofully deficient in useful knowledge, and many a little child knows more of the multiplicationtable and the cookery-book than he. Neither is he distinguished for genius nor for philanthropy. His great head cannot boast the Titanic brain of a Cuvier or the moral force of a Howard. We must go far below these exalted natures, to the gibbering idiot, for a fit subject for comparison. It may be added that he is a confirmed vegetarian, and never hankers after the flesh-pots of Egypt. That eminent comparative anatomist, Professor Owen, regards him as having a nearer affinity to man than any of the anthropoid apes, though that honor has been claimed by others for the chimpanzee.

But whatever may be the position of the gorilla in the simian ranks or in the scale of humanity, every candid mind must sympathize with Mr. Barnum for having paid eight thousand dollars for a wretched counterfeit, a miserable, second-class monkey. And although I have actually heard persons say that that enterprising individual was consciously deceiving a confiding public, yet, of course, I never doubted his entire good faith in the matter. His reputation as a showman is too firmly established to be shaken by the doubts of the incredulous or the sneers of the malevolent. The man who with peerless public spirit, and at untold expense, procured for the instruction and amusement of his countrymen such rare and curious specimens of animated nature as Joyce Heth and the woolly horse, such a marvellous creation as the Feejee mermaid, to say nothing of an array of wax “figgers” that Madame Tussaud might have envied and Artemas Ward not have despised, can look down with a serene contempt on the envious calumniators of a wellearned fame. The beneficence which produced the “ Happy Family,” and from the most warring and discordant elements evoked harmony and peace, can afford to disregard the senseless clamor of a few silly sceptics. And although in his graphic autobiography he does not hesitate to declare that those wonderful curiosities were really humbugs, yet I am convinced that this is either the dark imagining of a too sensitive nature, and of a conscience which over-scrupulous integrity has rendered morbidly acute, or is the playful extravagance of a frolicsome and sprightly fancy.

When Barnum’s Museum, with so many precious monstrosities, natural and artificial, was burnt up, I looked in vain through the published list of the animals, destroyed or saved, for the “gorilla.” It was supposed by many persons, whose ideas of his character were far from accurate, that he had set fire to the Museum in emulation of “the aspiring youth that fired the Ephesian dome,” and there were grave suspicions that he had availed himself of the confusion of the scene to consume the “ Happy Family.” Other reports, not less startling and authentic, represented that his previous prolonged lethargy and stupor, which were caused by powerful drugs administered to him by his keepers, had been dissipated by the intense heat to which he had been subjected ; and that he was now rushing through the streets in a state of uncontrollable excitement, seeking whom he might devour. It was said that the Lightning Calculator — the mathematical prodigy employed by Mr. Barnum to figure the profits of the Museum — had estimated the time which it would take the “gorilla” to lay waste New York as inconceivably short; and the thought that he might at at any moment appear in Broadway, flushed with success, and bent upon extermination of the inhabitants, naturally caused great trepidation among nervous and timid persons. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that these gloomy anticipations proved to be without foundation. A few days afterwards, when the survivors of the conflagration narrated its exciting incidents in the newspapers, one enterprising reporter obtained from the “gorilla” a thrilling account of the fire which surpassed in graphic power the truthful and touching statements of Zuleima, the beautiful Circassian (from the wilds of New Jersey); of Jemima, the fascinating Fat Woman whose ponderous charms are familiar to every visitor to the Museum ; and last, though not least, the pathetic narrative of the Nova Scotia Giantess, and the Living Skeleton. It is proper to say, however, that grave doubts of the authenticity of this “brief relation ” have been expressed by cautious inquirers, and an impartial estimate of its value must be left to the future historian.

The present position and prospects of the “gorilla” are not generally known ; but it is said that Mr. Barnum, now that he has retired from the general show business, intends to devote his time and talents to the intellectual and moral culture of that ungainly ape. Beneath his unpromising exterior the penetrating eye of the veteran manager discerns exalted capacity for usefulness and honor. As many eminent philosophers of the last century regarded that wretched idiot, “ Peter, the Wild Boy,” with admiration and wonder, it is not surprising that the great inventor, curiosity collector, and moralist of our own time should behold in his latest protégé an incipient Chesterfield or a budding Burke.

But while admiring the benevolent intentions of the philanthropist, every unprejudiced observer must deplore the mistaken judgment of the man. To the anthropological student especially it seems extremely absurd to attempt to elevate the condition of a creature flaunting the caudal appendage, which is the mark of his inferiority, and which disqualifies him from holding the honorable position of a “ connecting link ” between man and the lower animals. In view of this humiliating fact, I cannot forbear, in closing, to offer a word of friendly advice to the great showman, and I shall charge him nothing for it. I advise him to unscrew the tail of the bogus gorilla, and, if that is impossible, to cut it off, regardless of expense. Let him clutch it, as the butcher man in Holmes’s poem clasped the tail of the spectre pig. Even then his sleep may be disturbed by the phantom forms and dismal groans of outraged gorillas, but he will retain the confidence of The Great American People. They may not be educated up to the belief that man is a sublimated monkey ; they may not agree, with Monboddo, that the orang-outang is of the human species, or hold, with Huxley, that man is a member of the same order as the apes and lemurs, and that in substance and in structure he is one with the brutes. They may not assent to the “ Development ” theory of Lamarck, or the “ Natural Selection ” hypothesis of Darwin, and may even think that they can justly claim a higher origin than any denizen of the forest or any inmate of a menagerie. But although they may have a poor opinion of the gorilla, and hardly care to put him in their family-tree or admit him to their social circle, yet they will not submit to have him insulted by a low-lived creature who has assumed his name. They will not condemn him in his absence, and on hearsay evidence merely, but will await his arrival before they presume to pronounce upon his merits.

  1. “And pray how was the Devil drest Oh ! he was in his Sunday’s best; His coat was red, and his breeches were blue, With a hole behind that his tail came thro’.”