P. T. Barnum's gorilla

6 minute read

In the course of my research for the ape strength article, I ran across an old piece from The Atlantic Monthly, in which Alexander Young gives a long satire describing “a visit” to P. T. Barnum’s “gorilla” exhibition. This article was written after the fire that destroyed the second museum.

I can’t tell really whether the visit ever happened, or if the article is purely satirical. But it was an entertaining read, and looked like it might raise an interesting issue – how much of the public reception to evolution in the United States (or even Europe, where his companies also toured) was channeled through P. T. Barnum? So I looked into it a bit further.

The part that triggered Google was this:

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.

In any event, the theme of the story is that Barnum’s gorilla wasn’t a gorilla at all.

For some time the "gorilla" rested quietly on its 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 all-fours, 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 Satanic 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 unnatrual as a Yahoo or a Houyhnhnm (554).

This goes on for some four pages, by which time it has worn out its welcome. But at the end, we read a word of advice for Mr. Barnum:

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 (557).

This was so curious-sounding, and gave so few details that I thought I would try to track down what the exhibit really was.

A later reference to the 1868 fire in the NY Times includes this line:

There is a legend that a naturalist who once disputed the authenticity of Mr. Barnum's ostensible gorilla, on the grounds that the gorilla was tailless, and Mr. Barnum's imitation was tailed, was crushed by being informed by the showman that the tail was sewed on. But then the spectators had never had the advantage of seeing an undisputed gorilla (Anonymous 1887).

Another reference to Barnum’s museum gorilla is in the NY Times obituary for the explorer Paul du Chaillu (PDF):

In the public mind Du Chaillu has always been associated with the big monkey. As the hunter of the gorilla and entertaining introducer of that dreadful beast to civilization in the sixties, he first came into the ken of the general public. He was widely known as the man who had discovered the gorilla, because he wrote and talked so entertainingly of the big monkey, and his stories led Barnum to seek for a gorilla. To seek, with Barnum, was to speedily find. He could always find anything he wanted, animal, vegetable, or mineral. Somehow, in the gorilla matter, Barnum contrived to link Du Chaillu's name with his own.

I had thought that maybe Young was describing the famous “What Is It?” exhibit. I’ll come back to that later, it’s worth describing in some detail. But that would hardly have been new in 1868, having first been displayed in 1860, and in any event Young’s description would have to be totally off. At one point he refers to a “dog-like face”, and at another point calls the creature a “bloated baboon”, so I thought maybe Barnum had in fact found a baboon and passed it off as a gorilla.

I finally found a description of the affair in the 1995 biography by A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. It turns out that Barnum himself had not acquired the animal:

Upon learning through the newspapers that the manager of his second American Museum had secured a living gorilla -- a huge baboon, he later discovered -- he immediately wrote to give expert advice on the care of this long-sought prize (Saxon 1995:95).

His advice mostly consisted of ventilation, since most of his primates had died of pneumonia. I’m sorry not to be able to get a copy of later editions of Barnum’s autobiography; the first edition (on Google Books) is too early at 1855 to cover the gorilla affair. But Saxon’s endnotes provide more information:

The "gorilla" in this case, as Barnum makes clear, was a patent fraud, which he invited his friend the African explorer Paul du Chaillu, then lecturing in this country, to expose and make the most of. Du Chaillu, an American and himself a controversial figure in his day, had startled the London scientific community by showing up there in 1861 with a large collection of stuffed gorillas he had shot and collected, thereby adding further fuel to the "descent of man" controversy. The bills for the second American Museum around the period Barnum writes of (1867) do indeed advertise this acquisition, touted as "the most remarkable curiosity ever presented" and the "first and only living gorilla" ever captured alive. All such advertising notwithstanding, it seems certain his museums and circuses never possessed a living gorilla during his lifetime, although Barnum repeatedly expressed his desire to obtain one. The closest he came was in 1882, when he had the offer of two preserved adult skins, which he consulted the Smithsonian about -- PTB to Spencer F. Baird, 18 September 1882, and Baird to Barnum, 28 September 1882 (Saxon 1995:359).

Well, that’s enough to close the episode for me. There’s a lot more interesting history there, and I’ll return to it. Barnum was one of the most significant ways that people learned about zoological diversity, through exotic animals, in the late 1800’s. Barnum repeatedly provoked public controversy (for profit) by promoting the idea of “missing links” between apes and man – most famously in the “What Is It?” exhibit, which ran off and on for more than fifty years.


Saxon AH. 1995. P. T. Barnum: The legend and the man. Columbia University Press, New York.

Young A. 1868. My visit to the gorilla. Atlantic Monthly 22:550-557.

Anonymous. 1887. Barnum's Bereavement. New York Times, November 22, 1887.