The Man Who Talked to Monkeys

The Man Who Talked to Monkeys

The Man Who Talked to Monkeys

I never saw the Dr Doolittle film and didn’t like the books, but the fairy tale “The White Snake,” in which a taste of snake meat triggers an understanding of the language of animals was a particular favorite. We’ve learned a lot about primate communication in the last decades, so what do we make of this “mysterious individual” who talked with the animals? Woodward Gardens, in San Francisco, was a combination zoo, museum, pleasure resort, and hall of curiosities.


A San Francisco Man Who Is Believed to Have Mastered the Simian Lingo

A mysterious individual haunts Woodward Gardens, to whom is attributed the gift of conversing with monkeys in their own language. He is a little, old man, who has seen about threescore years and ten, but as he is always alone and speaks to no one very little is known of him. For nearly a year past the old gentleman has daily visited that formerly popular resort, deposited the entrance fee and as quickly as his feeble strength will allow and with eagerness depicted on his seamed and weather beaten countenance proceeds to the monkey cage. The monkeys recognize him and set up a chattering and howling that would grate on a sensitive person’s nerves, but the old man does not mind it a bit. He enjoys it and beams on the quadrumana that make every effort to reach him through the iron bars with an expression that would lead one to think that his soul was wrapped up in them. Finally the noise subsides, and the old man gazes into a dozen comical, expectant faces pressed against the bars, with 24 bright eyes looking at him, and utters a few guttural sounds that astonish and pleased the monkeys. He perfectly imitates the sounds of the most of them, and all arrange themselves in a semicircle and with great seriousness listen to all he has to say. Sometimes his tone is serious, when all the monkeys put on a very abject expression and look as sorrowful as a monkey can. Then again, when the tones are different, the monkeys will dance about with every evidence of delight and all begin to jabber at once until the old man points his finger at one of the largest. All remain silent while he seemingly carries on a conversation with one of the older ones, imitating all the grimaces and actions of a monkey as well as any human being could.

Sometimes the conversation lasts an hour or more, when the little man bids his friends adieu until the morrow.

It is said by some that he little man was once a sea captain, whose crew was murdered by the natives on the coast of Brazil and he made his escape to the forests of the interior, with no companions but the monkeys for many months, and subsisted entirely on the wild fruits and other food berries that he could gather. It is supposed that he obtained some knowledge of their method of communication during the months of his enforced residence in the wilderness that enables him to engage the attention of the monkeys at Woodward gardens.

When accosted, the old man will not reply, and his mysterious behavior is a source of much comment. San Francisco Examiner.

Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 24 August 1894: p. 2

Is this just a puff piece for Woodward’s Gardens? The owner, Robert Woodward, once paid $250 for a pane of glass with a lightning daguerreotype face on it and Woodward was a keen publicist.  An intriguing story like this about a daily monkey conclave would be sure to draw visitors, as would the exciting backstory about Brazil. There’s only one teensy problem: Woodward’s Gardens supposedly closed in 1891, three years before this article, although there is some question about the exact date. The “curios” were sold off in 1893 at auction. Can anyone explain why the San Francisco Examiner was touting a closed attraction in 1894? Any further stories of the old man and his simian friends? The earliest mention I find of him is in 1890. Utter a few guttural sounds to chriswoodyard8 AT


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

This just in, from Theo Paijmans:

In answer to your query, your clipping, although published in 1894, refers to a story that was published in the SF Examiner three years before, in 1891.
This typically is just one of those accounts that travel through the years, sometimes decades even, and by doing so is appearing in various newspapers over the years. It makes bibliographical work a tad more difficult and it is a little known but important fortean aspect of tracing accounts to their source about which I have written on many occasions.
In regards to the ‘Man Who Talked To Monkeys’ tale, I have a number of clippings of this case from various years, published nationwide in a number of U.S. newspapers, the breakdown of which goes like this:
1891 = 12 newspaper clippings
1892 = 1 newspaper clipping
1894 = 4 newspaper clippings
1896 = 1 newspaper clipping
All cite the SF Examiner as their source and all are verbatim accounts of each other without any deviation or embellishment. I haven’t made an in-depth study of this case, and the statistics stem from my survey in one digital newspaper archive. If more digital archives would be consulted, I suspect more accounts would be found.
This little survey though shows that the account was published several years after its initial appearance in the SF Examiner – and that the 1894 clipping you cite is one of those in the long trail, but one that ultimately also refers to the SF Examiner article from 1891.
Thanks so much, Theo! You’ve made me look twice at my 1890 source–which was, in fact, from 1891 and referred to the SF Examiner article.  I’m still not sure why a paper, even a NJ one, would not correct the squib to mention something about “When the Gardens were open…” rather than running the article virtually as originally written. It’s not like the forms were sitting there, still locked–the story would have had to be re-typeset from some copy lying around the office. Perhaps just mindless re-setting.



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