Ota Benga, Captive: The Man the Bronx Zoo Kept in a Cage

NYU journalism professor Pamela Newkirk unearths a dark chapter in the history of one of New York City's most venerable institutions.
Photo: newspaper illustration of Ota Benga holding a chimpanzee; background has descriptive text from newspaper article, and graphical lines

On Sunday, September 9, 1906, throngs of spectators filed in to the New York Zoological Gardens—better known as the Bronx Zoo—to gape at a new Primate House exhibit. Those deep in the crowd may have struggled to make out the sign on the cage:

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight 103 pound. Brought from the Kasai River,
Congo Free State, South Central Africa,
By Dr Samuel P Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September

Having debuted the previous afternoon, Ota Benga was an overnight sensation, with the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes” hitting Sunday morning’s New York Times. The floor was scattered with bones to suggest Benga, whose teeth had been chipped into sharp points (as was customary among young men in his forest-dwelling Congolese tribe), was a cannibal. With only an orangutan named Dohong as a companion, Benga alternated between glowering silently, shooting a bow and arrow, and angrily mimicking the crowd’s jeers. While some in the mob might have felt pity or shame at the sight of a caged man, the Times reassured readers that he was “one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale.”  

book cover: Spectacle: The Astonishing life of Ota Benga (shows Benga's headshot)

That month, the zoo saw nearly a quarter of a million visitors, almost twice as many as the previous September. Benga made headlines from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, and English and French newspapers clamored for photographs. When Benga was allowed to wander the zoo grounds, he was eagerly chased through the park by what Pamela Newkirk, in her new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, wryly describes as “feral visitors” who cornered him and poked him in the ribs.

Newkirk, director of undergraduate studies at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, got sucked in to Benga’s story when she read an account of his life co-written by Phillips Verner Bradford—the grandson of the self-styled African explorer who brought him to the United States. Bradford’s 1992 account, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, which landed on the New York Times notable book list, suggests that Benga left the Congo with Samuel Verner voluntarily—and describes a years-long friendship between the two men.

Immediately, Newkirk was suspicious. “Why would they be friends?” she wondered. “I just don’t understand: ‘We’re friends, we go to the zoo together, and one of us ends up in the monkey house and one of us doesn’t?’” When Newkirk started doing her own research in the Bronx Zoo archives, she quickly uncovered letters between Verner and zoo officials that suggested a very different kind of relationship. Then there were ship passenger records, census data, anthropological field notes, letters between scientists and explorers—a veritable mountain of evidence that Bradford’s story, which had more or less made it into the “hard drive of history,” as Newkirk puts it, was far from the whole truth. “It was so stunning and so clear that Ota Benga was being held against his wishes and that there was an utter disregard for his life, his will, his being,” she says.  

With her meticulously researched account, Newkirk rights the record, offering a profoundly unsettling look at the racism deeply rooted in even the city’s (and the nation’s) progressive institutions at the start of the 20th century. As she writes in an author’s note at the start of her book, “At the presumed summits of civilization, cruelty was cloaked in civility and brooding darkness was hailed as light.”

photo: portrait of author Pamela Newkirk

Case in point—three of the men who orchestrated Benga’s display were respected scientists with considerable social and political clout: One of the Bronx Zoo’s cofounders, Madison Grant, was author of the influential book The Passing of the Great Race, which argued for anti-miscegenation laws and sterilization of “inferior” races—and carried a ringing endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt on its book jacket. Another cofounder, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was the son of railroad magnate William Henry Osborn, taught at Columbia, served as a paleontologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and ultimately became president of the American Museum of Natural History. The zoo’s first director, top zoologist William Temple Hornaday, had previously served as the first superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

It was Hornaday who argued that exhibiting Benga in a cage with animals wasn’t so different from recent popular attractions in Europe, including “human zoos” displaying so-called “primitive” peoples in Hamburg, Barcelona, and Milan, and a touring 1876 exhibition of Egyptian Nubians that traveled through Berlin, Paris, and London. Closer to home, and less than a decade earlier, six Eskimo brought back from Robert Peary’s exhibition to Greenland had been housed as specimens in the damp basement of the American Museum of Natural History until four of them fell ill and died.

Newkirk argues that “as atrocious as they were,” these displays represented something “very, very different” from what happened to Benga. In the “human zoos” there was at least the recognition that the groups of people on view were, in fact, human—even if they were primitive. “This is a step beyond—or beneath that. Benga was alone among the primates—he was not with other human beings. He was captured like an animal and exhibited like an animal,” she says.

For the Bronx Zoo scientists and others, the Benga exhibit offered a rare opportunity to educate the public about the still-controversial theory of evolution by presenting the African “pygmy” as the “missing link” between humans and apes. “This wasn’t the idea of some crackpot on the side,” Newkirk says. “It was the mainstream view of race embedded in the field of anthropology at the time.”

As inconceivable as it would be to envision a person in captivity alongside zoo monkeys in 2015, Newkirk cautions that this shameful episode isn’t so distant as it might seem. “My grandmother was alive when this happened,” she says. “She was six years old, living in upstate New York, when an African was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo.” Moreover, she argues, studying how black bodies were portrayed just a few short generations ago can inform our thinking about the racial nightmares—including the crisis of police violence that has inspired the #blacklivesmatter movement—of our own time.

As Newkirk wrote in a recent essay for The Chronicle Review, “The story of Ota Benga, exposing how pervasive attitudes about race are hard-wired into American science, policy, and, indeed, history, may help explain a recurring loop of lapses today. Neither college fraternities’ mindless minimizing of lynching nor the reckless killing by police of unarmed black boys and men can be sufficiently understood or reconciled without reassessing our racial history.”

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Samuel Verner, the man who’d become Benga’s captor in the Belgian Congo, born to an avowed white supremacist family in South Carolina, had dreamt of traveling to Africa ever since he read accounts of the 1871 adventures of the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. After a first failed missionary trip in the late 1890s during which he fathered (and then abandoned) two children with a Congolese woman and collected more than 200 artifacts and two orphaned boys for the Smithsonian, Verner, who’d suffered delusions all his life, checked in to a Baltimore sanatorium. He began working again—writing anthropological articles on African “savagery” and cannibalism for the Atlantic Monthly and the American Anthropologist, despite the fact that he held no advanced degrees—in 1900. “How many white Americans were going to the Congo then? That was his credential,” Newkirk says. “He’d seen the interior of Central Africa. So few white people had been there that it was their story to tell.”

Verner’s big break would come in 1903, when he heard that William John McGee—head of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, president of the American Anthropological Association, and now head of the ethnology department for the upcoming world’s fair in St. Louis—had been tasked with assembling members of “exotic races” for the fair’s exhibit on human development. He wrote to McGee, offering to return to Africa to secure “pygmies” for the exhibit. Soon, it was arranged: Verner set sail with a budget of $8,500 and official letters of recommendation from McGee appealing to King Leopold of Belgium—who was then presiding over the systematic rape, murder, and mutilation of the Congolese people as he extracted resources from their land—for support.

On March 20, 1904, Verner wrote, “The first pygmy has been secured!” But the specifics of Benga’s capture would vary in each of Verner’s retellings of the incident. Sometimes he claimed that he’d rescued Benga from cannibals who were holding him captive. In other accounts, he said that Benga was being held by government troops who’d defeated the enemy tribe that had captured him in war, or boasted that he’d taken him in exchange for $5 worth of goods. Whatever the circumstances, Newkirk notes, the village where Verner found Benga was the site of a well-known slave market—and Verner was armed.

Benga and a handful of other “pygmies” brought back by Verner would become the hit of 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, which featured some 10,000 people on display, including 2,000 Native Americans and a thousand Filipinos set on a 47-acre reservation. The press took a special liking to Benga, who danced and sang for up to 20,000 spectators at a time. He was also among those chosen to have his face cast in plaster to have a bust made for the Museum of Natural History. Fair officials awarded Verner (just off a stint in yet another sanatorium) a gold medal for his contribution to the exhibition. He resumed writing about his African adventures, often portraying Benga as a cannibal.

And then in the spring of 1905 it was back to the Congo to return the “pygmies.” Exactly how, in July 1906, Benga ended up accompanying Verner to the United States a second time remains—again—mysterious. Verner claimed at various times that Benga asked to come with him, that Benga was in danger of being enslaved, or even that he threatened suicide at the thought of being left behind. Two months later, he’d find himself behind bars at the Bronx Zoo.

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One of the challenges of telling this story is that rarely in any of the letters and articles that Newkirk found is Benga afforded the opportunity to speak for himself. “People in power have papers,” she reflects. “You can go to an archive and you can see what they did and what they thought. Well, Ota Benga didn’t have that.” But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to empathize with his humiliation, she argues. “We kind of know how it would feel to be put in a cage with an orangutan. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination.” Newspaper accounts described his sad eyes. When asked how he was enjoying his stay, Benga replied, “Me no like America.” When visitors poked at him, he began to fight back, hitting and kicking to defend himself. “So yeah, he didn’t write a letter to the president about it,” Newkirk says, “but we can see his acts of resistance.”

And despite the glee with which much of the public (and the tabloids) greeted his captivity, there were others who spoke up on Benga’s behalf. Reverend Robert Stuart MacArthur, pastor of Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, declared: “The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African,” and met with the city’s black clergy to plan a protest. “Here’s this white Canadian pastor who used this influence to highlight inhumanity,” Newkirk says. “To me, he’s he first real hero in the book because he defied all of the conventions of his day to stand up against something that the New York Times, the mayor of New York, and all of these eminent people thought was perfectly okay.”

There were others, too, including William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal editorialized that the exhibit was “a shameful disgrace to every man in any way connected with it.” Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of Howard Color Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and leader of the group of African-American clergymen who, tipped off by MacArthur, traveled to the Monkey House to express their disapproval, said: “We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race with the monkeys. Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

Finally, as criticism of the exhibit mounted, and the confrontations between Benga and his spectators grew increasingly contentious, Benga was quietly released. He’d spent 20 days in the zoo.

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Decades after Benga's death (the circumstances around which make up one of the heart-wrenching chapters of Newkirk's book), the 1974 account Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society by the society’s curator of publications William Bridges perpetuated an old claim that Benga had been an employee of, not a specimen in, the zoo. Leaving the question of his captivity open, Bridges wrote that the idea “that he was locked behind bars in a bare cage to be stared at during certain hours seems unlikely.”

It’s this postscript that, in a tale with almost too many villainous twists to count, seems to rankle Newkirk most. “We’re talking about the curator of the records of the zoo disregarding what's in his own archives and saying ‘we cannot know,’” she says, pointing out that her book is based in large part on documents from those very archives. “We can know. We do know. And he clearly knew.”

Even today, there’s no plaque commemorating Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo, no sign to mark the time he spent there. “The shame of a cover-up means that you’re never going to acknowledge you made a mistake,” Newkirk laments. “And we all make mistakes—but for someone to willingly doctor history is kind of stunning. Why not own up to it? Why not say, ‘God, we’re better now.’”