When I was wee, I used to love Cartoon Network.
It used to show spectacular stuff like Looney Tines, Scooby Doo, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Tom and Jerry, Dexter’s Laboratory, Jackie Chan Adventures, Flintstones, Batman, Jonny Quest, TMNT and many many more.
One of which was I Am Weasel.
I loved that show.
And I adored I R Baboon.
It was then that I fell in love with baboons.
So anyway, I love baboons.
And so, when I read about a baboon railway officer, I was intrigued.
“Jack the Signalman”, as he was called, was a Chacma baboon and a signalman for the railroad in South Africa. He was given that name for being so capable at his job.
Jack was owned by James “Jumper” Wide, a railway man who lost both of his legs in a railway accident in 1877. After recovering, he took a job as a signalman at Uitenhage station in Cape South Africa. While visiting the local market, Jumper saw an ox wagon being driven by a baboon – Jack.
A curious Wide struck up a conversation with the animal’s owner and learned that along with being trained to obey a few simple commands, the baboon, who was called “Jack”, was sufficiently strong enough to push and pull relatively heavy loads.
Upon learning this, Wide asked the owner if he’d be willing to part with the animal so that he could train it to push him to and from work. The owner, perhaps moved by Wide’s condition or maybe Wide just offered a price he couldn’t refuse, for whatever reason agreed to give up ownership of Jack. Again according to Nature, before the two men parted ways, the owner explained to Wide that he should give Jack a “tot of good Cape brandy” every night if he wanted him to work, as without it, the baboon would spend the next day sulking and would even become disobedient. .
Jumper began taking Jack to work with him at the train yard. There Jack helped out wherever he could.
Initially Wide simply trained Jack to push his trolley (which had been designed by Wide to fit on train tracks) along the half mile section of track between his house and the signal box he worked in. It wasn’t long though before Wide realised that Jack was a lot smarter than he’d assumed and could be trained for other tasks. For example, one of Wide’s duties involved grabbing a key to the coal store from a locked box and delivering it to train drivers when they tooted their whistles four times. After only a few days of working together, Jack picked up on this and soon began grabbing the key before Wide could whenever he heard the appropriate number of whistles and delivered it himself.
Once Jumper learned the Baboon was capable of operating levers, Jack was taught the switches by name, and how to put them into their positions for when a train came into the station.
Jumper would hold up either one or two fingers to signal Jack, who would then pull the correct lever. After that, Jack needed no more instructions from Jumper. Even though Jack was always under the watchful eye of his owner, the Baboon never made a mistake or was required to be told the instructions again.
At the end of a long day, Jack was rewarded with a stiff shot of brandy.
A friendship ensued between the two, and they lived in a cottage just under a kilometer from the station. Jack learned to push Jumper to work on the trolley, even having to go up and down the hills between home and work.
Jack soon became a popular attraction at the railway station, surprising everyone who watched his spectacular feats of signal operating. But, when a wealthy woman complained to railway authorities that she had seen a baboon operating signals, both Jack and Jumper were fired.
Wide appealed to the company to reconsider their decision, arguing that Jack actually knew what he was doing. After several more workers stepped forward to argue that, in their experience, Jack was doing a pretty decent job prior to being fired , the company begrudgingly agreed to give the baboon a test.
Wanting to make sure Jack could handle even the most complicated of scenarios, the test was structured such that they played a series of rapidly changing whistles at Jack after placing him in front of a set of levers with the same layout as those in the signal hut. Jack passed this test without making a single mistake and he and Wide were given their jobs back.
Jumper got his job back, and Jack was also hired, the only baboon in history to work for the railroad. From then on, the baboon would always be known as Jack the Signalman. Since Jack was now an official employee of the company, instead of just a pet Wide brought to work, Nature reported he was given a salary of 20 cents per day (about $5 today), daily rations and a beer on Saturdays.
Hiring Jack proved to be a smart move for the company since not only did they get a tourist attraction that brought people from all over to ride their trains to see the baboon, but they also got a fiercely loyal guard with imposing baboon arms to chase away vandals and trespassers. Besides signal operator and occasional guard, during his time with the company, Jack was also reportedly trained to clean, move railway sleepers, garden and was officially put in charge of the keys to the coal yard.
In 1890, after living with Jumper for nine years and working for the railroad and never making a mistake, Jack died of tuberculosis. Jumper was said to be inconsolable after the death of his friend due to how inseparable the two had been. Jack’s skull is still on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, and a photographic museum was set up at the old Uitenhage station.
There are tributes to Jack the Signalman, as he was known, at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown (they have Jack’s skull) and the Uitenhage Railway Station.
Jack’s story was initially widely covered in a July 24th, 1890 edition of the science journal, Nature.
His remarkable story was retold in the November 11th, 1990 edition of The Telegraph newspaper, with the original story featuring in the Science Nature Journal from 1890.From there, it remained a fairly obscure tale until it was covered again a century later by The Telegraph Newspaper.
Along with the article from Nature, surviving anecdotal evidence, and pictures and newspaper clippings from the time, Jack’s existence and role with the railway was also corroborated by still existing correspondence between scientists who encountered him from the era. Today his skull can reportedly be found at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown South Africa.