How the 1904 World’s Fair Destroyed a Man’s Soul

Ota Benga (Photo: Library of Congress)

A friend sent me a BBC news clip last week—“Caged Congolese teen: Why a zoo took 114 years to apologise.” I blinked; with news of COVID-19 aerosols spraying from one direction and the firehose of political rhetoric gushing from the other, this felt a little random. But my friend was shocked by the tale, and it had a St. Louis connection.

In 1895, Samuel Verner, a white man from South Carolina, moved to the Belgian Congo to work as a Presbyterian missionary. It seems he had a greater aptitude for acquiring human beings than saving souls. In 1904, he received a commission to bring a dozen people from the Congo to St. Louis to be exhibited at the World’s Fair.

Back then, this was not called trafficking. The word “voluntary” was even used:

 

Dear Mr. Verner, you are to secure the voluntary attendance at the exposition of 12 pygmies by May 1st, 1904. Delays by shipwreck or other catastrophe accepted. Yours with respect, WJ McGee, Department of Anthropology, St. Louis Exposition.

Still, “securing” opens many possibilities. Verner deliberately equipped himself with hunting weapons for his trip. Chest tightening, I read on.

Why am I so worried about how an old evil unfolded? Just because I grew up in the place that commissioned it? Odd, the way we identify with individuals, teams, institutions, on the basis of a single variable, taking their sins or triumphs as somehow reflecting upon us. Granted, we are selective about this identification. The same people who resent having the sins of their forbears held over their heads are likely to rejoice when “their” team wins a championship. My heart sinks when I hear of old atrocities conducted in my hometown, but the Rams’ departure did not dent my ego.

At any rate, “voluntary” was complicated for at least one of the young men Verner secured, Ota Benga. (Accounts of his age vary; Verner said he was twenty-one, but the ship’s passenger list recorded him as seventeen, and the BBC has him as twelve or thirteen.) Reportedly, he had narrowly escaped death by a Belgian militia, only to be captured by African traders. Verner bought him for several bags of salt and some copper wire, and we are told that gratitude made Benga willing to undertake the journey to the United States.

A skilled hunter who moved easily through the tropical rainforest, he suffered the cold St. Louis winter without adequate shelter or clothing (a muffler and mittens would have ruined the look). To satisfy the belief that they were savages, the Congolese men soon learned to act warlike, imitating the American Indians in the exhibit next to theirs. (A sure clue to power imbalance? You feel obliged to conform to the whims and distorted perceptions of strangers.)

After the expo ended, Verner brought the young men back to what was then the Belgian Congo. The other nine were Batwa, but Benga was Mbuti, and his tribe had been wiped out by genocide. No longer at home anywhere, he returned with Verner to the United States, and Verner, who was strapped for cash, arranged for him to live in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History. (He lived in a museum? I picture him sitting, baffled, among the lifelike but less lively specimens prepared by taxidermy.) The arrangement lasted until Benga flung a chair at the head of Florence Guggenheim. Then Verner hurriedly introduced him to the director of the Bronx Zoo, who wound up exhibiting him, first in the chimpanzee cage and then in a larger cage with an orangutan. Fascinated by the bizarre notion of evolution, people crowded the zoo, eager to view a “missing link.” For twenty days, Ota Benga drew huge crowds.

The spectacle of this small (four-foot-nine) black man behind bars—in a monkey cage—lit a small flame of outrage that could not be extinguished. A 1906 letter in the zoo archives discussed quieting the protests by saying Benga was a zoo employee. That eased a lot of (white) minds, but editors of African-American newspapers continued to protest his treatment with bold headlines. On behalf of a coalition of Black churches, Robert Stuart MacArthur petitioned New York’s mayor to have Benga released from the zoo.

“Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Rev. James Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

No one in power conceded that. But Benga was becoming rebellious, “unmanageable” in the words of the zoo director, who regretted his inability to punish “the boy” because of so much public scrutiny. So Benga was released from his, er, employment and sent to Gordon’s orphanage in the hope that he would learn to be “civilized.”

Four years later, he went to live at the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College for Black students in Virginia. Renamed Otto Bingo, he found work at a tobacco factory. As soon as he could manage it, he tried to return home. Even without his people, he would surely belong there more than here? But voyages had all been canceled because of the outbreak of World War I. His spirits sank, and in 1916, he threw his American clothes on a bonfire, picked up a borrowed rifle, and shot himself in the heart.

Verner’s grandson, Phillips Verner Bradford, told NPR, “He said that he wanted to send his soul back to Africa.”

By now I have read everything I can find, piecing together this account from a mosaic of sources that each differ slightly. As a reporter, the sloppiness of passed-down history would trouble me. As a human being, I think only three things matter: the capture, the mocking exhibition, and the suicidal despair that makes every person who took charge along the way a little guilty, like the passengers on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express who each took their turn with the knife.

This is inflammatory, and it ignores a historical context in which what was done to Ota Benga was considered morally acceptable. But was it really? Dealing in humans was done for profit, as dealing drugs is today, and in both cases, those who do it know and do not care that it is wrong. Still, I can already feel people rearing up against such a suggestion. Sick of being made to feel guilty, they find retrospective finger-pointing unfair, illogical, and a needless delay in the business of getting on with life, doing it right this time, moving forward.

I understand that. But because history is slippery, and so very easy to rewrite, I think we need to grit our teeth and remember just how easily evil can slide by. Maybe we will recognize it faster when it happens today.

St. Louis has never apologized for exhibiting human beings as though they were stuffed platypuses. The way we did anthropology was cruder then; the point is not to exhume those involved and make them do penance. But St. Louisans still get misty when we talk about that fair. Our time in the sun, the peak of our innovation and fabulousness, the year everyone who mattered went often to the fair or even helped plan it. We point to buildings from the fair, we cherish souvenirs, we joke about the iced tea and ice cream cones we swear were invented there. Maybe we should try to see that lit-up fantasy whole.

After his death, The New York Times dismissed tales of Benga’s exhibition as urban legend, even though their own archives held stories about his exhibition in the monkey cage. (“Over and over again, the crowd laughed at him,” a reporter wrote on September 10, 1906. “If he wonders why, he does not show it.”)

Last month, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, finally apologized for that 1906 exhibition. Its president promised full transparency, a sharp contrast to decades of soft-pedaling what happened. William Bridges, the zoo’s curator emeritus, had said in 1974 that little could be known about what really happened, “except that it was all done with the best of intentions, for Ota Benga was interesting to the New York public.”

The idea that Ota Benga interesting the zoogoers was a justification for what happened to him—that is the biggest clue of all. It tells us whose intentions mattered.

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