In 1906, the Bronx Zoo Put a Black Man on Display in the Monkey House

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The young black man who arrived at the Bronx Zoo in the summer of 1906 cut a striking figure. Dressed in a white suit, he was carrying a wooden bow, a quiver of arrows, and a chimpanzee. He stood 4’ 11” tall and weighed 103 pounds, and when he smiled, he revealed a set of pointy whittled teeth, like a piranha’s.

At 23, Ota Benga had already lived an equally unusual life to go with his appearance.

A member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe, he had hunted elephants, survived a massacre by the Belgian colonial army, and been enslaved and freed. After being escorted to the United States in 1904 by explorer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, Benga had more memorable experiences. He danced at Mardi Gras, met Geronimo, and along with other members of his pygmy tribe, was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in an anthropological exhibit called “The Permanent Wildmen of the World.” Though he was often referred to as “boy,” Benga had been widowed—twice: his first wife had been kidnapped by a hostile tribe; his second died from a poisonous snake bite.

By the time Verner brought Benga to New York City, the explorer was flat broke. He contacted William Temple Hornaday, the then-director of the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear.

Hornaday—an eccentric man who believed he could read the thoughts of his animals—had many good qualities. Namely, he was one of the first to encourage the display of animals in natural settings rather than small cages. But Hornaday also believed that pygmies were a sub-race, closer to animals than humans. And before long, he was displaying Ota Benga at his zoo in what he called an “intriguing exhibit.”

"Is that a man?"

In his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to foster the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the orangutan’s cage, and baring his sharp teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were, too—though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.

Hornaday posted a sign in the Monkey House outside the cage with Benga’s height and weight and how he was acquired. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read. If Hornaday’s attitude toward his new acquisition needed further elaboration, it was summed up in the odd tone of an article he wrote for the zoological society’s bulletin:

"Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the downy fell described by some explorers ... He is happiest when at work, making something with his hands."

Thanks to a piece in The New York Times, word of the exhibit spread. "We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people," the Times wrote, "and then we bring one here to brutalize him." (Though in an editorial, The Times also said Benga "is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.")

Soon a group of black clergymen was leading protests around the city. After a threat of legal action, Benga was let out of the cage, and once again allowed to roam around the grounds of the zoo. But by then he was a celebrity, and the zoo was attracting up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, jeering and laughing at him. Benga spoke no English, so couldn’t express his frustration. Instead he lashed out, wounding a few visitors with his bow and arrow, and threatening a zookeeper with a knife.

After Benga left the Bronx Zoo, several institutions, including the Virginia Theological Seminary, took him in. He eventually got a job at a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, Virginia, but grew depressed and homesick. In 1916, he died by suicide by shooting himself with a pistol.

Later in life, William Hornaday became known for his efforts in saving the American bison and the Alaskan fur seal from extinction. In 1992, Samuel Verner’s grandson Phillip Bradford co-wrote a book about Benga’s life, Ota Benga: The Pygmy In The Zoo.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Hamilton Cast Discusses the History and Impact of the Musical in New Disney+ Exclusive

The real work begins after the final bow.
The real work begins after the final bow.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

On Friday, July 10, Disney+ will release Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You, a conversation with key original cast members and creators that covers everything from personal memories to thoughts on how the musical can expand our understanding of America’s past.

Moderated by Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, the program features Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), and Christopher Jackson (George Washington).

Also in attendance is Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard University history professor and leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his enslaved maid, Sally Hemings. Hemings is mentioned briefly in Hamilton, and the contentious topic of slavery crops up in a few pithy insults directed at various characters, but some viewers have criticized how the production largely glosses over the issues and glorifies the Founding Fathers as sympathetic and respectable leaders.

Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You is a chance for Miranda and his team to discuss the decisions that went into fitting a long, complex history into a series of musical numbers—and for Gordon-Reed to offer a historian’s perspective on how we should interpret Hamilton.

“The really important thing, I think, is for people after they’ve watched it to go and find out more,” she says in a preview clip on Good Morning America. (If you’re wondering where to start, you might want to take a closer look at some of those history-packed lyrics.)

You can stream the special starting tomorrow, which leaves plenty of time to watch the musical on Disney+ again … and again. If you still need a subscription to Disney+, head here to sign up.

[h/t Good Morning America]