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.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

The Tallest Cemetery Monument in New Orleans Was Built Out of Spite

baldeaglebluff, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
baldeaglebluff, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Spite has motivated many construction projects, from a 40-foot-tall fence in California to an 8-foot-wide home in Massachusetts. But when it comes to pettiness, few structures can beat Moriarty Monument in New Orleans's Metairie Cemetery. Reaching 80 feet high, the memorial to Mary Moriarty was an excuse for her widower to show off his wealth to everyone who rejected him.

New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries, which feature above-ground mausoleums. The soil in the region is too wet and swampy to dig traditional 6-foot graves, so instead, bodies are interred at the same level as the living. The most impressive of these graveyards may be Metairie Cemetery on Metairie Road and Pontchartrain Boulevard. Built in 1872, it lays claim to the most above-ground monuments and mausoleums in the city, the tallest of which is the Moriarty Monument.

The granite tomb was commissioned by Daniel A. Moriarty, an Irish immigrant who moved to New Orleans with little money in the mid-1800s. It was there he met his wife, Mary Farrell, and together they started a successful business and invested their new income into real estate. The couple was able to build a significant fortune this way, but Moriarty struggled to shake off his reputation as a poor foreigner. The city's upper class refused to accept him into their ranks—something Moriarty never got over. After his wife died in 1887, he came up with an idea that would honor her memory and hopefully tick off the pretentious aristocrats at the same time.

By 1905, he had constructed her the grandest memorial he could afford. In addition to the towering steeple, which is a topped with a cross, the site is adorned with four statues at the base. These figures represent faith, hope, charity, and memory, while the monument itself is meant to be a not-so-virtuous middle finger to all those who insulted its builder.

Gerard Schoen, community outreach director for Metairie Cemetery, told WGNO ABC, “The reason Daniel wanted his property to be the tallest was so his wife could look down and snub every 'blue blood' in the cemetery for all eternity." More than a century later, it still holds that distinction.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]