“THE BUSH NEGRESS.” On a recent speaking trip to lovely Honesdale, Pa., I stopped at the historical society to browse old newspapers from Northeastern Pennsylvania. And there in the Pittston Gazette of Oct. 11, 1850, was that bizarre phrase, in all caps. It was the headline on a large display ad that was just as strange. A so-called “Wild Woman of the Woods” had been captured in Sumatra and would be on public display for two days under a pavilion in Pittston. Admission was 25 cents, children half-price. “This creature is a newly discovered link between Brute and Human species, and it is difficult to determine to which it belongs,” the ad asserted. “Its gait is erect, having the negro features with protruding mouth, bald head, with hair five inches long on its arms. The specimen grows to the height of five and a half to six feet.” Don’t miss it, the hucksters said, because “there is no humbug about the young lady, she is a genuine specimen of the lowest order of beings, and well worthy of a visit.” Egads, just what had I stumbled upon? Some online research showed that the poor creature had been drawing crowds in New York City and Buffalo, and would go on to tour Wilkes-Barre, Bloomsburg, Lewistown and Baltimore. I was unable to find any illustrations or independent research, but based on a 1850 Buffalo newspaper account, I suspect the crowds were beholding an orangutan. This was a time of discovery and scientific pursuit–and of rank racism. Curiosity-seekers were treated to traveling freak shows and “human zoos” that featured the likes of the Siamese Twins and the Hottentot Venus. Enlightenment thinkers were already searching for a “missing link” between anthropoids and humans in what was termed the Great Chain of Being. But to openly claim that the furry specimen resembled a Negress and was “of the lowest order of being” revealed where black people ranked among humans in the white imagination. The touring primate would meet its end that November in chilly Baltimore, the death attributed to tuberculosis. People had been encouraged to stroke the “docile” creature during the tour, and that exposure may have been the fatal touch. I can only hope the curiosity-seekers didn’t also feel emboldened to stroke and poke any black people they encountered afterward, or toss dehumanizing taunts their way. For the tour certainly reinforced views of black inferiority that persist to this day.
“Great Excitement.” Another bizarre aspect of the Bush Negress visit is that it occurred just as Pittston and environs were girding for the effects of the controversial new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The same month as the primate visit, the Gazette reported on a confrontation in nearby Wilkes-Barre. Someone calling himself “the marshall” had shown up there to arrest some fugitive slaves but was resisted by a group of 100 black people–which would have been the entire black population of the city. The man began gathering a posse to help him, knowing the law required that citizens assist in apprehending runaways. Meanwhile, the alleged fugitives disappeared, no doubt spirited to safety by the other black people. As I write in Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North, black communities across the North organized self-help “vigilance committees” to resist slave-catchers. The Negress tour must have been just one more indication to local blacks that they were objects of scorn and were best advised to depend on themselves when push came to shove.
Book News. I’m still enjoying summer break. Then come three appearances in October, on the 7th at the Ryerss Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the 13th at a Civil War weekend in Allentown, N.J., and the 14th at Waverly Methodist Church in Waverly, Pa.–my boyhood church. More details next month.