Ota Benga’s Tragic Life As The Bronx Zoo’s Human Exhibit

Published March 22, 2016
Updated January 31, 2018

Across The Sea

Worlds Fair


Verner’s group promptly brought Benga to St. Louis, where he was the hit of the 1904 World’s Fair.

He and the other captive Africans he had been lumped in with quickly figured out that the crowd wanted to see genuine African “savages,” so they started imitating the dancing and war-whoops they saw the nearby American Indians doing. He made friends with Geronimo and charged increasingly interested visitors five cents to see his teeth. At one point, the National Guard had to be called in to control the crowds because they were getting so large.

After the fair, Benga traveled with Verner and even returned to Africa for a time. In 1905, he took up residence with another Congolese tribe, the Batwa, and married a woman from the tribe. The marriage only lasted a few months, ending when Benga’s wife died from a snakebite. At loose ends again, Benga traveled back to the United States with Verner in 1906.

The Museum, And What Happened After

Monkey Show Newspaper

Contemporary New York Times reporting on the Ota Benga exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. Image Source: Blogspot

Upon returning to the United States in 1906, Benga’s first stop was a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History, where he again “delighted” visitors by pretending to be a babbling half-human.

On one occasion he was asked to seat a wealthy donor’s wife. Benga pretended not to understand and threw the chair at her instead, just missing her.

Everybody at the museum liked Benga, but the director refused to pay Verner the salary he was asking for, so eventually the pair picked up and moved to the Bronx Zoo, which was looking to expand its monkey house.

Benga was allowed free movement through the zoo grounds, but his hammock was slung in the primate exhibit. He was displayed as part of the New York Anthropological Society’s exhibit on human evolution. Local black clergy were appalled by the exhibit and demanded Benga’s release, even lobbying the governor to force the zoo to shut down the display.

Benga was eventually released into the custody of James Gordon, the minister who had led the charge to free him. He then went to live in Gordon’s black orphanage.

News Clipping

A 1906 New York Times report on Ota Benga. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still unhappy with his life, Benga eventually moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, to live with friends of Gordon named the McCrays. Gordon still managed Benga’s affairs, and he seemed to have definite ideas about how the 27-year-old man should live. Gordon arranged to have Benga’s teeth capped and enrolled him in a school for non-white children. He also got Benga a job at a local tobacco plant, where he seemed to have been popular and told his story for free root beer.

However, by 1914, Benga was planning a final return to Africa. Life in America, he decided, wasn’t for him. With the money he made from the tobacco job, Benga started putting things in order and looking for passage to the nearest port to his homeland.

By this time, Leopold II was dead, and the Belgian government had stepped in to clean up some of the mess he’d left behind. Conditions were looking up in the Congo, and it was time to go home for good.

But this return passage was not to be. The outbreak of World War I suspended most cross-Atlantic shipping, and the German occupation of Belgium threw the Congo into bureaucratic chaos, with nobody allowed in or out. On March 20, 1916, depressed at the thought of not being able to return home, Ota Benga shot himself in the heart.

Next, read about zoologist who at everything, including a king’s heart. Then learn about Cudjo Lews, the last slave brought to America.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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