Jack The Baboon

By Gayne C. Young

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When life takes your legs off at the knees, train a baboon to do your job and tow you around … or so thought James Edwin “Jumper” Wide.

         Born in Burlescombe, Devon, UK in 1850, James moved to South Africa later in life where he took a job as a guard on the railways near the town of Uitenhage. It was there that he earned the nickname “Jumper” by jumping between often moving railcars. It was also there that he lost both of his legs just below the knees when he miscalculated a jump and landed beneath a moving railcar. Jumper was lucky to walk—er, crawl—away with his life but was soon given the axe by his company as the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway Service felt he couldn’t do his job without his legs. Upset but undeterred, Jumper went home to fashion himself a pair of peg legs and a trolley to move about on. The railway was impressed enough that they gave Jumper a job as a signalman.

         Around 1880, Jumper visited Uitenhage Market where he witnessed a chacma baboon serving as a voorloper, or oxen leader. He was so impressed by the monkey’s ability to drive a team of oxen that he asked the owner if he could purchase the simian. The owner initially declined but eventually felt sorry for the legless man and agreed to a price if Jumper promised to give the monkey a tot of brandy every night. Jumper agreed, bought the monkey, and named him Jack.

The first thing Jumper trained Jack to do was to pull his trolly along the train track. This made his half-mile commute to and from work far easier. Next, Jumper taught Jack how to remove and set the trolley on the tracks then how to sweep floors and collect firewood. Jack’s next lessons saw him delivering keys to train engineers and changing signals and levers.

Jack got so good at his duties that locals started coming to the tracks to watch the ape perform them. Jack was even later written up in the book The Railway Signal which exclaimed that Jumper had, “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.”

But not all that saw a monkey in charge of directing trains were impressed. On one occasion a lady traveling from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth witnessed Jack doing his duty and quickly went full Karen. She wrote a letter to the railroad telling them how horrified she was to see a monkey working for the rail. The railroad sent several inspectors to Uitenhage to see what was going on. Upon seeing Jumper do nothing and Jack do everything, the railroad quickly fired both. Jumper begged the railroad for another chance and after the inspectors saw that the baboon was able to perform his duties he and his owner were hired back on, but with certain changes.

Jack’s title, according to the railroad, was now Jack the Signalman. He was given an employee number, paid 20 cents a day as well as a half a bottle of beer a week. Visiting railway superintendent George B. Howe later wrote of how Jack performed his duties: “A whistle is heard and Jack springs to the ‘home’ signal lever, his master taking the ‘distant’ one. The train past, Jack returns the lever without a word. Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers.”

Jack the Signalman did his duty for almost a decade without fail and never made an error. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter in 1890. Jumper was inconsolable. But not so much that he didn’t allow Jack’s skull to be pulled from his head and placed on display in Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa, where it still remains to this day.

From the FE Films Archive

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