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September 20, 2020

Meet Jack the Baboon, Who Worked as a Railroad Signalman in the 1880s for Money and Beer, and Never Made a Mistake!

During the latter part of the 1800s, travelers to Cape Town, along the Port Elizabeth mainline railroad, frequently saw a curious sight as they entered the Uitenhage train station. The signalman operating the levers that set the signals in the control tower was a baboon named Jack.

Jack was the pet and assistant of double leg amputee signalman James Wide, who worked for the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service. James “Jumper” Wide had been known for jumping between railcars until an accident where he fell and lost both of his legs. To assist in performing his duties, Wide purchased a chacma baboon in 1881, and trained him to push his wheelchair and to operate the railways signals under supervision.

Jack was put in charge of the coal yard keys and also did the station’s gardening, until Wide learned that the baboon was skilled at operating signals. Jack learned each lever by name and was able to push them into position when a train approached at Uitenhage station. Wide would hold up one or two fingers (as a signal to the animal) and Jack would then pull the correct lever. Finally, Jack needed no instructions from his master and he really knew which lever to operate for each approaching train. Although the baboon was always under the eye of his master James Wide, Jack never made a mistake or required telling twice.

This way the baboon Jack became popular for his unusual act and was one of the sights of Uitenhage for many years, astonishing all the people who witnessed his unusual feat of operating railway signals. However, when a prominent lady complained about this to the railway authorities, both Jack and Wide were fired.

Nonetheless, upon pleading from James Wide, the system manager tested and verified the adeptness of baboon Jack at operating signals. Wide got his job back and Jack was also hired, becoming the only baboon in history to go to work for the railroad. From that day, the baboon was known as Jack the Signalman. For his labor, Jack was paid twenty cents a day, and half a bottle of beer each week. It is widely reported that in his nine years of employment with the railway company, Jack never made a single mistake.

After 9 years of living with Wide, Jack died in 1890 after developing tuberculosis. Jack’s skull is in the collection of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.


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