Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 24th, 2006
A 19th Century illustration of Paul du Chaillu confronting a gorilla in Africa.
Why would early newspapers in the United States use the term "gorilla" so frequently in the late 1800s when a large, hairy anthropoid was seen in nearby hollows and hills? Simply put, gorillas during that time were rather closely tied to American explorers’ discoveries and American journalistic interest in others’ adventures with the apes.
I’m not for the source of all of the confusion and challenges among Bigfoot researchers and/or those making comments at Cryptomundo about whether or not "gorilla" was used as a way to describe early Bigfoot sightings in America. Between Craig and myself, we have placed several words here about this issues. But this is an old subject, in more ways than one, of course. Some thirty years ago I wrote my first article (an "On the Trail" column in Fortean Times) about the widespread use of the label "gorilla" to capture the "unknowns" being seen in the 1800s, with case examples. I’ve followed that examination with more ink on this in both Mysterious America and Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America. So here’s a summary of some of those older writings.
Just as the media frenzy that followed the sightings and footprint finds in the Himalayas during the 1920s-1950s caused media folks to term all accounts of hairy hominoids, in Canada and the USA, as "Abominable Snowmen" for decades, so too did the same thing happen in the middle 1800s, regarding "gorillas" in our midst and firsthand encounters with unknown apelike creatures.
The first historical mention of the gorilla in the Old World was in 500 BC. However, the modern era of the “gorilla” has a very American favor to it. In 1844, in the Boston Journal of Natural History , an American Dr. Thomas Savage gave the first scientific description of the gorilla. Only when a skull was obtained by another American Dr. Leighton Wilson in 1846 and the animal described in 1847, by Wilson and Savage, both West African missionaries, did the popularity of the “gorilla” really start sky-rocketing. Sir Richard Owen, thanks to Savage and Wilson, was the first to “formally” describe the gorilla.
In 1851 Captain Harris brought the first gorilla skeleton to England. That same year a skeleton was sent to Philadelphia. Also in 1851, French naturalist Saint-Hillaire first gave the animal its own genus. This was quickly followed by a good deal of media attention about gorillas, whipped up by Paul du Chaillu’s sensationalistic travels in Africa. Today I think few realize how intense that the media interest was in gorillas and most of it was caused by Du Chaillu’s African adventures and his book, Exploration and Adventures in Equatorial Africa: With accounts of the manners & customs of the people & the chase of the gorilla, crocodile, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus… which was published in 1861. Indeed, says primatologist Vernon Reynolds mentions, “After (du Chaillu’s) trip, which lasted from 1856 to 1859, du Chaillu returned to the United States, where he received widespread acclaim.” In other words, the guy went on a media tour, lecture tour, and turned his romantic zoology about gorillas into a living.
In 1863, another famous gorilla travel book was published; it was written by American explorer Winwood Reade, after he spent five months in gorilla country.
If you can imagine Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Drudge, Boing Boing, Anomalist, and Cryptomundo reporting daily about the speaking tours happening in America by the explorers who had these early gorilla encounters, you will get a flavor of what it was like in the last part of the 19th century among the American media. It was only natural that "gorilla" would have been on reporters’ minds when writing an article about the nearby valley’s sightings of strange hairy upright critters.
It appears logical that any American witness seeing a hairy unknown apelike creature would have used the gorilla as a frame of reference in describing their encounter. We do know that chimpanzees and monkeys in American traveling circuses were sometimes labeled “gorillas.” Despite the European framework of the gorilla discoveries, the media storm was really being generated out of America. The “lost from a circus” explanation, groundless as usual, could have been used without any gorillas even being in America.
The first four gorillas to be brought from the wild into captivity arrived in 1855, 1883, and 1897 at Liverpool, and in 1883 at Berlin. The first gorilla in Liverpool was thought to be a chimpanzee. The first two gorillas in the United States did not arrive until 1897, at Boston, and 1911, at New York. The Ringling Brothers Circus exhibited the gorilla “John Daniel” in the 1920s. The combined Ringling Brothers/Barnum circus owed and exhibited the famed “Gargantua” from 1937, until he died in 1949.