“Properly trained and looked after, there is no pet which can be so interesting or amusing as a monkey.” - Hardwicke’s Science Gossip, 1889.
Throughout most of the 19th century, it was not at all uncommon for a family to keep a monkey as a household pet. Monkeys were playful, mischievous, and adept at mimicry. In short, they were amusing. They were also human-like enough to be regarded by some affectionate owners as no more than naughty children. Indeed, for some, the pet monkey may even have filled the vacant role of child in a childless family.
A popular story, first seen in magazines of the 1820s, relates the tale of a first-floor lodger. Writing about the boarding house in which he is staying, the lodger relates:
“The mistress of the house entertains a pet monkey — failing all issue of her own.”
Those who expected monkeys to behave like domesticated pets or mischievous little children were often unpleasantly surprised to learn that monkeys exhibited the exact same traits as their relatives still living in the wild. They were prone to aggression and tended to be destructive in the extreme. In the same letter, the first-floor lodger goes on to write of the strange behavior he had observed one day while watching his landlady’s pet monkey:
“I am most nervous myself about the monkey. He broke loose the other day. I saw him escape over the next garden-wall, and drop down by the side of a middle-aged gentleman, who was setting polyanthuses! The respectable man, as was prudent, took refuge in a summer-house; and then [the monkey] pulled up all the polyanthuses; and then tried to get in at the summer-house window!”
Novelist Georgette Heyer included a pet monkey in her 1950 Regency novel The Grand Sophy. The title character presents a little monkey in a scarlet coat to her young cousins. The monkey is named Jacko and he behaves just as one might expect – worrying the servants, destroying the linens, and scattering food about. At the end of his rampage:
“Jacko suddenly erupted into the hall from the nether regions, gibbered at the sight of Tina, and swarmed up the window curtains to a place of safety well out of anyone’s reach.”
One popular story of the early 19th century, published in numerous British magazines of the day, tells the tale of an unfortunate Raja with a favorite pet monkey:
“This Monkey he sets to watch him, as he sleeps in a pavillion in his garden. A troublesome bee settles on the Prince’s face, in spite of the Monkey’s pains to drive him off; till the latter, highly incensed, snatches up his master’s sword, and, making a blow at the bee, cuts off the Raja’s head.”
In many 19th century poems and children’s stories, monkeys were fitted out as little human beings and made to mimic human behavior to great comic effect. A perfect example is an 1834 poem, The Pet Monkey by John Tenhaile. It tells the tale of a particularly destructive pet monkey named Jack whose ability for mimicry has unfortunate results, especially when he attempts to ape his master in balancing the accounts. It reads in part:
The day arrived, the way was clear,
Our trader was, I know not where.
Jack boldly stepped into the shop,
And on the stool did quickly hop;
And there he sat in clerkly style,
And leant him o’er the desk awhile.
His master’s spectacles he found,
And these before his eyes he bound;
Then oped the ledger, took a pen,
And viewed it o’er and o’er again;
Placed it, at first, behind his ear,
But did not choose to leave it there.
He dipped it next into the ink,
With many a sly grimace and blink;
Up to the stem he filled the quill,
Whence the ink trickled, like a rill,
Adown the ledger’s milk white page.
This did not discompose our sage,
Who gravely now his task began:
Like lightning swift his fingers ran,
And characters, whose shape or size
Had ne’er been seen by human eyes,
Upon the ledger’s length were traced,
Nor likely soon to be effaced
Much as monkeys were sometimes likened to naughty little children, so too were badly behaved children often compared to monkeys. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne meet Lady Middleton’s high-spirited sons. The two boys engage in all sorts of “impertinent encroachments,” including untying the ladies’ sashes, pulling their ears, searching their workbags, and stealing their knives and scissors. Lady Middleton views the conduct of her children with complacency:
“John is in such spirits today!” said she, on his taking Miss Steeles’s pocket-handkerchief, and throwing it out of window—“He is full of monkey tricks.”
The tricks that real monkeys engaged in were not always so harmless. They were wild animals and despite some of them having been raised by humans, they were still quite unexpectedly aggressive on occasion. There are various accounts of monkeys biting their owners or attacking the cats, dogs, or birds with whom they shared their home. As a result, the majority of pet monkeys were kept caged or chained.
In some settings, the aggression of the monkey was actually encouraged. Jacco Macacco was a famous fighting monkey during the early 19th century. A small monkey, weighing in at only 10 – 12 pounds, he was matched against dogs of similar weight in the fighting pits of Westminster. Toward the end of his career in the 1820’s, he was forced to fight against dogs who were double his weight. According to some accounts, it was in such a match that he was ultimately killed. His death prompted a petition against animal cruelty in the House of Commons. The May 1822 issue of The Monthly Magazine reports:
“In the House of Commons, Mr. Martin, of Galway, presented a petition from a number of respectable inhabitants of Camberwell, in support of the Bill now pending to prevent cruelty to animals. The Hon. Member detailed the conduct of the man who keeps a place in Westminster, where Jacco Macacco, a monkey, has exhibited his prowess; ‘this unfortunate animal, (said Mr. M.) after having fought many pitched battles, was pitted against a dog of double its weight; Jacco, fought the dog for half an hour, and the battle terminated by the dog tearing away the whole of the monkey’s lower jaw, and the monkey’s ripping up the dog’s stomach. Both animals died in a few minutes.’ Even the carcass butchers of Whitechapel, aware of the atrocious cruelties committed, have united in a petition for a Bill to restrain the unfeeling practices of mankind.”
Though the public was certainly more aware of the cruelties perpetrated against monkeys in fighting pits and other venues, the unsuitability of monkeys as pets was not to be acknowledged anytime soon. In 1888, Arthur Patterson published his popular book Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them. In their favorable review of the book, the following year, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine proclaimed that:
“...after reading this little work on pet monkeys, one feels inclined to go and buy one.”
And who of that era would not? The book is full of “charming descriptions” and “amusing stories,” as well as practical tips on monkey management:
“To intending keepers of pet monkeys, the author’s practical items, how to build a monkey-cage cheaply with all its appendages and utensils, such as the trapeze, pole and barrel, ring and bell, swing, looking-glass, feeding-dish, sleeping-box, will be found highly useful. So will his chapters on ‘Choice of Monkeys and what Kind to Buy,’ as well as ‘Where to buy them, lists of their prices, their diet and general management.’”
We do get a little glimpse into the pervasive ignorance of monkey upkeep in the following section which outlines both the limited remedies available for monkey illness and a gruesome alternative for your pet monkey if he should happen to die:
“Pets are liable to fall ill, so there is a chapter on ‘Monkey Ailments and How to Cure them.’ Perhaps they can’t be cured and die: if so, Mr. Patterson gives us instructions how to stuff them.”
And monkeys did fall ill. History provides us with myriad examples, most of which tend to include a grain of monkey-esque hilarity in them. It is yet another window into how monkeys were viewed by the 19th century public – amusing even in illness and death. An article in the 1820 issue of the Kilmarnock Mirror reports:
“A short time since an Officer who resides in the town of Athlone, had all his children in the hooping cough; there was a pet monkey in the house who absolutely took the disorder, and hooped so like the children, that it was impossible to discriminate between them. All the little ones happily recovered, but the monkey notwithstanding the greatest care died of the complaint.”
The overall impression of pet monkeys that one is left with from 19th century literature and history is a mixed one. There is undoubtedly humor in the monkey shenanigans that feature in the novels and poetry of the day. However, behind that humor is the bleakness of a reality in which monkeys and their unique needs and behavior were widely misunderstood. It would be some time yet before the plight of monkeys improved. Some would argue that it has not yet done so. As always, I leave you to be the judge.
This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Top photo: Last Picture Show by Gabriel von Max, 1840 – 1915.
More from BUST
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be published by Pen and Sword Books in late 2017). Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family – which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.