A lie repeated 1,000 times becomes truth—at least in the eyes of the gullible. Agriculture history is filled with red herrings and snake oil, but the oft-told, outrageous claim of trained monkeys working on American farms is a hoax for the ages.
Arguably, no recurring agriculture deception has been as successful as the farm monkey prank. Swallowed by the mainstream media and disseminated as fake news, it is a tale with the barest toehold of truth.
Welcome, literally, to monkeys in the middles.
U.S. row crop operations were once animal kingdoms, with mules playing a crucial role as the beast of choice for plowing, harvesting, and transport. No mules; no means of production. (Horses and oxen were also vital on farms as draft stock, depending on geography.)
By 1900, according to the American Mule Museum, the U.S. utilized approximately 4.1 million mules. A quarter of all mules were in Texas and the Ft. Worth stockyards became an international mecca of the mule trade.
Considering the mule’s integral function in row crops, and factoring in agriculture’s incessant labor thorn, why not tap another animal as farm helper? How about a mammal with nimble fingers and toes? Why not a monkey?
In 1898-1899, during an era of booming cotton, the harebrained tale of “Mister Mangum’s monkeys” went viral in the pre-digital age and was promoted coast-to-coast by the press.
W.W. Mangum, a legitimate Delta cotton grower in Smedes, Miss., and owner of a Sharkey County plantation located between Rolling Fork and Vicksburg, was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and later played a genuine part in the president’s 1902 bear hunt that birthed the iconic narrative of the “teddy bear.”
However, in 1898-1899, hundreds of newspapers and periodicals, including the Los Angeles Times, Cotton Planter’s Journal, and The School New and Practical Educator, reported on a primate-based innovation capable of transforming farming’s perpetual labor woes.
In a nutshell, the story as reported: In 1896, Mangum observed the intelligence of roughly a dozen monkeys performing at a fair in Vicksburg. In a lightbulb moment, he imported up to 50 monkeys of the Sphagtalis Vulgaris species and trained the simians to pick cotton during fall harvest. (Sphagtalis Vulgaris was a total fabrication, but the Latin nomenclature added an air of validity to the farce.)
A Globe Republican editor, after purportedly witnessing Mangum’s industrious monkeys in action, added fuel to the fire: “I must admit that it was a glorious sight to see, and one that did my heart great good. The rows were filled with monkeys, each one with her little cotton sack around her neck, picking away quietly and orderly, and without rush or confusion. When they got their sacks full they would run to the end of the row, where a man was stationed to empty them into the cotton baskets, then they would hurry back to their work. The monkeys seemed actually to enjoy picking.”
According to the article, Mangum’s cotton picking breakthrough spurred his intention to import another 1,000 monkeys to Mississippi, and he implored U.S. farmers to follow suit. By implication, mule barns in farm country soon would be adjacent to monkey enclosures. Chimps, lemurs, baboons, or Sphagtalis Vulgaris—the age of monkey machines had dawned.
Primates in the Pecans
Taken at face value, the concept of innovation, invention, or animal investment in cotton picking was in harmony with turn-of-the-century agriculture outlooks. Pulling cotton from a boll was a notoriously time-consuming task. Each harvest, the Cotton Belt was witness to human picker armies in the rows, each participant dragging a 10’ sack packed with white fiber. From 1850 to 1950, almost 2,000 harvesting patents were issued. The first successful mechanized picker did not debut until the middle of World War ll, rolling into a field at Hopson Plantation, outside Clarksdale, Miss. By the late 1960s, mechanized picking was responsible for clearing most (not all) U.S. acreage, although young kids still were plucking cotton on end rows even into the early 1970s.
However, the monkey harvest scam significantly predates turn-of-the-century agriculture circa 1900, as detailed in an article by the Museum of Hoaxes (MOH).
The MOH feature traces the monkey scam to at least the mid-1800s. In 1867, a Thomas County grower in southern Georgia wrote to the Galveston News, claiming to have imported and trained 23 monkeys for cotton harvest in 1849. Multiple newspapers, including the New York Times, printed the letter.
“I was mighty well pleased when I received my monkeys. Their arrival turned my plantation topsy-turvey [sic]. For two weeks nothing was done by whites or blacks but play with the monkeys. The overseer got one of the brightest looking, and remained at his house most of the time watching the monkey’s tricks, and I must confess that my wife, myself and children were in the same business.”
The monkeys, according to the Georgia grower, became unmanageable and untrainable, and were sold off to neighboring farms and a “traveling menagerie.” Additionally, the chaos surrounding the monkey scheme cost the grower six weeks on the harvest clock.
Further, as claimed in an 1887 Kentucky Register story, Kentucky producer J.B. Parkes obtained seven monkeys shipped from a brother-in-law in South Africa, and trained the monkeys to harvest hemp in Fayette County. Parkes, who was entirely innocent of the charade and received hundreds of letters of interest or complaint, demanded a retraction of the story—which was issued by the Register.
How many similar articles appeared in newspapers and periodicals? Likely, a substantial number were lost to time and history. Only a year after Mangum’s Mississippi monkey tale was published in the Los Angeles Times, the Massillon Independent told readers that John Pangle, a Texas farmer in Burnet County, used monkeys to harvest pecans: “Pangle insists monkeys can be trained to gather pecans. Other Texans laugh at him. Pangle has imported a big troop of simians from Brazil to save his reputation and, according to a Del Rio (Tex.) dispath [sic] to the Chicago Times-Herald, is spending hundreds of dollars to decide the issue.”
Primates in the pecans. Of course.
Teddy’s Bears to Monkeys
Back to the curious W.W. Mangum of the 1898-1899 monkey debacle.
In November 1902, three years after the false story on Mangum’s farm monkeys, Theodore Roosevelt came calling on Mangum’s Delta land for a black bear hunt in the sloughs and cane brakes along the Sunflower River. Roosevelt, a notoriously active hunter and outdoorsman, was 45 years old, only 16 years removed from helping establish the Boone and Crockett Club, five years past his charge up San Juan Hill leading the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and three years beyond his ascent to the U.S. presidency, assuming the position after an assassin pumped two .32 bullets into the mid-section of William McKinley, one of the rounds penetrating McKinley’s stomach and inducing a fatal infection. (Significantly, over a decade after McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt endured his own rub-out attempt, surviving a .38 bullet to the chest.)
Roosevelt’s Sharkey County bear chase, steered by legendary big-game hunter Holt Collier, went poorly for Roosevelt, who ended the hunt without a large prize, and only the opportunity to shoot a tethered and injured 250-lb. black bear. Roosevelt declined, the press applauded wildly, and New York City toy shop owner Morris Michtom saw opportunity. Michtom wrote Roosevelt and asked if he could honor the president by tagging the toy animals in his store as Teddy’s Bears. Thus, today’s teddy bear was produced via a bear hunt beside W.W. Mangum’s land—a stone’s throw from the cotton ground purportedly harvested by monkeys.
Running the Rows
Throughout history and into the modern age, monkeys have been used in various forms of agriculture harvest. Figs in ancient Egypt, coconuts in Sumatra, rice, rhubarb, and tea in China, and pepper in India.
However, don’t expect to see a Sphagtalis Vulgaris running the rows anytime soon in Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Texas, or any other U.S. state.
After all, what could be more outlandish? Spaghetti noodle harvest?
For more from Chris Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org 662-592-1106) see: