Past Lives: The Horrifying History of Human Zoos

human-zoo (Image: via Wikipedia)

There are many shameful episodes scattered throughout history, and perhaps one of the most overlooked in recent times is the bizarre, heartbreaking development of human zoos. We’ve looked at the abandoned remains of Paris’ human zoo, and this article seeks to examine some of the people whose lives were touched – and sometimes ended – but this bizarre, barbaric practice.

Joice Heth

Joice Heth was one of the first people to be put on exhibition, and the roots of the human zoo concept can be traced to her. Like many tasteless attractions, the idea of exploiting her was the brainchild of P.T. Barnum.

joice-heth-human-zoo (Image: J. Booth & Son)

Heth was bought for $1,000 – quite the sum in 1835. At the time, she was completely blind, paralyzed in both legs and one arm, and had since lost all her teeth. Nevertheless, Barnum had her on exhibition six days a week for an average of 12 hours a day.

Barnum even claimed that Heth was 161-years-old when he took her to New York in the mid-1830s, saying she had been the nursemaid of George Washington. For seven months, they traveled across the US, putting on shows in all manner of places from taverns to concert halls. But eventually, the excitement that had grown around her waned, and Barnum needed a means of keeping momentum going.

He wrote to a newspaper in Boston, claiming that Heth wasn’t a person at all, but a magic, mechanical contraption made of old leather and whale bones. Ticket sales skyrocketed again, but Heth died in 1836 – of natural causes.

But of course, that wasn’t the end of her story. Barnum sold more than a thousand tickets to her autopsy, and when doctors released their findings, refuted the idea that she wasn’t 161 after all, but around 80, Barnum began insisting that they hadn’t autopsied the real Joice Heth – who was alive and well, and far away.

Carl Hagenbeck, Madison Grant and William Temple Hornaday

Today, the idea of a human zoo is an incredibly uncomfortable one – and that’s exactly why it needs to be remembered.

carl-hagenbeck-human-zoo (Image: Frem; Carl Hagenbeck with his animals)

Not too long ago, zoos included groups of people among their exhibits, living in what was supposed to be their natural habitat, often displayed alongside other exhibitions that advertised all that was wonderful and advanced about Western society.

The idea of placing individual exhibits in zoo form goes back to around 1874, when German animal merchant Carl Hagenbeck decided to add exhibitions of the Sami and Samoan people to his collection. By 1876, he was collecting animals and people for his Nubian exhibit as well, while the following year saw the addition of the Inuit. It wasn’t long before the whole idea was in full swing, and the 1878 Parisian World’s Fair included a ‘negro village’.

william-hornaday-madison-grant-human-zoos (Images:; Matthew Pratt Guterl; l-r – William Hornaday, Madison Grant)

But it was far from just a weird European obsession. By 1906, Madison Grant and William Temple Hornaday added Ota Benga, a Congoloese pygmy to displays at the Bronx Zoo (more below). Their reasoning was chilling. Grant was a supported of the eugenics movement, which would later take the world stage in the philosophies of Hitler and his supposed ‘Master Race’. Displaying Ota Benga was seen as an illustration of the savage nature of these ‘lesser races’, and, by extension, the superiority of the white race.

The legacy of Hornaday speaks volumes as to our awkward relationship with this part of our collective past. Remembered as the man who designed the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., collaborated with the Smithsonian, spearheaded the campaign to save the American bison and who has a mountain in Yellowstone named after him, it’s easy to forget that he also moved Ota Benga to a cage, with the label, “Exhibited each afternoon during September”.

Ota Benga

Hornaday defended the exhibition of Ota Benga as a scientific one, stating that it was an ‘ethnological exhibit’. Many who saw him, though, had different reactions – some laughed, while others were outraged at the sight of the clearly heartbroken young man kept behind bars at the Bronx Zoo.

ota-benga-human-zoo (Images: Jessie Tarbox Beals; NPR)

While members of the clergy led by the Reverend James H. Gordon campaigned for Ota Benga’s freedom, the response was mind-numbingly callous. The New York Times ran an editorial stating that pygmies were so “very low in the human scale”, that the idea that he had any kind of thoughts or emotions regarding his captivity and display was insane. The newspaper also suggested that the notion of all men being created equal was rather out of date, and that we needed to appreciate them for what they were.

Ota Benga’s freedom ended on March 20, 1904, when explorer (and white supremacist) Samuel Verner abducted him from his home in the Congo. Verner told a number of stories about how he found Ota Benga. In some versions Verner rescued him from a tribe of cannibals. In others, the young man volunteering to go with him.

After Ota Benga was freed from his Bronx Zoo cage, he remained on zoo grounds, harassed and tormented by visitors. In 1910, he was sent to Virginia to live with Mary Hayes Allen and her children. He was spoken of fondly, a patient teacher and a kind soul haunted by his memories.

But over the next few years, he grew ever more morose, and on March 19, 1916, he built a bonfire. His family watched him dance, and that night, as they slept, he found a gun, and shot himself – once – through the heart.

Amelia Newsham

Those deemed oddities were exhibited in traveling exhibitions as well as established zoos. Amelia Newsham is understood to have been an albino girl who lived in Jamaica, before her master gave her away as a gift.

Amelia-Newsham (Image: Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)

She was brought to London only to be sold again, and in 1795, she was put on display by Thomas Hall at the Curiosity House, at 10 City Road in London.

Only about 5-years-old when she arrived in Britain in 1754, she was described as having “all the features of an Aethiopian with a flaxy woollen head, a skin and complexion fair as alabaster”.

Hall was also a taxidermist, and placed Amelia Newsham on display alongside his collection of exotic stuffed animals and birds. She was such a draw that he had coins minted in her likeness, and taught her a verse that she was to recite to those who paid to have a look at her:

My nose, my lips, my features, all explore,
The just resemblance of a blackamore;
And on my head the silver-coloured wool
Gives further demonstration clear and full.
This curious age may with amazement view
What after ages won’t believe is true.

Carl Hagenbeck’s Sioux and Cowboy Show

In 1910, the American’s Wild West went on exhibition in Hamburg, Germany. For decades, Europe had been watching the exciting westward expansion of America, and Carl Hagenbeck capitalized on that pioneering spirit in a big way.

Carl-Hagenbeck-Sioux-Cowboy-human-zoo (Image: Richard Arthur Norton)

During the show’s five month run, more than a million people saw the exhibition that had 42 indigenous Oglala-Sioux people going head to head against Texas Tex and his 10 cowboys. They put on a show that included everything from the thrill of the Pony Express to biographies on those that had been removed from the west and put on display in Germany.

The idea was so popular that between the human zoos and the Wild West shows, there weren’t enough performers to go around.

Alongside Germany’s first ostrich farm, the Cowboys-and-Indians show was a massive hit. A huge artificial mountain was constructed, and one of the climactic events was the staging of native dances.

They were such a major part of the show that standing outside Hagenbeck’s Tierpark are statues of a Sioux (and a Somali) warrior, a reminder that it wasn’t just animals that were on display there.

Julius Schiott

Julius Schiott was the director of the Copenhagen Zoo at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1901, he issued a request for some very specific exhibits.

Julius-Schiott-human-zoo (Image: Bhadani; Royal Library, Denmark; l-r – devadasi women, Julius Schiott)

His assistant was sent to Asia to find people that filled the requirements of the specifications outlined on Schiott’s list, which included “sexual” women, three-four Chinese workmen, three Street vendors (with baskets), one Indian rug weaver, two Indian Silver Dancers, and another entry that simply read, “Women with children”.

Typically, exhibited women fell into two distinct categories – either they were on display with children and families, or they were dancers. Two of the entries on his list were a direct reference to wanting women who could be exhibited in an overly sexualized way. His request for four-six Indian bayaderes refers to the devadasi – a girl committed to the worship of a deity or temple – who were commonly considered within the British Empire as temple prostitutes.

Along with his Silver Dancers, Schiott also put in a request for Javanese dancers, but the response from his requisitions agent in the field was less than enthusiastic. His agent informed him that he absolutely didn’t want Javanese dancers, because they weren’t just difficult to obtain, but the music they danced to was repetitive and tedious. Dancers were also cruelly described as “repulsively ugly and… truly just used public tarts”. Undeterred, Schiott continued to recruit women for erotic exhibitions.

Sara Baartman

More commonly known as Saartjie Baartman, or the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman was born in South Africa in 1789, and in 1810 she was taken to Europe under rather shady circumstances.

sara-saartjie-baartman-human-zoo (Image: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

According to her owners (she was sold into slavery after the deaths of her parents and the murder of her fiance), she agreed to accompany them to England and act partially as a domestic servant and partially as entertainment. She was supposedly going to be given part of her earnings, and her freedom to return home after five years.

That, of course, didn’t happen, and even though her owners went to court over her treatment, nothing was ever truly done about it. Sara Baartman was displayed for her large buttocks, often the subject of period caricatures, and was marketed with slogans like “the greatest deformity in the world”. By 1814, she was sold to a traveling animal show and confined to a cage that was typically next to a baby rhino. The following year she was examined by all manner of French doctors, and declared the missing link.

Baartman, who had been given the nickname Saartjie, died of unknown causes in 1816. Death didn’t mean the end of objectification, though, and her body was dissected by Napoleon’s surgeon, a plaster cast was made, and her genitals and brain were jarred, pickled, and put on display in a museum.

Saartjie’s skeleton remained on display until 1976. It took a vote from the French senate – that only came in 2002 – to release her remains and send them back home at last. It was closure to a bizarre saga, and the end of a fight that Nelson Mandela began in earnest in 1994.

Anthropology Days

The 1904 Olympics were the first held in the United States, and the honour went to St. Louis. The honour was a somewhat dubious one, though, and looking back on the games, it’s far from a proud moment in American history.

anthropology-days-1904-olympic-games-worlds-fair (Images: Smithsonian; Wikipedia)

Alongside the Olympics was the 1904 World’s Fair, which unsurprisingly included a human zoo (featuring a 47 acre Philippine village) . The two huge events collided when it was decided that in order to truly showcase the superiority of American and European athletes, those on display in the zoo would be put on the field to compete in their own games.

On one hand, the human zoo’s ‘savages’ were forced to complete in traditional Olympic sports. Nobody bothered to explain the rules (and language barriers made that all but impossible anyway), so no one was quite sure what to do at the ribbon at the end of the 100-yard dash, and water polo was removed from the schedule altogether because it was beyond complicated.

Other ‘sports’ were introduced instead – assumed to be more up the alley of those who would be playing them – including mud throwing, tree-climbing and fighting. These, too, was a complete disaster, but the organizers of the so-called Anthropology Days seized on their failure as an illustration of exactly what they were trying to prove – that those displayed in the human zoo were of a lesser race.

Abraham Ulrikab

In 1880, Abraham Ulrikab, his wife Ulrike, children Sara and Maria and nephew Tobias, were recruited by Carl Hagenbeck to appear as part of an Inuit exhibition at the Berlin Zoo, as well as Hagenbeck’s own zoo in Hamburg. Abraham’s insights into the trip were recorded in his diary, and even though the diary has long been lost, this thoughts were preserved in a stilted German translation.

Abraham-Ulrikab-family-human-zoo (Image: University of Ottawa Press)

Ulrikab talks of traveling by train and about how fast it was; it’s clear that he thought he was going to see the wonders of the world. He mentions how they were advertised, and the studies that doctors subjected him to. He talks of people who came to see them, and how they were particularly impressed with their kayak.

But the whole thing ended after only four months. Abraham and his family were never vaccinated against European diseases, and all – along with the others who were to be included in the show – died of smallpox.

Their fate was much like Sara Baartman’s. In February 2015, the remains of Abraham and his companions were rediscovered in the storerooms of a French museum, preserved and mounted for display. A UN decree from 2007 gives nations the right to reclaim any remains of their people, but still, their journey back to their homeland is unlikely to be a fast one.

The Last Human Zoo

There’s something about human zoos that captures the attitudes of racial superiority and discrimination that prevailed until relatively recently, and tragically remain alive and well in some areas of the world.

1958-belgium-human-zoo-girl (Image: via Imgur)

The last human zoo was held as late as 1958, when Belgium displayed a group of people from the Congo. The reason for their decline in popularity was an odd one, and didn’t merely stem from the realisation that such exploitation was plainly wrong. The decline of the human zoo from the 1930s was actually chalked up, at least in part, to the advent of cinema.

Interestingly, the first nation to ban the bizarre ethnographic displays completely was Germany. After German merchants and showmen like Carl Hagensbeck created the first human zoos, staffed them with people from around the world and made them popular, it was Adolf Hitler who ironically put an end to them.

But in 1958, one final exhibition endured, captured in a timeless, heartbreaking snapshot showing a little girl being fed by people leaning over the wooden fence that made up her enclosure (above). As a species, our relationship with the idea of human zoos is a strange one, perhaps best illustrated by the decades-long struggle to give Sara Baartman a decent burial and the respect in death that she never received in life.

It’s a door that many are hesitant to open, which is exactly why we must not forget.

Related – read more from our Past Lives series here.


About the author: Debra Kelly




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