James Wide & Jack! But what did Jack the baboon do with his money?

How a brandy-loving monkey worked on the railroad for 10 years not only for food and booze but what did Jack the baboon do with his money?

The history of mankind knows many cases when people wishing to become famous went on feats or performed reckless and sometimes terrible acts. However, it happens so that a person, absolutely not seeking to become famous because of some circumstances, or even personal tragedy, enters the annals of history. For example, the South African James Edwin Wide, who would never have become famous had it not been for a tragic accident that happened to him at his work. Well, there’s another clever baboon called Jack (Baboon) signalman.

The Story of James Edwin White

Mr James Edwin Wide was a signalman at the railway station in the small town of Uitenhage, South Africa, in the late 1980s. Among his colleagues, he was known by the nickname “jumper”. And all because James liked to dashingly jump from wagon to wagon during train movements on the line near his station.

It is not for nothing that there is a proverb that all safety rules are written in blood. Sooner or later, the carefree Mr James Wide had to feel it “on his own skin.” And he did feel it, though, on his ankles. One day he, unsuccessfully jumped and got under the wheels of a moving car. Both of his legs were cut off.

James loved his work on the railroad, and he had no alternative to earning a living (to go to “light work”). Wide made his own cart and prosthetics. However, it wasn’t easy to work without his legs.

Buy a helper at the market

One day, James Edwin Wide, who was already beginning to lose heart, took his shopping cart to the city market in Uitenhage. There the disabled saw a monkey skillfully steering the cart with various goods of its owner-trader, manoeuvring between the market visitors. The primate was a Papio Ursinus, a bear cub, or “Chacma,” as it is also called. And then James had an idea.

Mr Wide figured that a clever monkey who could control the movement of a carriage could well help him by pushing his wheelchair. James turned to the primate owner with a request to sell him a dexterous animal. The bargaining lasted quite a long time. In the end, the monkey owner, mostly out of pity for the legless man, agreed to the deal.

Having given the agreed amount, together with the monkey, James Edwin Wide received from its former owner the “operating instructions” of the primate. It turned out that the baboon’s name was Jack and “for thanks” he would never work, the owner sounded to Edwin Wide ears. For moving a cart with goods around the market, the animal always received a reward – two or three sips of real brandy.

Tailed comrade

James Edwin Wide lived alone. Before the accident, the man had several friends, who later turned their backs on the disabled person. At first, Jack the baboon, in addition to his “direct duties” of transporting the Signalman from home to the place of work at the station, did simple work. The primate swept the floor and took out the trash.

Since the monkey was forced to be with his master at work, James Wide entrusted Jack with simple tasks. For example, the primate quickly learned to pass the keys to the station warehouse with coal, which was in charge of a disabled signaller, to conductors or truck drivers.

James Edwin Wide with his baboon Jack, in 1879
James Edwin Wide with his baboon Jack, in 1879. ©wikipedia

Since the monkey had to be with his master at work, James Wide began to assign Jack simple tasks. For example, the monkey quickly learned to give the conductors or truck drivers the station’s coal warehouse keys, which the disabled Signalman was in charge of.

Seeing how intelligent the baboon was, James eventually decided to turn him into his colleague. Mr Wide signed a real contract with the primate, under which the man was obliged to provide food and shelter for the animal. In return, Jack was to help the man not only at home but also at work. There was even a clause in the contract about the monkey’s clothes and work uniform. According to the agreement, the baboon was not entitled to them, as he could “grow them on his own”.

Companion Baboon

Each workday for James and Jack began with a half-mile drive from home to Uitenhage train station. The baboon helped the man ride the cart up the hill, then jumped to Mr Wide’s feet, and the two of them rolled down in a wheelchair. The primate was so intelligent and responsible that James decided to teach him all the intricacies of signalling.

Jack the Baboon learning to translate arrows.
Jack the Baboon learning to translate arrows.

And it turned out to be very easy. Trains that approached the station gave a certain number of whistles – the number of sound signals corresponded to the number of the track to which the train should be transferred. The baboon carefully watched the person’s work, memorizing the entire “algorithm of actions” of the Signalman. Less than a month later, Jack, independently, without prompting and assistance from Mr Wide (who at that time was sitting in his Signalman’s booth), began to operate the path levers and switches.

It was only natural that Jack the Baboon soon became a local landmark. Visitors specially came to see his work, local and British newspapers wrote about the “partners”. Everything was fine, but soon James and Jack became the cause of a rather loud scandal. The “hype” and the subsequent official proceedings were initiated by a wealthy lady who saw a monkey switch railway switches in front of a moving train.

Exam for Jack the Baboon

The lady, outraged by what she saw at the Uitenhage station, immediately wrote a complaint to the city administration. Officials immediately rushed to check. They knew from the documents that James Edwin Wide, being disabled, was working with an assistant. However, in the administration, no one even guessed that this “assistant” was a monkey.

The inspector arrived at the station, where he was surprised to see that the complaint of the wealthy mistress turned out to be true. The inspector drew up a report to his superiors, and the “partners” were fired.

Unable to make a living, James Wide began to “bomb” the city administration with requests to test their work and ensure that the signal baboon was fully competent. In the end, the leadership gave up, and, having assembled a commission, agreed to take Jack’s “monkey exam.”

During the test, James simulated with his whistle the signals of locomotives approaching the arrows. Jack calmly and absolutely “did his job”. The examiners even conducted a practical test, which the primate passed perfectly. He correctly translated the arrows at the signal of the train and “followed” whether the lever was switched correctly.

Jack the Baboon on ration

The inspectors had nothing to find fault with. In addition, such a “tandem” could not fail to impress even ossified bureaucrats. On the same day, James Edwin Wide was reinstated in his job by the administration’s resolution.

Baboon Jack was officially accepted as a signalman. Under the employment contract, the primate was assigned a daily salary of 20 cents. In addition, Jack was entitled to a half-pint of beer at the end of the workweek.

Jack the Signalman

From that time on, everyone began to call the primate nothing more than Jack the Signalman – “Jack the Signalman”. With his “foreman”, the baboon worked at the Uitenhage railway station for almost 10 years; probably, Jack the baboon earned up to $600. There was speculation that Jack the Baboon earnings ended up in Mr Wide pocket, which he used to buy the primitive brandy. In all the time that Jack served as Signalman, he never made a mistake. Even though he was constantly “tipsy”, – James Wide remembered that his partner works best after a few sips of brandy.

James and Jack at Work
James and Jack at Work. ©wikipedia

Jack the Signalman died in 1890 of pulmonary tuberculosis. The baboon’s skull is still kept in the Albany Museum in the South African city of Grahamstown. At the same Uitenhage railway station, one of the walls is decorated with Jack and his partner James Wide.

The story of Jack the Signalman is not the only example of fruitful cooperation between people and “smaller brothers” in rail transport.

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One Comment

  1. Considering the Brexit deal was all about Northern Ireland & fishing and it all went immediately tits up, surely we could have employed a trained baboon instead of “Lord” Frost? I expect he gets paid a bit more.

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