How A Baboon Was Trained To Be An Assistant By An African Railway Signalman

James Edwin Wide, a railroad signalman for the South African railroads in the town of Uitenhage in the late 19th century, was known by the dangerous moniker “Jumper” because of his habit of swinging or leaping from one train car to another. For an amazing nine years, he managed signal changes without making a single mistake. James worked as a signalman for the Cape Government Railways under lawful employment. For his outstanding work, he received a meager 20 cents a day in addition to a half-bottle of beer every week.

James Edwin Wide had a catastrophic accident in the 1880s that required the amputation of both of his legs. Unfazed by hardship, James chose to get prosthetic wooden legs for easier movement. Even with these efforts, the employment and daily drive presented significant challenges. James saw a langur driving a bullock wagon loaded with supplies for market delivery when he was in the market. Seeing his chance, Wide bought the talented langur and gave him the name Jack.

James trained the monkey methodically and made him his personal assistant. Jack quickly got skilled at doing housework and was able to drive James to the train station in a little cart.

Jack picked up skills rapidly from James’s attentive observation and repeated them. Thanks to Jame’s efficient instruction, Jack became proficient in signaling work while he was employed at the railway station. He picked up the skills necessary to be a signalman and did them well.

Jack showed a thorough comprehension of railroad operations. The railway business recognized his work ethic and formally employed him as a signalman. He held this position from 1881 to 1890, and throughout that time he accomplished the remarkable feat of keeping a perfect record and never making a mistake. Regrettably, Jack’s TB death occurred in 1890.

Jack’s skull was saved after his death and is being kept at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa. In addition, a wall at the Uitenhage railway station has been set aside in memory of Jack and James Wide.