There was once a signalman duo in South Africa comprising James Edwin White, a man who lost both his legs, and Jack, a baboon. Yes, a baboon, as in the animal. The two were tasked with keeping the trains on schedule in the 19th century.
Despite the unlikely pairing, Jack the baboon was so good at his job that he was eventually hired as a full-time team member. It’s a story that seems almost too remarkable to be accurate, but it has continued to fascinate readers.
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Jack the baboon meets James Edwin White
In the late 1800s, James Edwin White worked as a guard at a railway station in the small South African town of Uitenhage. Known to his colleagues as “jumper,” James was fond of leaping from wagon to wagon when trains were moving. However, his daring exploits came at a cost.
During one unfortunate incident in 1877, James failed to land safely and found himself beneath the wheels of a moving car, losing both his legs. Unfortunately, he had no other way to earn a living, so he constructed his cart and prosthetic legs.
Impressed by his dedication, James’ boss offered him a position as a signalman. However, James soon realized that getting to and from work was a significant obstacle.
During a trip to the market, James spotted a monkey adeptly steering a cart full of goods. The monkey, a Papio ursinus, also known as a “Chacma,” belonged to a trader. He thought that if the monkey, Jack, could maneuver a cart, it could also push his wheelchair.
After a long negotiation, the owner eventually agreed to sell James his pet baboon. James also received instructions on how to handle Jack. He was told that Jack would be rewarded two or three sips of Brandy after pushing the trader’s cart around the market.
The early career of Jack
Aside from transporting James, the monkey’s first tasks included sweeping the floor and taking out the trash at the station. James gradually began delegating more responsibilities to the baboon. He taught Jack how to pass the keys to the station warehouse and how to work with coal. Eventually, Jack was able to assist conductors and truck drivers.
Later, James signed a contract, agreeing to shoulder the monkey’s food and shelter. In return, the primate would assist James at home and work.
Jack as a new train worker
The baboon helped James by riding on the cart while going up the hill and jumping on James’ feet to roll down in a wheelchair. James liked Jack’s intelligence and taught him how to signal trains. Jack quickly learned the sounds corresponding to different tracks and the signaling process.
Within a month, Jack began operating the switches and path levers independently. The monkey soon became a local attraction. Newspapers also covered their unique partnership.
James Edwin White saves their careers amid controversy
The duo’s popularity took a turn when a wealthy woman reported Jack to the authorities for switching railway switches in front of a moving train. This incident caused controversy, and an official investigation was initiated.
The inspector confirmed that the complaint was valid, leading to the pair losing their jobs. James then lobbied to test Jack’s competence because he felt the monkey was capable. The leadership eventually agreed to conduct an exam.
James simulated train signals using a whistle while Jack competently performed his duties. Jack quickly translated the signals and ensured that the levers were switched correctly.
The inspectors found nothing wrong with Jack’s performance, and bureaucrats were impressed. As a result, James got his job back, and Jack officially became a signalman. According to the contract, the baboon made 20 cents daily and received a half-pint of beer weekly.
Jack never made a mistake
The monkey became known as “Jack the Signalman,” and worked with James for nine years. It’s believed that James used the US$600 the baboon made to buy brandy. James claimed that Jack made no mistakes despite intoxication because the monkey performed best with liquor.
Jack succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in 1890. Today, Jack’s skull is preserved at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. In addition, you’ll find a wall at the Uitenhage railway station dedicated to Jack and James’ partnership.