Wednesday, September 26, 2012

William Bentley and the Learned Pig

The Reverend William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, was much loved by his parishioners for his kindly disposition, his emphasis of good works over theological conformity, and his enthusiasm for education. A graduate of Harvard, he was a lively lifelong learner and teacher; it was said that he spoke 21 languages,  seven of them fluently, and his personal library was one of the finest in New England.  At the same time, he lived quite humbly, residing for nearly his entire career in rented rooms at what's now known as the Crowninshield-Bentley House in Salem for most of his ministry, which has just recently been restored by the Peabody-Essex Museum, and opened for historical tours).

He was also a diarist, called by some an "American Pepys," and with good reason: his daily journal eventually filled 32 volumes.  And it's there, in a series of entries from 1798, that we learn of his encounter with the Learned Pig.  Visiting Boston in March of that year, he went to see the sapient swine in its rooms below Bowen's Museum, and he seems to have formed a favorable impression:

I went to Boston to attend a Committee of the Grand Lodge. Upon my arrival & for a moment's amusement I visited the Learned Pig & the exhibition greatly exceeded my expectations. It was taught to discover the cards, to assort the letters of words, & to bring numbers for any purpose. I afterwards visited Bowen's Museum & tho' the arrangement by no means met my wishes, yet I could select many things to give me pleasure. The wax work is extensive, but I can pronounce nothing. The tapestry obliged my attention. The painting "Death of Lewis," from which the wax work of the same event is taken, was good, but the resignation of Washington interested me. There are many portraits which are interesting. The musical clocks discover ingenious mechanisms but the notes of the clock discribing the Organ & Claronets were captivating. In the menagery was a bear sleeping & slumbering with an insolent contempt of every visitor. A Babboon, more fond of entertaining his guests, an affronted porcupine, & two owls who gave us no share of their notice.
And, as it happens, not long after the Rev. Bentley's return to Salem, this pig -- who was in fact William Pinchbeck's original "Pig of Knowledge"-- followed him there.  The good reverend did not, so far as his diary indicates, pay it another visit, but shortly after its arrival in May noted that "The Learned Pig does not find great encouragement to stay in Town."  This, apparently, was due to the appearance of a "Learned Dog" which performed many of the same tricks, to the great detriment of Pinchbeck's business.* A few weeks later, on May 25th, Bentley noted laconically that "The Pig of Knowledge has left the Town. The Dog went before him."

There is no further mention of the Pig in the published Diaries -- though as they represent only a tiny fraction of the whole, one never knows. But that Bentley -- by any measure one of the most learned men of his day (he once turned down an invitation to oversee the University of Virginia) left such a favorable encomium of our learned pig, speaks greatly in his favor.

*Customs and Fashions of New England (1894) describes this learned pup thusly: "In 1798, Salem had the pleasure of viewing a "Sapient Dog" who could light lamps, spell, read print or writing, tell the time of day, or day of the month. He could distinguish colors, was a good arithmetician, could discharge a loaded cannon, tell a hidden card in a pack, and jump through a hoop, all for twenty-five cents."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Toby's Posts: The Education of a Pig

Despite the many Testimonials offered for the veracity of my own Account of my Life, there are those who are still possessed by Doubt -- either that, no matter how persistent or energetic the Training, a Pig could come to any real Knowledge of Letters -- or, and this is perhaps worse, that the ability to employ them in answering Questions, is any any way a reflection of Intelligence. To these latter doubters, who -- no matter how plain the Proofs -- will say that a pig is doing nothing more than responding to invisible Cues from its Master, I can make no other or better Reply than my own Narrative, which is now published and speaks, I believe, for itself. To that other class of doubters, however, I do have a Rejoinder, and indeed it has pleased me to Discover that, among the Natural Scientists of the Twentieth and Twenty-first century, there are many whose estimate of the Capacities of a Pig bear out, in every way, my own Life.

Education -- the word comes from the Latin phrase ex ductere, meaning "to lead forth" -- is commonly understood to consist of two Stages: the first being Rote learning, which requires chiefly repetition and Memorization, and the second being Rhetorical learning, which involves the development and utterance of one's own Opinions, and the analysis of those of others. It is fairly easy to grant that a Pig could, as well as any Human child, manage the first of these branches of Education -- and indeed, as my Life testifies, no Violence is required (although some Schoolmasters, such as Dr Johnson's, applied it all the same). It is the second which most Skepticks would point to in doubting that a Pig such as myself could compose his own sentences.

The Difference, I should say, between my experience and that of other pigs whose training never got beyond the first stage, was due entirely to my Benefactor Mr Nicholson, in his shewing me how to read on my own from Books. For, when one reads them, one is inevitably imbued, by slow degrees, with the pattern and variety of Sentences within, and it is from these Patterns that new ones must be constructed. All humans enjoy the conceit that their Utterances are Novel, for so they seem to Them, but the Lumber-yard from which their words are drawn, as well as the many old Saws which are employed to shape it, are indeed the Commonest of things, and any one who speaks the Language knows them. Had I not read such volumes as Johnson's Rasselas or Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, I should hardly have been able to write my own, at least not in a way that would meet my Readers' understanding of what a Narrative should be. Aha! cry the Skepticks -- you are naught but an Imitator! Indeed I am, but so is any one who has ever Written. The seeming novelty of most books derives, not from their utter departure from what has been said before, but by the placing of the elements of earlier tales in new and surprising Arrangements.

And so it was with me. A Writer must be first a Reader, and that there are not, on every shelf, a Plethora of Porcine autobiographies, I can attribute to the simple fact that no Pig besides myself was ever given a book of its own.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Turkeys in the Straw

Although he earned his greatest fame as the exhibitor of the Learned Pig, Mr. Silas Bisset had a whole menagerie of trained animals, including a Cat Orchestra, dancing dogs, a hare who beat upon a drum, and a group of turkeys who executed a "country dance" on command.  This last act, as Toby himself notes, did Mr. Bisset the least credit:
The only group of Animals that had no training as such was the Turkeys, and here I must confess that Mr Bisset hit upon an expedient that did him little Justice, and would have greatly dimmed the applause had anyone Known of it: he simply placed them in a small wire enclosure, the floor of which was heated to the point where it became uncomfortable to Stand, and the efforts of these poor Birds to avoid scalding their Feet produced the ‘Country dance’ advertised.
 Mr Bisset was apparently not the first to resort to this cruel trick; 18th-century sources gave credit to an "Eastern" method by which camels were similarly made to dance. All the same, Bisset popularized the act considerably, and a very similar one has persisted well into the twentieth century as a sideshow at country fairs, often accompanied by a recording of "Turkey in the Straw" -- Elvis Presley's later manager "Colonel" Tom Parker once ran such a show -- and also in the form of an arcade amusement, where a bird is placed in a tiny chamber, decorated with a miniature jukebox, with a hot plate concealed under a metal disc on the floor. Inserting a quarter into the slot heated the disc, causing the bird -- usually a chicken -- to perform the same unhappy involuntary routine.

Booths with such an exhibit are mentioned in a number of personal reminiscences online, but there was one of these attractions which, perhaps inadvertently, earned an immortal place in the history of cinema, when footage of the bird was chosen by Werner Herzog for the final scene of his film Stroszek (1977). Without going into the grim backstory, it's worth noting that, according to some accounts, the crew felt uncomfortable with the scene, so Herzog shot it himself.  The location was an amusement parlor in Cherokee, North Carolina; the machine is long gone, although a similar one -- in which a chicken in a cage plays tic-tac-toe against its human opponents -- was a fixture at New York's Chinatown fair until about ten years ago; according to this article in the New York Times, those nostalgic for the experience can still find one at a casino in Monticello, New York. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Learned Goose

Of the career of the Learned Pig, as can be seen on this blog, a great deal is known, but what of his erstwhile companion, the Learned Goose? As it happens, the Goose was the very first of all educated animals to appear on the public stage in the wake of Toby's success; this early handbill, reproduced from one in the collection of Harry Houdini, dates to 1789, just a few years after the Learned Pig's London appearances. As was said of Toby, our cultivated Quacker has "lately arrived from abroad, and -- this is most Singular -- also spelled out answers to questions from the audience using letters printed on paste-board cards!  It further mimicked Toby's act by telling time by watches, distinguishing colors, and reading minds, even while blind-folded.

Houdini used the history of this goose to partly discredit the mind-reading act of Robert Houdin, arguing that it was simply by employing a variety of signals, and trained habits, that anyone -- or any animal -- could succeed in deceiving an audience into believing that minds had been read. No doubt that's an accurate judgment. But what of our friend Goose himself?  What are his particulars, whence went his career, and might not he also have left behind some kind of memoir?

The handbill here seems to the be first, with the goose at Mr. Becket's, Trunk-Makers, at No. 31 Hay-Market.  A second bill, reproduced in Christopher Milbourne's Magic: A Picture History, has the goose at No. 5 in the Pantechnicon Arcade, Belgrave Square (Milbourne suggests this show was in fact earlier, though he also dates it to 1789).  And then, also in his book, we have a handbill for Sieur Rea and his "Curious Birds" -- "called Minous, alive from Botany Bay" --  at the Town Hall in Weymouth in 1810, with a woodcut that shows them manipulating playing cards! It seems clear that the same kind of public fascination audiences felt for learned pigs could very easily be transferred to learned birds, with much the same act and many quite similar rhetorical flourishes.

There is even, in the pages of an issue of the Sportsman's Magazine in 1815, a conjoined petition, offered together by the Learned Pig and the Learned Goose:

OBSERVING that you have recently admitted a plea in behalf of animals in the person of a Post Horse, two of us, some of whose species have borne the appellation of learned, have made choice of your publication as a medium of conveyance of our respective claims upon the world at large.
The Learned Pig. 
The Learned Goose. 
In the way of petition, your petitioner Goose, to avoid the customary destruction of his kind at Michaelmas, as well as that of his co-partner, Pig, all the year round, humbly proposes the throwing open of all the different professions among men to your petitioners.Your petitioner, Goose, therefore humbly presumes, that no objection can lie against his being admitted to the study of the law, and, in time, becoming Attorney or Solicitor-General, seeing there are learned geese of every flock and drove, who have feathered their nests by hatches, not an egg more rational than your petitioners might be ... 
Your petitioner, Pig, confessing' that it is with difficulty he hath hitherto saved his bacon, cannot help expressing a wish in common with the four-footed fraternity,, that his grey hairs, or rather every bristle that has grown grey in the public service, may, at last, repose in an honoured grave ...
What the outcome of this petition may have been the Sportsman's Magazine gives, alas, no indication.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Early American Learned Pigs

The photograph at left shows the Black Bear Inn on Market Street in Philadelphia, where, in 1799, was shown "a curiosity in which the Public will not be disappointed, The Learned Pig. The extraordinary sagacity of this animal is too well known to need a vain, puffing allusive advertisement." This was, I believe, another appearance by William Pinchbeck and his Pig of Knowledge, who had exhibited the year before in Salem, Newburyport, Boston, and Providence, as the language  of the advertisement is quite similar.

And yet, remarkably enough, a newspaper account describing a Learned Pig's appearance at the Centre House in Philadelphia in 1803 mentions that "within the past four years, four learned pigs have been exhibited." This is a remarkable claim, and led me to look again through all the early colonial-era newspapers and histories of that city I could find. Pinchbeck's 1799 pig seems to have been the first of these "learned grunters," followed in 1801 by a second sapient swine that "astonished the visitors at the Rising Sun Hotel in Philadelphia, by telling the time of day, distinguishing colors, counting the company present." About the 1803 pig I have found nothing but the brief reference that started my search.

I have found one further candidate from the period, a southerly pig who went by the name of "Dick." Dick was unusual in that his advertisements were "penned" in the first person, as in this notice in the Charleston City Gazette:

The Learned Pig Returned. Dick begs leave to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen of Charleston, that he once more Intends (during the Races only, at his old Apartment, in Jessop's Hotel, Broad-Street) to contribute to their amusement, and hopes for a continuance of that Patronage his formerly so fully experienced. Dick flatters himself, that his merits are so fully known in Charleston, that any Eulogium on that subject would be perfectly unnecessary.
I haven't yet found any evidence of any earlier appearance by "Dick," but a pig is mentioned again in 1804, once more associated with the Washington Race Track (1792-1882), one of the earliest establishments for horse-racing in the United States:
The Learned Pig. To be seen at the Tent, on the Race Ground, every Day this week, and every evening at the City Hotel, Bay Street, Charleston. Admittance, 50 cents -- Children under 10 years, half-price.
It's not clear whether this was, in fact, the identical pig of previous years, nor is there any evidence that either was shown in other cities.  All the same, it's now clear that, within a year of when Pinchbeck's pig concluded its tour, at least four other pigs were making their claims to Sagacity in cities up and down the eastern seaboard!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Intelligent Pig

We've long been aware that humans are far from the only intelligent animal. Our close cousins the chimpanzee and gorilla have been much studied, and some have attained the ability to communicate with sign language, even putting together signs to make a sentence. The chimp Washoe, seeing a doll in one of her drinking mugs, famously signed "baby in my cup." Other animals noted for their capacities include dolphins (and cetaceans generally, a group that includes dolphins and whales), although no mutually convenient means of communication has yet been found, and parrots are often noted for their mimicry of human speech, which sometimes seems to evince novel utterances. The dog, of course, has long been a companionate animal, and in one case -- a border collie named Chaser -- has been shown to have a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, though here we're talking about recognition rather than the ability to produce them.

But the pig has long been known to be highly intelligent, with some owners of domestic pigs claiming that they are far more so than dogs. Recent studies have begun to document this capacity, with one -- led by Donald Broom of Cambridge University -- showing that pigs, once accustomed to them, were capable of using mirrors to find food, although they did not go in for staring at themselves. Mirror self-recognition has been documented in chimps, and some hold it a benchmark of sentience (personally I think this simply means pigs are less vain). Pigs are capable of learning all kinds of behaviors, and, according to Suzanne Held of the University of Bristol, once they learn a task, they remember it -- in fact it's difficult for them to unlearn it.

Perhaps all this should come as no surprise -- pigs are, science has found, somewhat closer to us genetically than we'd realized; Dr. Lawrence Schook of the University of Illinois, who sequenced a rough draft of the pig genome, was quoted in the New York Times as saying it "compares favorably with the human genome." Large sections of it are, in fact, nearly identical, which correlates with various observed similarities, such as pigs' teeth and hearts. Pigs are not nearly so close to us as chimps (who share 96% of our genome), but they are cousins of the cetaceans, and perhaps this correlates with their similar intelligence.

Further studies may tell us more -- and I can't help but wonder what might happen if, just as was the case with Toby, a pig were given the chance to manipulate letters or other signs, and use these to establish a means of communication.