Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dan Rice and the Learned Pig

One of the most successful comic performers of his day, Dan Rice (1823-1900) was known for his dialect humor, his parodic takes on famous plays such as "Dan Rice's Multifarious Account of Shakespeare's Hamlet," and his mock political speeches; one of these, his striped costume and top hat may have played a part in popular depictions of "Uncle Sam." And, back in the early 1840's, Rice's very first strides upon the proverbial boards of the public stage were made in the company of a Learned Pig.

This pig, originally named "Sibyl," was re-christened by Rice with  the more impressive "Lord Byron," and exhibited from town to town, most often in taverns or public houses. Rice was astute at drumming up publicity for these appearances, and once took out an advertisement in poetic form in the Washington Commonwealth:
I've seen the Learned Pig. 'Tis queer 
To see a hog become a seer.
He knows his letters, and can hunt
The alphabet without a grunt;
Can add, subtract, and knows the rule
As well as any boy in school;
By working with his head and snout
He finds the truth without a doubt.
'Tis wondrous how a brute so low
Was taught by man so much to know!
Dan Rice's pig already had a history of its own; originally the joint property of one Mr. Osborne of Cazenovia NY and C.L. Kise, described as an "ingenious Connecticut Yankee." Kise was an old hand at exhibiting oddities, and is best known for his exhibition of Joyce Heth, said to be George Washington's nurse, and later shown to great effect by Phineas T. Barnum.  Rice bought out Osborne's half of the learned pig act, and enjoyed tremendous success with it. His pig was especially known for its card-playing acumen,  often beating human opponents, as well as his fortune-telling skills, along with comic revelations such as "who is the greatest rogue in the room?" Rice was said to dress Lord Byron in a somewhat clownish outfit, "trimmed with parti-colored ribbons, and so cleanly and tidy did he appear after a toilet as carefully prepared as the most pampered lapdog from its interested mistress." And indeed, Rice later trained up a dog with all the same skills that the pig had once demonstrated. By Rice's own account, his signals to the pig were made by clicking together his finger and thumbnail, producing a noise inaudible to audiences, but heard clearly by the pig, whom Rice declared possessed "extreme acuteness of hearing."

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