In 1860 Barnum promoted his new "What Is It?" exhibition with a series of ads, including this one from the New York Tribune. Barnum avoided defining the exhibit, and used provocative language and images to draw visitors to answer the question for themselves. Claiming that What Is It? was captured in Africa and illustrated the link between man and monkey, Barnum opened the exhibit shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and at the height of political tensions over slavery in the U.S. Although the exhibit was politically controversial, the ad tried to reassured New York's middle-class public that What Is It? was playful, amusing, and not repulsive.
THURSDAY MARCH 1, 1860.
Can now be seen here an extraordinary living creature just arrived from the wilds of Africa
WHAT IS IT
Is it a lower order of man? or
is it a higher development of the monkey? or
Is it both in combination?
Nothing of the kind
Has ever been seen before.
It is alive, and is certainly the
MOST MARVELLOUS CREATURE LIVING
It can be seen at all ordinary hours in one of the main salons of the Museum during the day and evening, and in order that all may have an opportunity of witnessing this most remarkable of nature’s freaks, it may be seen also upon the stage of the lecture room at each entertainment.
THE "WHAT IS IT?" has nothing repulsive in its appearance, is playful, and is altogether the most amusing and interesting living specimen of creation ever seen.
The Sunday Times says it—
"it is an animal which would seem to supply the link supposed by philosophers to exist between the human race and brutes. The new curiosity just added to the Museum stock seems to supply t he real link between the man and the monkey. It was found in the interior of Africa, and by good fortune got alive to this country. It is monkey, all but the face, and that is entirely human.
The New York Herald says—
"WHAT IS IT?" –They have added to the list of curiosities at Barnum’s Museum a most extraordinary freak of nature, consisting of a creature supposed to belong to the orang outang species, but having all the appearance of a human being. It is said to have been captured in the interior of Africa, on the border of the river Gambia, by a party who were in search of the famous Gorilla. It stands about four feet high and weighs some fifty pounds. Its age cannot be correctly ascertained, but it is supposed to be over twenty years. The formation of its hands, arms and head are those of an orang-outang but its movements are those of a human being. Those who are fond of looking at the freaks nature frequently indulges in, should step in and form for themselves an opinion as to "What is it?"
The New York Sun says—
A nondescript animal supposed to be a connecting link in the chain of animal life between the brute and the human ape species is now at Barnum’s Museum. The limbs cannot be straightened any more than an orang-outang, its walk to an erect position is exceedingly awkward. The ears are far too high and too much back for a negro; the arms are several inches too long in proportion and the jaw and teeth are entirely animal. Its eyes are bright and intelligent but the brain is quite small, and Dan Rice in his palmiest days never could produce a heartier ‘Jim Crow’ laugh than this creature gets off on the slightest occasion. Sometimes a face in the crowd, another time its dress and again its image in the mirror, calls forth shouts of laughter. Various incidents which have already occurred show it to possess considerable powers of memory, and sometimes short words spoken by its keeper are repeated with considerable distinctness.
The New York Tribune says—
The nondescript arrived is as lively and playful as a kitten. It seems to be a sort of cross between the ape species and the negro. The brightness of his eye and its intelligent responses to the words and motions of the person in charge at once relieve it from the imputation of imbecility.
The Express says—
The animal at Barnum’s is the nearest approach to human of any creature supposed to belong to the lower order of animated beings. It stands erect to the height of four feet, and weighs fifty pounds. The legs and arms seem to be shaped pretty much like those of a human being, though neither can be made as straight as the limbs of human beings in general. The legs are devoid of calves as in the orang outang and taper down from the thigh to the ankle. The feet are formed like a negro’s with the heel projecting but the great toe is more like a thumb than a toe, and all the toes bend downward toward the sole. But, the most striking part of the animal is the head and face. The bottom of the face about the mouth is comparatively broad, and tapers away towards the frontal cone, which is uncommonly narrow. The forehead also recedes. The upper part of the skull continues to narrow till at the crown it ends almost in a point. The ears are higher up and further back than is usual in the human race. The mouth is very large, and well filled with very white teeth, doubled all through. The tongue is human, but the jaws cannot close together by a quarter of an inch. The creature is speechless, making a sort of ‘cheeping’ noise and is always on the broad grin. It walks with awkward steps, like a child just learning on its two feet, which the exhibitor says it has lately learned, its natural method of locomotion being on all four. It seems to be very imitative.
When brought here at first it refused all food except raw meat. Now it will eat fruit, cakes and almost any article of food eaten by human beings but prefers flesh dressed very rare. A great deal of mirth was elicited on Monday night while the creature was being exhibited.
Also just arrived in the steamer Baltic from California, a huge and savage BLACK SEA LION, entirely different from anything ever exhibited here before.
Also a GRIZZLY BEAR, weighing 2,000 pounds.
New York Tribune, March 1, 1860.