This New York Herald ad tells the reputed story of the capture and process of civilizing what Barnum called the "nondescript." The What Is It? exhibit presented an African-American man as the link between man and monkey. What Is It? opened at the American Museum shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and at the height of political tensions over slavery in the U.S. The exhibit claimed to prove that Africans descended from monkeys and thus merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with ongoing antebellum debates over racial definition, the morality of slavery, and sectional politics.
The WHAT IS IT? which so amuses and delights the MULTITUDE THAT CROWDS THE MUSEUM. The gentleman who acts as the "WHAT IS IT’s" protector, thus explains, in public, the mystery of its nature and origin.
This is what is termed the Nondescript, or
WHAT IS IT?
From the interior of Africa. It was captured by a party of adventurers who were in search of the gorilla. While exploring the river Gambia, near its mouth, they fell in with a race of beings never before discovered. They were six in number. They were in a
PERFECTLY NUDE STATE, roving about among the trees and branches, in the manner common to the monkey and orang outang. After considerable exertion the hunters succeeded in capturing three of these oddities—two males and a female. All of them were forwarded to this country, but, unfortunately, two of them sickened and died on the voyage across. The present one is the only survivor. When first received here his natural position was
ON ALL FOURS,
and it has required the exercise of the greatest care and patience to teach him to stand perfectly erect, as you behold him at the present moment. But a few weeks have elapsed, in fact, since he first assumed this attitude and walked about upon his feet.
If you notice, you will perceive that the
WALK OF THE WHAT IS IT
is very awkward, like that of a child beginning to acquire that accomplishment. When he first came his only food was raw meat, sweet apples, oranges, nuts, &c., of all o f which he was very fond; but he will now eat bread, cake and similar things, though he is fonder of raw meat or that which, when cooked, is rare. If you notice the formation of this nondescript, you will observe that it is something very peculiar indeed.
In the next place, the teeth, instead of standing erect, occupy a slanting position, like those of the horse or the sheep, slanting to a great distance under the tongue and into the roof of the mouth. The teeth are double nearly all around, and the creature is not able to close its mouth entirely, owing to the formation of the jaws, which are crooked instead of straight, thus leaving the front of the mouth open about half an inch.
THE ARMS OF THE WHAT IS IT
are much too long in proportion to its height at least some three inches. They are also crooked, like those of the Ourang Outang, and it is not able to straighten them. He has great strength in his hands and arms. Anything he can get hold of he will cling to for quite a length of time. There is apparently more strength in his hands and arms than in all the rest of his body combined.
In the next place, his legs are crooked, like those of the Ourang Outang. He cannot make them straighter than you see them now. He has no calf to his leg, but exhibits a gradual taper from the knee to the ankle joint.
THE WHAT IS IT’S FOOT
is narrow, slim and flat, and has a long heel like that of the native African. The large toe is more like a man’s thumb. The others are bent under, and the distortion appears to be natural. He is supposed to be 20 or 23 years old, but there is nothing positively known in regard to his age. He may be older or possibly younger than that. He stands about four feet high and weighs 50 pounds. He has been examined by some of the most scientific men we have, and pronounced by them to be a connecting link between the wild native African and the brute creation, and the formation of the head and limbs is such as to leave beyond any doubt whatever, the characteristic claims of
THE WHAT IS IT
New York Herald, March 19, 1860.