Gargantua the Great

Or: Buddy, the gorilla who was scared of lightning.

I came across a few photos of a lowland gorilla in a book about the history of the circus which piqued my interest. I’m a big fan of the primate you see (some being dearer to my heart than others) and I went searching the web to find out more. The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus billed him as “Gargantua The Great, the world’s most terrifying creature” but as it turns out a previous owner had dubbed him Buddy, short for Buddha, and he had a very sad past. Not only that but he was scared of lighting. What follows are a few brief notes on Buddy’s story and some related images.

This is Buddy or Gargantua the Great as the world would come to know him.

Essentially the story of Buddy goes like this: In the Mid-30’s a baby gorilla was offered to a freighter captain as a gift from some friends who were African missionaries. The Captain accepted and brought the gorilla aboard his ship, naming him Buddy. He was adopted by the crew and became the darling of the ship being given specially prepared foods, taught to preform seaman duties, and otherwise adored.

A sailor aboard the ship took exception to the discipline doled out by the Captain and knowing how fond the captain was of the baby gorilla threw nitric acid in Buddy’s face as a means of vengeance. Buddy was nearly blinded and forever disfigured. Buddy hid himself refusing food, shrieking, and attacking anyone who came near. The sailors, at a loss for what to do, urged the captain the euthanize Buddy, but the captain knew a wealthy woman in Brooklyn who cared for sick animals and decided instead to bring Buddy to her.

Her name was Mrs. Gertrude Lintz and she was a bit of an eccentric.

She had won national attention by proposing to the scientific community that apes, specifically chimpanzees, needed proper mothering to survive and thrive. She dressed the chimps in human attire, taught them to eat at table, and allowed them to live as children might under similar circumstances. Her most famous protégé, Captain Jiggs, a highland chimpanzee of unusual intelligence and patience, became a well known national figure. Mrs. Lintz divided chimpanzees into three classes, depending on eye brightness, and anthropomorphized the animals to such a degree that she blurred the line between animal and human. She particularly enjoyed posing the animals in the car seat beside her, driving her roadster with an immaculately dressed chimp navigating from the passenger side.

Under Mrs. Lintz care Buddy grew to a huge 600 lbs. A plastic surgeon attempted to repair his disfigured face but left him with a permanent terrifying sneer otherwise out of character with his gentle nature.

Evidently one night it was stormy out. Buddy was frightened by the thunder and lighting and broke out of his cage. He crawled like a frightened child into bed with Mrs. Lintz. She decided then and there to give the 600 lb. eight year old lowland gorilla to the circus. She contacted John Ringling in 1937 who came to Brooklyn to see Buddy. He was later quoted as saying:

“From behind the bars glowered the most fearful face I have ever looked upon,” said Ringling. “A tremendous hairy head, great dripping fangs, and the horrible sinister leer of the acid-twisted mouth.”

Top image caption: So much like the horrifying nightmare of what man might have been, Gargantua The Great offers the most pernicious portrait study ever recorded by a camera lens. Bottom image caption: The massive hand of Gargantua The Great and that of a normal sized man, emphasize the almost unbelievable concentrated power behind the giant gorilla’s which point to his approximate place of origin in the dim forests of western equatorial Africa.

Ringling bought Buddy on the spot, and renaming him (at his wife’s suggestion) Gargantua, after Rabelais’ giant king of Gargantua and Pantagruel, launched an advertising campaign centered around the gorilla which hailed him as “the largest gorilla ever exhibited” and “the most terrifying living creature.” Millions flocked to see Gargantua. He was a huge success as an attraction which single handedly helped rebound Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey from the ruinous period of the Great depression.

The circus built Gargantua his own special air-conditioned cage on wheels and toured him successfully for years.

From Time magazine, 1938-

Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus’ gorilla Gargantua the Great, wrote Gargantuan Columnist Heywood Broun three weeks ago, “is the fiercest looking thing I have ever seen on two legs. And probably his power and truculence were all the more impressive because he did look a good deal like a distant relative. No one was allowed to go close to his cage, because Gargantua can reach about five feet through the bars and get a toe hold on a visitor whom he dislikes.” Gargantua may not be the world’s biggest captive gorilla—since the death of Berlin Zoo’s monster, many zoos have claimed that honor for their gorillas—but he is one of the most vindictive.

June of 1938 saw one of the few comical aspects of the gargantua story when former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunny revived the age old Ape vs. Man argument with an article in the Connecticut Nutmeg in which he wrote the following:

It is my firm conviction that any fairly good heavyweight boxer could put the great Gargantua to sleep or to rout within two minutes. You must remember that a boxer stepping into the ring to defend or seek a championship is, muscularly speaking, quite a different person than is the spectator who watches him. Years of specialized calisthenics have put a tough layer of hard muscle over the boxer’s stomach and solar plexus. Punches that would knock the ordinary man out instantly or injure him internally, bounce off the hardened body of a well conditioned boxer without making him gasp. That protective layer of muscle absorbs punches just as shock absorbers on your car assimilate the bumps… Gargantua is a big boy but a Dempsey left hook landing on his stomach might figuratively tear the poor animal in two and leave him paralyzed on the canvas or jungle.

In 1941 as a publicity stunt a “marriage ceremony” took place as Gargantua took a female gorilla named Mitoto as his wife. Called “Toto” for short. (Toto had also been property of an affluent woman who during tea with the gorilla had her both her wrists snapped.) Mitoto, Swahili for “Little One,” became known as simply “Mrs. Gargantua.” Ringling had hoped to mate the gorillas. Their first meeting was romanticized in a time Magazine article in March of 41-

M’Toto (a she-gorilla) met Gargantua (a he-gorilla) last week. Their cautious introduction took place out behind the machine shop at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s winter quarters in Sarasota, Fla. The two giant gorillas whom John Ringling North hopes to mate were wheeled up face to face in their separate cages. Attendants and newsmen watched. Scarfaced, 550-lb. Gargantua turned a curious look upon the first gorilla he had seen since he left Africa. Apparently he liked what he saw. He threw her a bouquet of celery tops. Uppishly, 438-lb. M’Toto tossed it back. He tried a head of lettuce. M’Toto shuffled coyly across her cage and played with her black & white kitten Principe. Gargantua sulked. To Circusman North so far was so good. Said he: “Gargantua is infatuated. Naturally M’Toto was modest and bashful.” When he is reasonably sure that they will not tear each other apart, he will let the couple share the same cage.

In point of fact all that really happened was Gargantua threw some rotten vegetables at his intended mate. Though they toured together for many years they never mated or had offspring.

When in 1949 it became obvious that he was not well, no one dared approach him to find out what the trouble was. He died that November of double pneumonia. Gorillas in captivity often live for 40 years or more, Gargantua, however, was only 20. Newspapers announced his passing with prominent headlines and in 1950 Gargantua’s skeleton was donated to the Peabody Museum where it is still on display.

Buddy’s actual skull.

A sad story if you ask me, one which was later desecrated further in the 1997 flick Buddy. Poor ol’ Buddy.