Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Meet General Jackoo, Rope-Dancing Monkey, Rage of Europe, 1785

by Stephen J. Gertz

Forget Napoleon and Sally, the Famous Trained Monkeys who slayed 'em in Singapore May 2 - 5, 1920 at the Alhambra before moving to the Gaiety Theater as The World Famous Monkey Actors; Vaudevillian simian Charles the First, who abdicated the crown with his death in 1910 but his replacement, Consul, though equally well-known, is not to be confused with the other monkey  named Consul that toured the William Morris Circuit; Dick and Alice, Mlle. Louise's famous trained monkeys, who wowed 'em at Washington Park in Bayonne, N.J. the week of June 19, 1909, are poseurs; Solomon the Man Monkey, who traipsed around Glasgow c. 1908 in a tuxedo and went to church on Sundays, was hoity-toity and holier than thou; and J. Fred Muggs, the  chimp mascot of the Today Show with Dave Garroway 1953-57, was simply ham on wry.

None can hold a candle to - or ride an unicycle beside - General Jackoo, who could smoke a cigar and juggle while dancing on a tightrope, and whose first mention in print reportedly occurred in 1768. This multitasking monkey's long-term engagement at Astley's Amhitheater in London, and on tour with Astley's in Paris during 1785, was a sensation and earned him accolades across the Continent.

And groupies. Horace Walpole reports:

"A young Madame de Choiseul is inloved with by Monsieur de Coigny and Prince Joseph of Monaco…but as she had two passions as well as two lovers, she was also enamored of General Jackoo at Astley's. The unsuccessful candidate offered Astley ingots for his monkey, but Astley demanding a terre for life, the paladin was forced to desist, but fortunately heard of another miracle of parts of the Monomatapan race, who was not in so exalted a sphere of life, being only a marmiton in a kitchen where he had learned to pluck fowls with inimitable dexterity" (Walpole to the Countess of Ossory, Feb 10, 1786. The Letters of Horace Walpole. Volume 9. London, 1891).

Poor Madame de Choiseul had to settle for second best, content with a chicken pluckin' lower primate rather than General Jackoo, who enjoyed an elevated station in life as a beloved celebrity and was more likely to have a chicken-pluckin' chimp in his employ rather than pluck himself (chickens, not his person).

In The Downfall of Taste & Genius, or the World as it Goes, an etched print satirizing the taste and amusements of the day, made by Samuel Collings and published by William Humphrey, 1784, we see our hero riding a large dog and holding a flag inscribed 'Genl Jacko.' General Jackoo  'the astonishing monkey from the fair of St Germain's Paris,' performed at Astley's during the summer season of 1784.

Of animal performers in human drag and the General in particular, Rudy Koshar in Histories of Leisure (pp. 55-56) noted, "The rope-dancing monkey General Jackoo, miming his own little interlude, needed only 'the gift of speech' to make his appearance complete and, 'while he is so laughably brandishing his sword, cry - 'Who's afraid?' In a genteel precedent to the chimp's tea party, Jackoo took an elaborate public breakfast with a canine Mme de Pompadour, which included a glimpse of a world turned upside down when they were waited on by humans…In 1785, Astley travestied the horse with a 'large' and 'richly caparisoned dog, ridden by General Jackoo in a 'Triumphal Entry of 1785." General Jackoo, jocose dog  jockey.

Solomon, c. 1908, "a well-accomplished pick-pocket,"
purportedly haunts the Panopticon Zoo in Glasgow
where he lived for many years, dressed to the nines.

"A bill for Astley's Amphitheatre, hand-dated 28 May 1785, at the Huntington Library, stated that 'General Jackoo, the celebrated Monkey from Paris, will, for the first time this season, change the whole of his dress in a surprising manner, and perform his war maneuvers, dance on the Tight Rope with fetters on his feet, &c.' In 'The Manager's Notebook' is a letter from Philip Astley in Paris to Mr. and Mrs Pownall, dated 4 December 1786. He said, 'Genl Jackoo did not arrive before the 18th and we opened the 19th…' That entry would appear to be a reference to the performing monkey" (A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Volume 8).

The 1780s were General Jackoo's heyday, the years of his greatest popularity, the height of his career arc. A slow descent followed.

Once, while on tour in the British countryside in 1795, General Jackoo and his buddy, Sir Bruin, a dancing bear, became involved in a little contretemps.

"Amongst the number of unfortunates who have taken up and obliged themselves, whether they could or no, was a party, consisting of an old man and woman, a young man, a dancing bear, and a monkey, attended by a caravan drawn by one horse, and which, it is presumed, was intended for the accommodation of any in the party who may happen to tire on the road

"The constables, observing this group entering the town, and preparing to treat the inhabitants with a saraband from Sir Bruin, walked up to them, and mixed with others in laughing at his exploits, and those of his merry companion, General Jackoo; but oh! direful to relate! no sooner has the shaggy-coated dancing master finished his manoevres, than they arrested the whole party, and conducted them to a neighboring Justice of the Peace, who, after due investigation, committed the old man and woman and the young man to prison.

"The constables, who had no idea but that the bear and monkey were committed as well, sat off immediately with them in the caravan (the man and woman walking by the side), and made haste toward Bridewell, the keeper of which received the bipeds, but refused to entertain the quadrupeds, because they were not included in the mistimes. The constables were therefore obliged to return with the refuse: they made the best of their way home, and on their arrival procured lodgings for Sir Bruin and his mimical attendant, in what they thought was a place of safety…

"…Sir Bruin had no other encumbrance than a muzzle, which was thought a sufficient security; but poor General Jackoo was confined to the wall by a small chain, with which he had usually been led. They had not been long in durance vile, before Jackoo projected means for escaping; Sir Briun, too, had a desire to depart. The monkey easily unbuckled the bear's muzzle but found it impossible to extricate himself. Sir Bruin, on finding his jaws at liberty, immediately effected his escape…"  (The Sporting Magazine Vol 6, August 1795, p. 256).

Then, a next-door neighbor, "actuated by a sudden impulse of nature, leaped from his shop-board in order to make a pilgrimage to a certain little tenement at the bottom of his garden: he had scarce proceeded half-way, when lo! the figure of the bear struck him from the necessity of offering incense to Cloacina, at her temple, for it operated on him both as diuretic and purgative" (ibid.).

We gloss over the delightfully gentle British understatement regarding the neighbor's loss  of control when confronted by Sir Bruin to note that, by 1795, General Jackoo, alas, was getting second billing in the newspapers, upstaged by a dancing bear with the power to loosen the bladder and bowels of passersby on the street. That's entertainment! But it doesn't take much talent.

Astley's Amphitheater in London by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Pugin.
From Ackermann's Microcosm of London, 1808-1811.

By 1824, General Jackoo was receiving third billing as the Clown, one of the natives behind Ourang Outans, Sovereign of Monkey Island; Mr. J. Cooper as Puckercheeks Prime Minister, afterwards Pantaloon, in The Monkey Island or Harlequin and the Lodestone Rock, a grand pantomime at the Theater Royal July 1824 (The Theatrical Observer and Daily Bills of the Play, #808 Saturday July 3, 1824). In 1824, he was at least fifty-six years old. The life span of a chimpanzee in the wild is up to forty-five years; in captivity, sixty. General Jackoo, now too old and arthritic to perform acrobatics, was now washed-up as a headliner, a has-been, the last stop in his career an ancient clown. We don't know how the General met his demise but it was likely of old age. He was a trouper, performing to the end, perhaps hoping for a comeback.

Philip Astley was an acrobat on horseback who was the first to perform in a circular arena of his own contrivance;  the centrifugal force aided balance during acrobatics, and with the addition of a clown and novelty acts to amuse the audience between trained horse tricks, his amphitheater was the prototype for the modern circus, and became extremely popular. He opened a venue in Paris, and had  open-air or tent shows on tour through the countrysides of Europe. Astley's Amphitheater in London, originally established in 1768, survived many fires and rebuilding before finally closing in the early 1890s.

There is not, alas, have a formal portrait of General Jackoo, the simian superstar of the late 18th century. Nor, considering his passionate base of groupies, is there evidence that Cynthia Plaster Caster, who gained fame by capturing the sacred regenerative organs of the gods of '60s rock as votive ceramic ware, traveled back through time to cast the General's jewels for posterity.

ASTLEY, Philip and John. Details des exercices du fameux singe, nommé Géneral Jackoo. Amphitheatre du Sieur Astey, rue du Fauxbourgh du Temple. [Paris]: de l'Imprimerie de L'Ormel, No. 22, 1785.

Double-sided broadside (350 x 135 mm), giving details of various Astley performances at the Amphitheatre at Paris on one side, and on the other providing the exploits of Astley's trained monkey, illustrated with ten woodcuts demonstrating the spectacular stunts of one of the foremost simians of his time.

Image courtesy of Bernard Quaritch Ltd, with our thanks.

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