Happy Jerry

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I first came across Jerry’s story when researching primates in nineteenth-century newspapers and popular manuals of natural history. Jerry was a much-loved mandrill resident at Edward Cross’s Exeter Change and the Surrey Zoological Gardens. According to The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1832), he was discovered in 1815 aboard a slave vessel captured off the Gold Coast and was purchased by the owner of a travelling menagerie, who sold him to Cross in 1828. Jerry was famous for entertaining the crowds that came daily to his cage. In Heads and Tails (1870), Adam White describes how Jerry would ‘sit in an armchair… drink porter out of a pot, like a thirsty brick-maker’ and ‘smoke a pipe, like a trained pupil of Sir Walter Raleigh’. In 1829, his gentlemanly habits even attracted the attention of King George IV, who apparently sent for Jerry to attend court where he dined on specially prepared venison. The legend has it that Jerry had to be removed from court after rather ferociously defending the honour of a courtier against the amorous attentions of the King.

My second encounter with ‘Happy Jerry’ happened unexpectedly whilst being given a tour of the stores of the Natural History Museum by Curator of Mammals, Richard Sabin. Opening the drawers of primate study skins, I was amazed to find a mandrill study skin labelled with Jerry’s name. Too old and delicate to be handled or taken out of his plastic wrapping, ‘happy’ Jerry’s pipe-smoking heyday was far behind him.

For me, Jerry’s story demonstrates the potential of cultural research into study collections. Whilst the skins that form the vast majority of our museum’s natural history collections may appear less charismatic than their taxidermic counterparts, their stories can be just as fascinating.

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Jerry was famous for entertaining the crowds that came daily to his cage.