In the late 1800s, a man named James Wide was working as a signalman for the Port Elizabeth Mainline Railway in South Africa. His job was to pull the levers which ensured that the right trains went on the right tracks at the right time, but Wide earned his reputation — and his nickname — for something else. “Jumper,” as Wide was often known, had a habit of leaping from railcar to railcar, displaying a certain bravery and a foolishness while entertaining the onlooking crowd. One of his jumps — his final one — went poorly, and cost him his legs. He missed and fell under the train, and one needn’t a graphic description to know that he was lucky to survive.
Confined to a wheelchair of his own making — a trolley, reports would later call it — and outfitted with a set of homemade prothesis, he was able to return to work, but he was only barely able to carry out his job duties alone. So, on his own dime, he retained the services of Jack, who had been working at a local market stocking shelves (or the 1800s equivalent). Jack’s job, initially, was simply to push Jumper to and from work. But soon, Jumper realized that Jack could do a lot more. Jumper knew how the railway worked but pushing the signal levels was difficult for a man with his physical ailments, so Jack stepped in to provide the manpower with Jumper calling out the instructions to his new apprentice. The two, as a team, were able to accomplish the job.
Until a customer complained about Jack. Sure, she argued, he may have been good at his job. But that didn’t change the fact that he was a baboon.
(Yes, an actual monkey.)
In general, it’s a bad idea to let a monkey push the levers that make trains go onto the proper tracks. (It’s also a bad idea to continue to employ a person without the physical strength to push those very same levers, but that’s a different story.) And when the customer complained, the railway understandably took action. Jack was fired, as was Jumper.
But the railway allowed Jumper to argue his — and Jack’s case. Jumper proceeded to demonstrated that Jack could operate the signal levers per Jumper’s instructions, assuaging the railway owners’ fears to some degree. But the real value came from the novelty of having a baboon working the railroad. As the Telegraph noted, he attracted many fans, including local dignitaries, bringing additional business to the train line. Both Jumper and his baboon pal were re-hired. And this time, Jack got paid. According to Wikipedia, the railway even ended up paying the monkey for his services — 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer each week. (There’s no evidence that Jack ever drank on the job, although his mental capacity was already that of a monkey, so who knows if that would have mattered anyway.)
Jack held his role in the signalman partnership for roughly nine years before passing away from tuberculosis in 1890.
From the Archives: Monkey Island: Zero people. 900 monkeys.
Related: A game featuring a monkey which knows its way around the tracks. From experience, a kid-pleaser.