The Man Who Talked to Apes (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

Despite his reputation being in tatters due to the fraud accusation, R.L.Garner managed to return to Gabon and resume his research.  Though he spent most of his time on Gabon's southern coast, he to travel along many of the country's waterways and jungles in his search for monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, and whatever other animals he could find.   After two years he headed home but nothing had really changed for him there.  

Still, it was at about this point when he came up with what would be his most grandiose scheme.  Having met wealthy socialite Ida Vera Simonton at a party in 1904, Garner was struck by her enthusiasm for writing (and her beauty considering his own marriage had broken up by then).   Though apparently infatuated with her from the beginning, he was careful not to let her know it.  Instead, he invited her to Gabon to help him edit three of his books and also to provide her with material for her own writing.   After arranging for her to come over in the summer of 1906, he returned to Gabon and immediately spent most of his remaining savings on renovations for the house they would be living in together.  

But he had other plans besides romance.  Political upheaval in Gabon due to the revolt of some of the tribal clans against the French colonial rulers created what seemed to Garner to be a golden opportunity.  As he would describe in a lengthy letter to his son, he planned to end the revolt by introducing Ida Simonton to the local chiefs.  From his racist perspective, she would be an ideal candidate to become their ota nwato ntangani (or "female white chief" in the local lingua franca used in Gabon).   She would then use her position to persuade the French government to grant more freedom to the natives and thus end the revolt. 

Despite the boldness of this scheme, it had a few problems.  First of all, he didn't speak any of the local languages despite the time he had spent in Gabon.  This meant that he really didn't have any real insight into how tribal politics worked.   Most of his scheme rested on his own racist assumption about how easily the natives could be led.   Then there was the fact that Ida Simonton had no idea what her host was planning.  As far as she was concerned, she was visiting Gabon to pursue her dream of being a writer and to gain some valuable travel experience.  51YXk-aX3jL[1]

Another stumbling block was that Garner and Simonton had very different ideas about how a "proper" woman should behave.  Though Ida wanted to be adventurous and independent in exploring Gabon, Garner pictured himself as a chivalrous gentleman who would protect her honour from the natives and the brutish traders.  In his own writings, he often denounced feminists for their "masculine" behaviour and their refusal to submit to a man's authority.    When planning his venture, Garner obviously didn't think through the fact that Ida Simonton was independently wealthy and that he would have no way of controlling her once she arrived in Gabon. 

And so it quickly proved.   With Ida taking his bedroom while Garner slept on the veranda, she quickly showed just how independent she could be.  This included spending time with many of the local traders (who did their best to impress the attractive and unattached heiress).   Garner's anger at her behaviour quickly escalated to the point of his getting into a fistfight with a man he had caught in her bedroom.   By 1907, Ida Simonton had enough of R.L. Garner and dismissed him as being incompetent.   Garner, on the other hand, openly denounced her as "one of the most unwomanly women that I have ever known—She has an idea that rudeness and bravado, insolence and vehemence [sic], coarseness and invectives are equivalent to courage and talent, but as I know her she is simply a masculine female.” 

After Ida left Gabon,  Garner was worse off than ever.  Spending virtually all of his money on house renovations had left him left him penniless except for what he could earn with his writing.  While most of his articles were never published, his stories about the adventures he had in Gabon were starting to win over some fans back in the United States.    His reputation being redeemed to some extent, Garner finally return returned to the United States in 1909.  

But he didn't come back alone.  With him was a young chimpanzee named Susie with whom Garner claimed to be capable of holding a conversation.   Newspapers were more favourable this time around and described him as a "modern Ulysses" and an adventurer.  Beginning a widely publicized lecture tour in 1910, J.L. Garner and Susie became a media sensation as they appeared across the country. While Susie wasn't particularly cooperative (she often stayed mute despite her partner's best efforts to get her to speak), the sight of the boisterous chimpanzee and her antics was usually enough to win over audiences.  They even performed before then-President William Taft. 

More importantly, Garner was able to make valuable contacts with many of the wealthy members of the New York Zoological Society.  He also formed a partnership with Bronx Zoo curator William Hornaday for what would be a lucrative business importing animals from Gabon for display in the Bronx zoo.  After Hornaday commissioned Garner to return to Gabon in 1913, he managed to return with numerous specimens, including a gorilla and several chimpanzees, which reinforced his reputation as an intrepid traveler. 

Though the outbreak of World War One made travel to and from Gabon more dangerous, Garner managed to return with an expedition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.   Though his long-ago dream of talking to monkeys had been quietly forgotten, R.L. Garner had finally managed to earn some respect from the scientific community.  After his last expedition in 1917, he decided to settle down and founded a centre for primate communication in Florida.   Now a widely praised writer whose articles were published in newspapers across the country, his career was unexpectedly cut short by Bright's Disease (now known as nephritis)  that took his life while he was staying in a Chatanooga hotel in 1920.   He was 72 years old.

Shortly after his death, Garner's son Harry donated his papers to the Smithsonian Institute.  That, along with his books and articles, represent the main legacy of a man who had to be one of the most colourful and  controversial characters of the early 20th century.   Though largely forgotten today,  Richard Lynch Garner was still a pioneer for his observations of primates in the wild.  Even if he never managed to talk to monkeys, he still managed to be heard by academics and laymen alike.  



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