“Bushman at Lincoln Park Zoo and The Field Museum” by S.M. O’Connor

      Bushman, the most popular animal to ever reside in Chicago, died on this date in 1951 in his suite in the Primate House of Lincoln Park Zoo.  When he was alive, approximately 3,000,000 people visited him every year.[1]   His popularity can be likened to that of the German Shepherd movie star Rin-Tin-Tin (1918-1932) and the racehorses Man o’War (1917-1947) and Secretariat (1970-1989).  Like the man-eating lions of Tsavo immortalized by the film The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), he can be seen in the flesh at The Field Museum.  Lincoln Park Zoo Director Alfred Parker purchased Bushman as a young gorilla from a wild animal dealer named W.L. Buck (known as Pa Buck) who claimed while he was in the French Cameroons at the village of Yakadouma he had heard of the capture of a baby gorilla by tribesmen in a nearby hamlet, and had purchased Bushman from them.  After the Philadelphia Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park had declined to purchased Bushman, Pa Buck made his way to the Lincoln Park Zoo and Parker paid him the handsome sum of $3,000. [2]   Pa Buck stayed at the zoo for several weeks to smoothly transfer Bushman’s affections to his new keeper, Eddie Robinson.[3] For years after he retired from the animal-dealing business and moved to Florida, each summer Pa Buck continued to visit the Lincoln Park Zoo for a couple of days and spend most of that time with Bushman.[4]

When Bushman arrived at the zoo, he weighed twenty-eight pounds and was estimated to be two years old.[5]  The bigger he got, the more popular he became, and to show his growth marks a foot apart were painted on the wall of his cage so people could see how tall he was when he stood up, and a scale was installed so when he sat in his metal chair people could see how much he weighed. [6]    He topped out at a height of six feet, two inches and weighed 570 pounds. [7]

Weather permitting, when Bushman was very young, Eddie Robinson would take him outside for exercise.[8] Bushman was allowed to climb small trees, and would wrestle with Robinson, who even taught Bushman to play football. [9]  Bushman enjoyed running with the ball and being chased by Robinson or to tackle Robinson with a one-arm grab. [10]  These sessions ended when Bushman weighed 150 pounds.  It started out well enough, as Bushman stood still while Robinson attached Bushman’s collar and rope-leash before they went outdoors, but when they had been outside for only about five minutes, a keeper altered Robinson that a small monkey had escaped and was loose in the primate house.[11]  Robinson felt obliged to help capture the monkey and took Bushman back inside the building and his cage without incident, but when Robinson tried to leave, Bushman blocked his path. [12]   Robinson played with Bushman inside the cage for a while, in the hopes Bushman would forget his time out of doors had been cut short, but when he made a move towards the door again, Bushman blocked him again. [13]   Robinson then called for a keeper to toss grapes into the adjacent cage. [14]   Bushman dashed in and out before the door to that cage could be slid closed. [15]  Bananas were then tossed deeper into the adjoining cage, but Bushman, with a reach of nine feet, was able to use his foot to prop open the cage door, grab the bananas, and dash back to his post blocking the door before Robinson could make good his escape.[16] For two and a half hours, various diversions were attempted before a keeper took out a squeaky toy, made it squeak, and motioned like he was going to toss it to Bushman, who ran to the far side of the adjacent cage. [17]  Robinson departed, and the door was slid shut. [18]  Robinson had to face that Bushman had gotten too big for him to control, and could never be taken out for a romp again. [19]

After it occurred to Robinson that gorillas had no way to get out of the rain, he started giving Bushman shower baths, and Bushman liked the experience so much a shower head was rigged up for his cage so he could shower daily. [20]  Marlin Perkins (1905-1986), Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo from 1945 to 1962, wrote in his memoirs that many people had told him that they had driven through Lincoln Park, thought of Bushman, parked, and stopped by the zoo to see him. [21]   The gorilla put on quite a show, as he liked to bang the quarter-inch-steel-plate door with his hand or the heel of his foot, making a sound that reverberated in the vaulted building, and he also liked to run and slide on the wooden floor of his cage when it was wet.[22]

One day Bushman injured his foot sliding on the wooden flooring of his cage, and a polished concrete floor was substituted. [23]   They wanted him to have the feel of real earth underfoot again, so they added a large outdoor cage, giving him a “suite” of two cages. [24]   For Bushman’s entertainment, a heavy truck tire was hung by a chain from the top of his outdoor cage, and he would sometimes twist it into a figure eight. [25]  Thereafter, Bushman often slept in the passageway between his indoor cage and his outdoor cage, and a number of staff members like the night animal keepers discovered he snored.[26]

Perkins later recounted in his memoirs that “One of the most exciting episodes in my career at the Lincoln Park Zoo was the day Bushman escaped.”[27]  One summer day Eddie Robinson was training a new keeper, and demonstrated how Bushman was transferred to a cage adjacent to his twin cages whilst the twin cages were cleaned. [28]  After they were finished and had let Bushman back into his twin cages, they went to the kitchen to prepare his food. [29]   Robinson thought the keeper was joking when he said Bushman had joined them in the kitchen, but Robinson turned around to see the gorilla approach.[30]  Robinson led Bushman by the hand back to his twin cages, but at the entrance to the twin cages just as he began to enter, he turned around, bit Robinson in the arm, and ran down the hall. [31]    A bleeding Robinson ordered the other man to raise the alarm and secure all the doors.  The building had already been evacuated by the time Robinson and the keeper reported to Perkins in his office, which of course was in the primate’s house. [32]    The Chicago Park District Police showed up in force with a variety of weapons. [33]    Bushman had been confined to the kitchen area and the passageway behind the cages that led to the director’s office.  As the backdoor of one of Bushman’s twin cages was open, they decided to lure him back inside it and lock the door, and Assistant Director Lear Grimmer bravely volunteered to surreptitiously enter the basement to retrieve grapes from the refrigerator. [34]    As he quietly removed the grapes, he saw Bushman standing at the top of the western stairs, and dashed up the stairs at the other end of the building, out the doors, and into the building’s public space. [35]    Unfortunately, Bushman outsmarted the humans by using his foot to prop open the cage door, reached out with one of his long arms, grabbed the grapes, and ate them in the kitchen.[36]

Perkins finally hit upon a solution when he remembered Bushman was afraid of baby alligators.  He had a baby alligator brought from the reptile house, tied a string around the baby alligator behind his forelegs, and tied the other end of the string to a bamboo pole. [37]    With Robinson and another primate house keeper at his side, Perkins watched through a crack in the double doors leading to the public space as the keeper for the baby alligator pushed the pole and baby alligator through the mesh screen of the kitchen window. [38]    Bushmen screamed and ran into his cages.  Perkins, Robinson, and the other man then ran into the kitchen, slammed shut the doors leading behind Bushman’s suite, and barricaded the boards with benches.  The next step was to lock the cage door of the suite so Bushman, for otherwise the gorilla still had access to the passageway behind his suite. [39]  While Grimmer hid in front of the cage, between the bars and glass partition wall, with a stick ready to slide shut the door once Bushman entered the north cage, Perkins slid a medium-sized garter snake under the doors leading to the suite. [40]    He could hear Bushman climb into his cage to escape and Grimmer slide the door shut, after which it automatically locked. [41]  Perkins then examined the padlock on the south compartment, and concluded it worked perfectly, so it must not have been used due to human error, but he was elated Bushman was back in his apartment and did not “scold” anyone over the incident.[42]

When Perkins did a favor for two men at WMAQ who wanted to demonstrate for N.B.C. executives in New York City what kind of programming the Chicago television station could produce, one of the animals he showed off was Bushman.  Consequently, Bushman was instrumental in the creation of two television shows – Zoo Parade (1949-1957) and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (1963-1987) – that changed the life of Perkins; generated income for WMAQ, N.B.C., Jewel, Quaker Oats, Mutual of Omaha, the Chicago Park District, and Perkins; brought millions of dollars in free publicity for Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago Park District, and Chicago; and brought knowledge of wild animals into the homes of tens of millions of Americans.

Sometimes, special guests were allowed to see Bushman at close range from behind the primate cages.  One Sunday morning while the Ringling Brothers Circus was performing in Chicago at Soldiers Field, Henry Ringling North visited the zoo with the sole purpose of seeing Bushman and concluded that Bushman was a little bit larger in every respect than his circus gorilla, Gargantua.[43]  Another animal dealer who visited the zoo, a fellow from Brownsville, Texas known as Animal King, told a Chicago newspaperman “Bushman is the most valuable zoo animal in the world,” and estimated his monetary value at $100,000. [44]  Robert Dean, Director of the Brookfield Zoo, whom Perkins described as a “colleague and friend,” proclaimed Bushman the most valuable animal at any American zoo at a meeting in St. Louis of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. [45]

In 1948, on a trip to the French Cameroons to purchase three additional gorillas, Perkins learnt that Pa Buck’s story of how he acquired Bushman was a tall tale from Presbyterian missionaries Dr. Albert Irving Good, and his wife. In 1928, the Goods had purchased a baby gorilla from native Africans who had captured him near the village of Yakadouma, and they named him Bushman.  They hired a woman to be a kind of nanny for him. He would often frolic in the grass around the mission and come running back to the Goods for a hug and a pat on the back.  At first, they declined Pa Buck’s offer to purchase Bushman from them, but they needed money to buy stained glass windows for a stone church they were building and Dr. Good also realized Bushman would soon grow too big for them to handle him.  Eventually they reached an agreement whereby Pa Buck brought Bushman along when he returned to the U.S., sold him to Lincoln Park Zoo, and split the proceeds. The Goods then used their half of the $3,000 Dr. Parker had paid Pa Buck for Bushman to buy stained glass windows that depicted the Nativity.[46]

In 1950, when he first became seriously ill, 120,000 sympathizers visited him in a single day.[47]  After suffering arthritis and heart disease for months, Bushman died in his sleep on New Year’s Day in 1951.  According to the authors of The Ark in the Park: The Story of Lincoln Park Zoo, Bushman died at the age of twenty-two. [48]  However, according to Ron Dorfman, Editor of In the Field, a Field Museum publication, Bushman was twenty-three at the time of his death.[49]  He was the oldest gorilla in captivity. [50]  Newspapers around the world reported his death.  Eddie Robinson sobbed, “It’s like losing a member of the family.” [51]  Perkins commented, “He is irreplaceable.  Money cannot buy another Bushman.” [52]  Hundreds of visitors braved typically frigid Chicago weather for that time of year to pay their respects in the Primate House.  In Bushman’s empty cage, Perkins placed a life size portrait of the gorilla, which was viewed by more than 5,000 mourners who filed past in the weeks that followed. [53]  In a letter dated October 30, 1945, Clifford G. Gregg, Director of the The Field Museum – at a period when it was called the Chicago Natural History Museum – had requested that when “the life span of your prize specimen had ended that Chicago Natural History Museum be given the specimen so that it may be kept for Chicago as a mounted specimen, probably the finest in America, and in order that complete records may be made in our Division of Anatomy for scientific purposes.”[54]

His body was given to The Field Museum of Natural History, where it was mounted, and Bushman again became a popular display.[55]  Bushman, or rather his carcass, was accession on January 2, 1951 as specimen No. Z-9815 “1 gorilla in the flesh (Bushman)” as a gift from the Lincoln Park Zoo worth $1,000, although he had been worth far more as a living specimen.[56]

Joseph B. Krstolich sculpted a plaster model of Bushman for The Field Museum while staff taxidermists Leon L. Walters and Frank C. Wonder prepared the hide. [57]   The Field Museum loaned the finished mount to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where it was displayed in October and November of 1951.[58]  On December 5, 1951, the Bushman case was installed in Stanley Field Hall south of the famous elephants display in Stanley Field Hall, according to Dorfman. [59]   According to Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the Year 1951, Bushman was originally installed in Hall 22 (Carl E. Akeley Memorial Hall).[60] In 1952, Curator of Mammals Colin Campbell Sanborn provided the explanation for how both statements could be true, Bushman’s case was initially installed in Stanley Field Hall but they planned to move it to the Carl E. Akeley Memorial Hall (African Mammals – Hall 22).[61]  Taxidermist Paul Brunsvold applied a lanolin solution to the skin of Bushman to soften and condition it, re-glazed the eyes, and brushed and combed the fur.[62]  The Bushman case was then installed near the Children’s Store.[63]


Figure 1 Credit: Photograph courtesy of The Field Museum Caption: In this undated photo that seems to be from the 1950s, we see two young children peering at Bushman.


Figure 2 Credit: Photo courtesy of The Field Museum Caption: This is what it is like to look Bushman in the eye today.


Figure 3 Credit: S.M. O’Connor This is Bushman as seen on Friday, March 9, 2018.  He is now on display across from the Crown Family PlayLab on the Ground Level of The Field Museum.


Figure 4 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: My family has been able to see Bushman for three generations.  First, my mother was able to see him as a living creature at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Second, she was able to show him to me and my younger siblings in Stanley Field Hall on the Main Level of The Field Museum.  Third, my nephew and eldest niece were able to see him on the Ground Level of The Field Museum.


Figure 5 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: My niece knew about my earlier work on this article and was excited to see Bushman for herself.


Figure 6 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: My niece was thrilled to see the dinosaurs in Evolving Planet on the Upper Level, but she called Bushman “the awesomest animal” when we left.

One Mold-A-Rama machine at The Field Museum used to produce plastic gorillas, but that mold is no longer in use there. [Mold-A-Rama machines at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield Zoo, and Milwaukee County Zoo continue to manufacture gorillas.] Three of the four Mold-A-Rama machines at The Field Museum are now devoted to dinosaurs and the fourth produces elephants.

End Notes

[1] Colin Campbell Sanborn, “Zoo’s Famous ‘Bushman’ Becomes Own Monument,” Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, January, 1952, p. 8

[2] Marlin Perkins, My Wild Kingdom: An Autobiography. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton (1982), p. 93

[3] Perkins, p. 93

[4] Perkins, p. 100

[5] Perkins, p. 94

[6] Perkins, p. 95

[7] Perkins, p. 95

[8] Perkins, p. 94

[9] Perkins, pages 94 and 95

[10] Perkins, p. 95

[11] Perkins, p. 95

[12] Perkins, p. 95

[13] Perkins, p. 95

[14] Perkins, p. 95

[15] Perkins, p. 95

[16] Perkins, p. 95

[17] Perkins, p. 96

[18] Perkins, p. 96

[19] Perkins, p. 96

[20] Perkins, p. 96

[21] Perkins, p. 96

[22] Perkins, p. 96

[23] Perkins, p. 100

[24] Perkins, p. 100

[25] Perkins, p. 97

[26] Perkins, p. 97

[27] Perkins, p. 97

[28] Perkins, p. 97

[29] Perkins, p. 97

[30] Perkins, p. 97

[31] Perkins, pages 97 and 98

[32] Perkins, p. 98

[33] Perkins, p. 98

[34] Perkins, p. 98

[35] Perkins, p. 98

[36] Perkins, p. 98

[37] Perkins, pages 98 and 99

[38] Perkins, p. 99

[39] Perkins, p. 99

[40] Perkins, p. 99

[41] Perkins, p. 99

[42] Perkins, p. 99

[43] Perkins, pages 99 and 100

[44] Perkins, p. 100

[45] Perkins, p. 100

[46] Perkins, pages 93, 94, 103 and 104

[47] Colin Campbell Sanborn, “Zoo’s Famous ‘Bushman’ Becomes Own Monument,” Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, January, 1952, p. 8

[48] Rosenthal, Mark, Carol Tauber, and Edward Uhlir: The Ark in the Park: The Story of Lincoln Park Zoo.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2003), p. 181

[49] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

[50] Rosenthal, p. 181

[51] Rosenthal, p. 181

[52] Rosenthal, p. 181

[53] Rosenthal, p. 181

[54] Letter from Clifford G. Gregg to R. Marlin Perkins, dated October 30, 1945

[55] Rosenthal, p. 181

[56] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

Dorfman stated “estimates of Bushman’s worth when he was alive ranged to $250,000.”

[57] Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the Year 1951, p. 58

See also Colin Campbell Sanborn, “Zoo’s Famous ‘Bushman’ Becomes Own Monument,” Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, January, 1952, p. 8

See also Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

[58] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

[59] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

[60] Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the Year 1951, p. 59

[61] Colin Campbell Sanborn, “Zoo’s Famous ‘Bushman’ Becomes Own Monument,” Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, January, 1952, p. 8

[62] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

[63] Dorfman, “Bushman’s Baby Pictures,” In the Field, January/February, 1992, p. 3

9 thoughts on ““Bushman at Lincoln Park Zoo and The Field Museum” by S.M. O’Connor

  1. Very interesting article!!! My dad & I flew from L.A. to Chicago in the summer of 1951 & we went to see Bushman at the Museum. I was just 12, but still have vivid memories of seeing Bushman. He was Not in a glass cage at that time. He was by the entrance & standing on his hinds I even remember Touching him! I did not realize that he had just died earlier that year! Must have been a Sad Day in Chicago! Great memories & Great article!!! Thank You!!!


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