The Human Zoo

By Michael Pierson

A childhood memory prompts Michael Pierson to reflect on the spectacle of the Wild Woman of Cincinnati exhibition of 1856, the topic of his LSU Press book of the same name.

From the novel The Wild Woman, or, The Wrecked Heart, by Alice Galon. From the Collection of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.

When I was growing up, my mom and I went to a lot of zoos. Our biggest adventure may have been the day we went to the Bronx Zoo. It was a long car trip. We saw so many animals, but I was young and only two things stand out in my mind: 1) I was captivated by the prairie dogs; 2) my mother saw Marlin Perkins go by in a golf cart. You have to be of a certain age to know who Marlin Perkins was; he hosted a nature show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We watched it every week. Looking back now, I see the irony of the situation—we went to a zoo to see the animals and my mom was thrilled most, perhaps, by her glimpse of a human being.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve written a book about how people in 1856 paid money to gawk at a fellow human being who was being held in captivity. There are parallels between Marlin Perkins and the Wild Woman of Cincinnati, but not many. Certainly, the Wild Woman (whose real name was never known for sure) became a national celebrity on a par with a television host of today. Newspapers across the country found her story impossible to resist. She had supposedly been captured by a frontiersman, the so-called Captain J. W. C. Northcott, in a notably violent fight while she lived as a feral person beyond the US border. Brought down by the man’s dogs and choked by his lasso, the Wild Woman was tied up and brought to Cincinnati for exhibition. Part specimen of what a woman raised outside of “civilization” would become, and part young, underdressed white woman on display, the Wild Woman captured the city’s and the nation’s attention for a moment even as she shared the spotlight with Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Sumner, and the national Democratic nominating convention meeting a few blocks away during her exhibition.

From the novel The Wild Woman, or, The Wrecked Heart, by Alice Galon. From the Collection of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.

Lately I’ve been reading Earl Hess’s excellent edited collection, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2022), especially the essay by Daniel Vandersommers about the National Zoo in Washington in the 1880s and 1890s. Hess’s collection has a lot of great essays that go beyond the usual Civil War historiography, but Vandersommers’s contribution made me think about the ability of zoos to spark political debate. He says that the National Zoo stood in symbolically for the things that congressmen were not allowed to say out loud in public. The zoo became a way for congressmen, often Civil War veterans, to express their sectional identities. Sectionalism, Vandersommers argues, had become taboo in Congress, but the men used debates about zoo funding to hash through their wartime identities and regionalism. The zoo was not just about animals for these politicians.

If we go back to Cincinnati, we can see that the Wild Woman show was part of the “human zoo,” a term for the American practice during the Civil War decades of putting people on display. Think about the worst of P. T. Barnum’s shows—that’s the “human zoo.” Like the National Zoo, the Wild Woman offered a way for Republicans, Democrats, and Know Nothings to consider a topic that they could not openly discuss in public: Should men have complete control over women? The Wild Woman (who never spoke) was a blank screen onto which men (including partisan newspaper editors) projected their ideas about femininity, masculinity, and the relationships of power between men and women. There was a sharp partisan divide in the way the display was received. Most Democrats and southerners embraced the show and its central image: a silent, attractive woman tied to her bed and exhibited to the public for twenty-five cents a head. Republicans eventually protested and used Cincinnati’s police and court system to close the show. Republicans then relied on the state government’s asylum as a place to heal the Wild Woman from whatever psychological harm had rendered her mute.

The argument here is twofold. Most narrowly, we can see that political parties in the antebellum years expressed different gender ideologies. The same can be true for the regions of the country, with almost all editorials and news stories in favor of rescuing and treating the Wild Woman coming from the northern states. But stepping back, we can also see the importance of empowering women. It was women, the sources tell us, who prompted the outrage that shut down the display of the Wild Woman. We know that Cincinnati women paraded through their streets with fellow Republicans during the 1856 campaign, a sign of their ties with the reformist party. Women from the Walnut Hills section of Cincinnati used their political contacts (as many women did, especially at the municipal level, throughout the country) to stir the government to action. The vital importance of women having a voice, and later a vote, is shown in the story of the Wild Woman of Cincinnati with clarity and specificity.

Michael D. Pierson is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and author of Lt. Spalding in Civil War Louisiana: A Union Officer’s Humor, Privilege, and Ambition.

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Among the options for those seeking entertainment in the summer of 1856 was the display of a “Wild Woman,” purportedly a young woman captured while living a feral life beyond the frontier. In his riveting analysis of this remarkable episode in antebellum American history, Michael D. Pierson describes how people in different political parties and sections of the country reacted to the exhibit. In addition, Pierson shows how the treatment of the Wild Woman of Cincinnati prompted an increasing demand for women’s political and social empowerment at a time when the country allowed for the display of a captive woman without evidence that she had granted consent.

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