by Grace Elliot
|Thomas Rowlandson's depiction of The Learned Pig|
During the 18th century there was a craze for performing animals: dancing dogs, musical cats, counting horses, acting canaries and retrieving tortoise - but most popular of all was The Learned Pig.
A shoemaker turned animal trainer, Samuel Bisset owned the pig that started a craze for porcine performers. By all accounts Bisset was an interesting character with acts such a cat orchestra and a tortoise that could fetch things like a dog (albeit very slowly!). Always on the look out for 'the next big thing' at a market in Belfast, Bisset paid 3 shillings for a black piglet and trained him over the next two years.
A poet, Robert Southey, with an interest in learned pigs (how niche is that!) interviewed a man who lived near Bisset's yard, about the animal's treatment.
"He told me he never saw the keeper beat him; but that, if he did not perform his lessons well, he used to threaten to take off his red waistcoat - for the pig was proud of his dress."
The Learned Pig first made his debut in 1783 in
He knelt and bowed, used cardboard letters to spell out names and could point to
the married people in the audience. The act succeeded Bisset's wildest dreams and
it seemed the couple were destined to be welcomed in novelty seeking Dublin . London
But all did not end well for Bisset, who was attacked in
Dublin and although he made it
to England, he died, en
route to ;
according to his biographer as a result of his beating. London
|Beer Street by William Hogarth (1751) |
People such as these would have enjoyed the antics of the Learned Pig.
So convincing was the pig's performance that some religious people claimed he was possessed and 'corresponding with the devil'. Others saw it as proof that the soul could migrate, suspecting that: 'The spirit of the grunting Philosopher might once have animated a man.'
Whilst the secret of the Learned Pig's training died with Bisset, it seemed likely that he used a system of hand signals and rewarded the pig with sliced apple for responding correctly.
A Mr Nicholson, about whom little is known, took the pig on and continued to
Nicholson was a canny publicist and placed several compelling advertisements. London
"…solves questions in the four rules of arithmetic, tells by looking at a …watch, what is the hour and minute and is the admiration of all who have seen him."
"…the tongue of the most florid orator…can not sufficiently describe the wonderful performance of that sagacious animal."
The act amazed and astonished the audience as the pig spelt out names using cardboard letters. Crowds flocked to see him and with four shows a day, it was rumoured Nicholson took the huge amount of 70 pounds a week in ticket sales.
|An 1898 poster for Barnum and Bailey, |
proudly presenting performing pigs.
"A far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton." Robert Southey.
During the Learned Pig's career newspapers reported that he earnt more money, 'than any actor or actress within the same compass of time.' But in November 1788 several papers carried the story that their favourite, the Learned Pig, had died, and his master had been confined to a madhouse in
! Such a sad end to an illustrious career. Edinburgh
|Link to Grace's blog: Fall in Love with History|
|Coming June 2013|
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