Friday, May 17, 2013

The Learned Pig

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 Dublin. 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 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 London; according to his biographer as a result of his beating.
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 London. Nicholson was a canny publicist and placed several compelling advertisements.

"…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.
After a long London run the pig joined a circus performing at Sadler's Wells Theatre. A group of acrobats, incensed at being asked to share a billing with a performing pig, threatened to resign and were sacked on the spot. By 1786, in the world of entertainment the Learned Pig ruled.

"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 Edinburgh! Such a sad end to an illustrious career.


Link to Grace's blog: Fall in Love with History
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night.

Coming June 2013

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  1. Grace,
    loved your post. I had no idea they were so fascinated with pigs. By the way, if you'd like me to read Verity's Lie for a review (as long as it's historical romance), I would love to do it.


    1. Hello Regan, pigs are such fascinating and intelligent creatures, a well-trained one must have seemed remarkable.
      Thank you so much for the offer to review Verity's Lie. It is indeed historical romance - I will follow the link to your blog.
      Grace x

  2. Lovely post! -- and it's great to see a hand-colored version of the Rowlandson print. In my fictionalized version of the career of Toby, which draws upon all the sources and characters you mention, his career has a rather less unhappy conclusion -- it seems that there were a number of such pigs at the peak of their porcine popularity, and so I was able to combine them and weave them together, elaborating Toby's tale into (I hope) a more satisfactory and coherent narrative.

    1. How wonderful, Russell, what is that caught your imagination about performing pigs? I hope you found my potted history acceptable -there is so much information out there, it was difficult to know what to include and what to leave out.
      Thanks for leaving a comment,
      Grace x

  3. I first read about these pigs in Richard Altick's The Shows of London, and then, a few years later, in Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. What I love most about these pigs is how, in the "age of Reason," they somehow managed to upend humankind's estimate of itself as the most rational of all animals. I found that there had been, some years after the original craze, a purported autobiography of one such pig, but it was a short and very disappointing affair, filled with bad puns, and printed mainly to advertise the exhibition. So I considered: what if a pig had in fact written an actual memoir -- how would humans fare at the bar of Reason? Compassion? This was the impulse that got me started on PYG. And for myself, I always love writing historical fictions where there is fragmentary, overlapping, or contradictory source material; it gives me a chance to bump up against, borrow, and fabricate the history of such characters!

  4. Lovely post. They were certainly inventive in the art of entertainment in those days. Of course with films like Babe, pigs have gone up in our grasp of animals deemed to be intelligent. They have had such bad press, pigs, but did you know that the first pig flew in a plane in 1909!!!! I wrote a blog post about it.


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