Orangutans and Edgar Allan Poe

"This," I said, "is the mark of no human hand."

"Read now," replied Dupin, "this passage from Cuvier." It was a minute anatomical and generally descriptive account of the large fulvous Ourang-Outang of the East Indian Islands. The gigantic stature, the prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitative propensities of these Mammalia are sufficiently well known to all. I understood the full horrors of the murder at once.

That’s the solution to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous mystery “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” At the time of its first publication, Western science had no clear conception of the chimpanzee or the gorilla and was only beginning to understand the habits of the orangutan. Poe was accurate to the zoology of the time, though later information has made us understand that, for example, the orang is hardly "gigantic."

Besides the great biologist Cuvier, Poe probably drew on an 1830 account by Dr. Clark Abel. Aboard a ship bound from Java to England, Abel had occasion to observe a captive orangutan. The ape had free run of the ship. It played with the sailors, racing them into the rigging. (It won.) It slept at the masthead, wrapped in an extra sail or someone’s stolen shirt. It preferred fruit, but would take meat raw or cooked, bread, and eggs, and it would drink coffee, tea, and wine. Once it stole the captain’s bottle of brandy. When teased too mercilessly, the orang would seize a sailor and bite him. As far as I know, this young orang didn’t hurt anyone badly. But Europeans in Asia had already discovered that wild orangs, when angered, could cripple a man with bone-deep bites.

Abel’s orangutan survived only fifteen months in England, apparently a victim of the climate. 

Edgar Allan Poe's Orangutans


Orangutan photos by Wayne Alison:

Next: Illustrations of Poe's Orangutan


  1. Abel? Is that why they called the Sumatran orangutan Pongo abelii?

    True that orangutans are no giants, not overall anyways, but have you seen a male orangutan's hands?
    I have rather big hands myself but they look diminutive besides those of the local zoo's male orang; I pity any human who finds himself victim of a punch, grasp or even scratch from that guy!

  2. They can definitely mess you up, though apparently they'd much rather run away. In Cuvier's day the orang was sometimes described as seven feet tall, but we now know five feet is a pretty tall specimen.

    I would bet that Dr. Abel was the source of the Sumatran species name, but I don't know that for a fact.

  3. Will you elaborate on orangutan attacks on people? I find it interesting (and creepy) that this seems to be the only ape that finds humans sexually attractive in the wild... I recently read about a female orangutan that refused to continue with her sign language lessons after her handler turned down her sexual advances...

  4. It is said that Dayak women are on occasional sexually assaulted by orangs, and that they regard it as more of a nuisance than a serious attack. The only documented rape I have found that gives names and dates involved a Dayak woman who cooked for Birute Galdikas on a research expedition. (Galdikas is one of the world's leading primatologists). As I understand it, this was not a purely wild orang, as it had been captured for research and then released. All accounts I've read of these incidents have been reticent on the details, so it's not clear to me whether the organs actually succeeded in copulating with any humans or merely managed to please themselves and then went away. (Sorry to be crass, folks.) It seems clear that the Dayaks do not experience unprovoked bites or strikes from the orangs, only these sexual assaults.

    There are many cases of orangs biting people who keep them as pets (often on the fingers) and one or two incidents of violence in zoo escapes. The older natural history books tell of orangs counter-attacking hunters (Dayaks and Europeans). In those cases, it appeared the orangs made every effort to flee rather than fight. When cornered, they fought back by biting. However, the great biologist Wallace (the co-discoverer of natural selection) tells of a Dayak man who attacked an orang with a spear and was bitten through the arm. He never fully recovered the use of the arm. Wallace felt the orang might have killed the man if his friends hand't intervened.

    This matter of sexual attraction (and sexual violence) between species is complicated. In captivity, dolphins and chimps, as well as orangs, have made unwanted advances to humans. And of course we've all seen dogs taking a sexual interest in some reluctant human. I'd like to think these behaviors are a side-effect of captivity and wouldn't happen in the wild, that's far from proved. We do know of other sexual assaults between species (elephants assaulting rhinos, for example). It's been suggested that even that can be blamed on humans, since we killed too many elephants and decimated their social structure. But that chain of causes is difficult to prove.

  5. I seem to remember that the rhino killings stopped when bull elephants were introduced to control the murderous teenagers...

    Very interesting about the orangs, though... I remember reading or hearing that Oliver, the bipedal chimp once said to be a humanzee, also showed a sexual attraction towards women.

  6. In the days of the Romans, baboons and chimps as well, I believe, were featured in the arena...doing what the orang is described as doing. It's true that this was an unnatural situation to say the least, but that fairly large numbers of these animals could be counted on to do this in front of a screaming crowd would suggest that they did not have too many qualms about it. For a VERY disturbing read, check out Dan Mannix's "Way of the Gladiator" which talks about the process of training animals to do this. Fascinating but definitely not for the squeamish. The animals used could be anything from leopards to giraffes. However, baboons and chimps did not appear to need the elaborate training that went into getting the non-primates to perform. I can't speak for the baboons, but the chimps were generally made drunk on strong wine and that was usually all it took.

    I'm not so sure, though, that it ISN'T a side effect of captivity when animals do this. (The exceptions, interestingly, are all marine animals: wild dolphins--sexual assault in dolphins, as with humans, seems to be primarily about power and intimidation--and things like sea turtles and large fish, which react primarily to shape.) Whenever a mammal or bird--I once had an encounter with a sexually confused cockatoo--is involved, it's inevitably a hand-reared animal that's imprinted on a human. But on the other hand, with dogs--the animals who might be most forgiven for identity crises--the humping and grinding is less about sex than it is about dominance--it's rare that a dog genuinely sees an owner as its mate. (A wolf, however, might, given that wolves have a strong, often lifelong pair bond.)

  7. I didn't know about these goings-on in the arena. That's very interesting. We're still working on a big post about animals raping humans; so far all evidence supports the idea that captivity and other human-induced situations are key. It saounds like I need to read the Mannix before I get much further.


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