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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alexander F. Boardman   23 June 1869

Brunswick, Maine, US.

June 23 1869

Mr Charles Darwin

Dear Sir

Having seen, yesterday, what appears to me to be a very extraordinary animal and of a higher grade than any of which I have seen an account, I have thought that even such a rough description of it as I could give might be interesting and possibly useful to you.

You may perhaps have had something like it in England, but judging from what I have read, I should think not.

He was advertised & exhibited as a young Gorilla from four to five years old, bought of the natives in Africa about nine months ago.1 The natives had had him some considerable time.

The most remarkable thing about him to me was the intellectual shape of his head.

His forehead is high & full, benevolence, causality & comparison being particularly developed.2

Through from ear to ear it is quite thick but behind the ears is moderately developed, concientiousness & caution appearing small. As a whole the brain was very similar in shape to the human, and in benevolence causality & comparison decidedly superior in shape to some heads of common occurence in human beings of good capacity & intelligence. The animal is about the same height perhaps a 〈little〉 less than the usual height of of child of four years— He has a regular knee pan— His heel is decidedly human looking, while the rest of the foot is monkeyish— His finger nails however are decidedly human looking, being in fact better shaped & handsomer than usual in humans.

His arms & legs were very human looking, tho having much less flesh on them—

His ears were decidedly human in appearance. He wore shoes & stockings & was otherwise dressed very much like a child and, it being a damp day, wore a shawl also which when removed it would immediately replace covering his head also all but the face. It was very tractable & quiet, not being confined in any way, would allow itself to be examined & handled very freely by perfect strangers when none but strangers were near. When requested so to do by his owner, would lean forward, put out its lips and kiss him—

His health was apparently not good and his owner did not expect to be able to keep him alive long— His eye teeth were larger but not very much larger than the human.

His resemblance to man struck every one as being very much greater than they had ever seen in any other animal—

Many thought he might be a mixture of human & ape, but he seemed to me only a much higher order of ape than I had ever seen or heard of. I am not skilled in such matters however— 〈His〉 nostrils occupied the same place that they do 〈in〉 man, but they had no projection over them.

Many remarked that if he only had a nose he would have a very human countenance.

This different position of the nostrils, with the full high forehead, took away much of the monkey look. His face was mostly free from hair and the hair on his legs & arms was no thicker or longer than on on many men and was brownish in color.

I have just shown what I have written to you to one of my neighbors who saw the above described animal & he says that he considers it a fair unexaggerated description.

I tried to get an instrument for measuring heads but before I could find one he had left town, remaining here only one afternoon & evening. Somebody however I presume has measured or will measure his head properly, and his skull of course will be preserved & taken care of.

Hoping that your health is better than when I last heard from you,3 and that many, many years of happiness & usefulness are yet in store for you | I remain | Yours respectfully | Alex F. Boardman


Boardman’s description is of a chimpanzee. As late as 1893, some circuses were still referring to chimpanzees as gorillas (Chindahl 1959, pp. 142–3). CD had been gathering information on expression in chimpanzees (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 15, letter from Seth Sutton, 8 August 1867).
Boardman was analysing the chimpanzee’s head using terms from phrenology. According to phrenology, as elaborated by Franz Joseph Gall, the shape of the skull reflects the ‘organs’ or faculties of the brain. See EB 21: 534–40.
CD’s letter to Boardman has not been found.


Chindahl, George L. 1959. A history of the circus in America. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.


Reports having seen a very human-looking monkey on exhibit. Gives a phrenological analysis of its skull.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alex F Boardman
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Brunswick, Maine
Source of text
DAR 160: 229
Physical description
3pp damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6796,” accessed on 17 November 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17