U’hage’s world-famous baboon – now best-selling book

KT Johnston, author of Railway Jack. Photo: SUPPLIED
The cover page of the book Railway Jack, true story of amazing baboon. Photo: Illustration © 2020 Capstone
These photos of Jack and James “Jumper” Wider were taken at the Uitenhage Railway Station during the 1890s and are published in the Railway Jack book. It shows Jack on duty as signalman and pushing James Wider’s railway trolley.

JACK, Uitenhage’s world-famous baboon, has done it again - this time his story, Railway Jack, is one of Amazon’s bestselling children’s stories in the United States of America.

In real life, way back during the late 1880’s, Jack attained fame for being the assistant signalman of James Wide, who worked for the South African Railways at Uitenhage. Wide, a double amputee, purchased Jack in 1881 and trained him to push his wheelchair and to operate the railways signals under his supervision.

Following complaints that a ba-boon was changing railway signals, Jack’s competency was tested. He passed and was officially employed by the railways. In his nine years of employment Jack received a government grant. Jack was the only baboon ever to be officially recognised as an employee of the South African Railways, or any other railway across the globe.

KT (Kathie) Johnston, an American author and ethologist (animal behaviour studies) “stumbled” upon Jack’s story on the internet. The extraordinary partnership between Jack and James (called Jim in the book) hooked her.

From her home in Minneapolis, KT told the UD Express, “The story stayed in my head and knocked on my heart to come out.”

“I recognized in myself the type of story I like to tell: a true story from the dusty shelves of the past about ordinary animals that had a profound impact on an everyday person’s life.”

Her children’s book Railway Jack, the true story of an amazing baboon, came to fruit and is currently ranked 8th out of 20 non-fiction Amazon’s best children’s books in the USA.

“As an early service animal, Jack’s and Jim’s story hit all the notes. In my stories, I’m conscious of anthropomorphism and attributing motives to animals.

“They live the only life available to them and have no capability to aspire to be heroes or do special things, yet through their actions or companionship they can nevertheless make a significant difference in a human’s life. It’s precisely that nature of the confluence of animal innocence and human potential which draws a story into my heart,” said KT.

Uitenhage Lion assisted with info

Railway Jack was KT’s debut picture book. In elapsed time, it took her four months of intense research, drafting, editing and to finally put a bow on Railway Jack.

During her research, she contacted Denis Murphy, formerly from the Uitenhage Lions Club, following an article that appeared in the UD Express about the Lions’ involvement with restoration work at the Uitenhage Railway Station Museum.

Murphy said he was just as amazed as KT when he first heard about Jack the baboon. “ I could not believe it. It is wonderful that Jack’s story, 140-odd years later, is captured in this lovely book.”

KT said during her research she did some Google Maps satellite touring of Uitenhage, to view and understand the layout of the old station, tracks and topography of the region. She also corresponded with the Bayworld Museum as well as Albany Museum in Makhanda (Grahams-town) where there is a small display of Jack and James.

Asked what the core message of Railway Jack is that she would like readers to remember, KT said, “It is a story of disability and resourcefulness, perseverance and practicality. It’s about human and animal companionship and animal service. Children are the future main characters in society, so I hope to spark their curiosity about our world, and that my books seed conversations with their adults about human issues.”

Celebration of human and animal bond

Railway Jack is published by Capstone, a publisher of children’s books and digital products. Kristen Mohn, Capstone managing editor said, “Railway Jack celebrates the bond between a man and his helper animal. It’s an inspiring story that reminds us friendships come in many packages, and that we all deserve help and second chances.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in this book. At its release it ranked highly on Amazon in the non-fiction picture book category, and it’s certainly a unique, true story that hasn’t been told in this format before,” said Kristen.

Physical books are still very important, Kristen added. “The tactile reading experience allows kids to unplug, immerse themselves in a story, and pore over beautiful art in picture books. Books are ideal for story time or independent reads, and Railway Jack includes rich backup matter with photos of Jim and Jack and more about this amazing true story.”

Whereas Jack was an early example of a service animal, KT’s next book is a true story of an early therapy animal. She is also working on a couple of other books highlighting wildlife conservation and companion animals.

Some of the earliest books on animal and human relationships, formative to KT’s ethos, include the story about the lioness Elsa and Joy Adamson as well as Koko the gorilla who was taught sign language by an animal psychologist, Penny Patterson.

“On the other end of things, the most recent books I’ve read where the relationship between humans and animals stands out are A Wolf Called Romeo (Nick Jans), about a wild wolf who befriends an Alaskan city; Homer’s Odyssey (Gwen Cooper), a blind cat who taught his owner about life and responsibility; and the movie A Street Cat Named Bob who gave an addict something to care about and take care of.”

KT said she has never visited South Africa, but, “It would be a dream vacation and would appeal to my background in wildlife studies as well. I also ache to touch the old station and tracks that Jack and Jim had touched.

“I’d like to visit the display at the Albany Museum, and it would be neat to meet the people I corresponded with. And of course, I’d have to see those rascally Cape baboons in real life.”

Where to purchase Railway Jack

Railway Jack, the true story of an amazing baboon, will be available in South Africa from Everybody’s Books, who supply to Fogarty’s Bookshop in Port Elizabeth, where one can place an order for the book.

Warren Halford, managing director at Everybody’s Books, said Railway Jack is available in library hard cover or paperback editions. KT can be followed on Facebook at @AuthorKTJohnston or on Twitter at @KTDidz. Her website is ktjohnston.com.

James Edwin Wide, a guard on the old Cape Government Railways, was known as “Jumper Wide” owing to his habit of jumping from one railway truck to the other.

Sadly this daring habit of his one day went wrong and he fell underneath a moving train and lost both legs at the knees. The accident happened near Kleinpoort, between Wolwefontein and Kirkwood. Thus crippled, during 1877 he took a post as signalman at Uitenhage railway station. About four years later Wide was at Uitenhage market when he saw a large baboon leading an ox-wagon into town.

The ox-wagon owner said the baboon, called Jack, was unusually intelligent and learnt quickly. As Wide had found it difficult to walk on his two wooden legs, he made himself a trolley propelled by hand apparatus. Wide thought Jack would be the ideal “assistant” to help him with the trolley.

Jack soon not only mastered this simple task, but also several other railway related tasks. The most important task Jack did, was acting as signalman. He learnt which lever to operate for each approaching train. He knew the difference between home and distant signals, and the different engine whistles, and never made a mistake or required telling twice.

Jack the Signalman became the only baboon in world history to be hired to work for a railroad authority. He had an employment number and for his labour, Jack was given monthly rations from the government. In the nine years Jack worked for the Cape Government Railways and his legless master, he never made one mistake that resulted in an accident.

Jack was one of the sights of Uitenhage for many years and caught the various offerings thrown to him by passengers. Jack’s astonishing feats of intelligence were the wonder of all who witnessed them.

Jack died in 1890 after developing tuberculosis.

  • Source: Uitenhage 200: The Garden Town
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