A Monkey Testifies to a Murder

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By Mike Simmons

From New Zealand Herald – December 30, 1899 and The Pensacola News – January 2, 1900

An excerpt from the two articles:

A monkey was the witness that convicted the perpetrators of a murder on the Mississippi River. In the history of criminal trials, there is no stranger story. Jocko was the most important member of the little floating menagerie belonging to a curious nomad named Ackerman, who navigated an old houseboat along the Mississippi where settlements are scanty and small.

Ackerman was a man of mark on the river bank. To the people there he and his show represented all that in town represented by opera, theatre circus, and Dewey parade, to say nothing of newspapers and department stores for he brought the news where printed matter is not seen and carried a sideline of merchandise in regions where shops are unknown. But it was as an entertainer that he enjoyed the greatest vogue. In the houseboat were trick ponies, performing dogs, an educated pig, a Punch and Judy outfit, and wax figures of celebrities.

Of this fascinating collection, however, the bright particular star was Jocko – Jocko, the brown-coated ape, with his intensely human way and clinging affection for his master.

There came a day when Ackerman and Jocko and the rest were joined by a man named Starr and his wife, whom the showmen picked up about 100 miles above Baton Rouge, with the understanding that the woman should do the cooking and the man help him with the show. When the houseboat left Devil’s Landing in April, Ackerman was alive and well and Jocko was in high spirits. When it tied up at the next landing, Ackerman was missing, and Jocko was a changed creature.

The people on shore inquired about the old showman. The Starrs said that he had gone north on a packet bound for Southern Illinois and would return when he had attended to some private business.

But Jocko’s demeanor gave them the be. The ape was surly, vicious. It would crouch and look at Starr with eyes that blazed with vindictiveness. With blue lips peeled from its teeth, it would chatter shrilly and – so the imaginative spectators declared – accusingly stretching forth its black finger toward both man and woman as though it would fain tear them to pieces.

This behavior of the monkey gave rise to grave suspicions, which were strengthened by the contradictory stories told by the Starrs and the continued absence of Ackerman.

In a corner of the houseboat was found a blood-stained ax. Professor Dosson of Louisiana State University submitted it to a chemical examination and said that the blood was probably human. He made the same decision concerning stains found in the skiff towed behind the houseboat. All this was told in court when the Starrs appeared for trial.

But the chief witness was Jocko. He had been kept in a cell at the parish jail, like any human witness and when he was brought into court in his scarlet coat and cap the prisoners quailed (trembled). Jocko uttered a scream of rage and would have leaped upon them if the sheriff’s men had not held him in restraint.

That decided the jury. Slender as the evidence was, they believed the monkey and brought in a verdict of “guilty.” The man was sentenced to be hanged and the woman was imprisoned for life.  

Truth is stranger than fiction. In other words, you can’t make this stuff up.


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