When Richard Lynch Garner (more popularly known as R.L. Garner) announced his plan to travel to Africa to do scientific research, he quickly became the butt of numerous jokes and ridicule by scientists. Not only did Garner lack any real scientific credentials, but the actual purpose of his research seemed downright bizarre. Believing that many species of primates were intelligent in their own right, he announced his intention to learn the language spoken by monkeys. That he managed to get a popular magazine to subsidize his expedition seems incredible enough, but his amazing career would make him a minor celebrity status later in life (including a strange attempt to establish a new monarchy in Gabon).
Born and raised in Abingdon, Tennessee as part of a large, middle class family long before the outbreak of the Civil War, Garner showed little sign of the strange destiny that lay ahead of him. Enlisting as a Confederate soldier at the age of fourteen, his military service record included several stints in prisoner-of-war camps. After the end of the war, he managed to attend an academy for two years before eventually returning finding work as a schoolteacher.
Despite his modest life, including a wife and son, R.L. Garner managed to keep up to date with many of the hot scientific debates going on at the time. With the publication of Darwin's groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolutionary theories were all the rage. Newspapers and magazines carried stories speculating aout primitive ape-men who might still be living in remote parts of the world. Around this time, sideshow exhibits including Krao the Monkey Girl and Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy seemed to blur the line between humans and animals even further.
As for Garner, he soon found himself inspired after seeing monkeys cavorting in their cages during a visit to a Cincinnati zoo in 1884. Reading books by Darwin, Max Muller, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Thomas Huxley, he formulated the theory that monkeys, along with many other "dumb animals" could have a language of their own. Though frequently ridiculed whenever he tried to float this idea at the various scientific conferences he managed to attend, Garner became more convinced than ever that he was right.
With the timely development of Thomas Edison's wax cylinder phonograph, Garner realized that this new technology could be invaluable in proving his claims. While pursuing his research, he managed to keep himself and his family fed by establishing himself as a freelance writer. Not incidentally, he also used the power of the press to generate support for his ideas as well as to establish his "brand" as an intrepid researcher and explorer. Which may have been what attracted the interest of Samuel McClure of McClure's Magazine.
Though forgotten today, McClure's Magazine was a monthly periodical that became extremely popular for its muckraking style of journalism and original literary content. It's hard to say exactly why Samuel McClure decided to sponsor Garner but the new publicity over his theories quickly made him an overnight sensation. And not just for readers of McClure's Magazine. McClure launched a marketing campaign that aggressively sold Garner's story to dozens of newspapers. Suddenly, those bizarre theories didn't seem so bizarre.
With the publication of his first book, The Speech of Monkeys, in 1892, Garner's claims were suddenly being taken seriously (at least by non-scientists). The book contained transcripts of his sessions with monkeys in zoos across the United States and set the stage for what he saw as the next step in his research: traveling to Africa to study the language of monkeys in the wild. That same year, with the full financial backing of Samuel McClure, "Professor" Garner, as he was often called in the press, set sail for Gabon on Africa's west coast.
To aid his research, he brought along all of his equipment, including his phonograph, as well as a steel cage. Very much a man of his time, Garner's racist views about white superiority constantly came through in his writing about his experiences in Gabon. All of which seemed ironic considering how dependent he was on the locals for virtually all of his needs. But the locals hoped he could help them as well. At the time, Gabonese natives were suffering under French colonial rule and they were hoping that Garner could help them gain more freedom. Though living conditions were not as horrific as in the neighbouring Congo under Belgian rule, Garner frequently found himself negotiating with natives and French administrators alike.
He also laid down the groundwork of what would be a long career with extensive time spent in the wild. Through his writings, which were chronicled in McClure's Magazine and syndicated to newspapers across the U.S., Garner shared his experiences dealing with tsetse flies, wild animals, and fierce native tribes. Unfortunately, even with the help of Gabonese natives who took him deep into remote regions of the country, what he couldn't provide was any proof that he could learn the language of monkeys.
Finally, after his financial assets dried up, he was forced to declare his first expedition to Gabon a failure. Returning the the U.S., he became an object of ridicule with most newspapers abandoning him completely (including Samuel McClure). Though Garner insisted that he could find the proof he needed with another expedition, finding the funding he needed was much more difficult this time around. After considerable scrounging, he managed to find new backers and returned to Gabon for another year.
While in Gabon however, the English journal Truth published a series of damning articles denouncing Garner as a fake. According to the articles, Garner's claims of traveling into Gabon's jungles had been a lie and he had actually spent all his time at a Catholic mission. He was even said to have left behind his steel cage and a sizable bill when he first expedition ended. Completely unaware of what had been said about him, Garner returned to the United States to discover that he had become a laughingstock. While he publicly threatened to punch the Truth's editor, the damage had been done. Even as he prepared to return to Gabon, the stigma of fakery made finding funding harder than ever.
But that wasn't the end for R.L. Garner.