Buddha, Buddy, Gargantua: Gorilla gorilla gorilla

Design by Sara Offer

In April 1938, in Madison Square Garden, the headliner arrived after 13 other acts, including Terrell Jacobs single-handedly taming 18 lions, the Paroff Trio performing acrobatics from unsupported ladders, and The Gibsons throwing knives around the contours of a girl strapped to a revolving wheel. Gate hinges creaked and hooves clopped. Then, as the audience hollered, six white horses pulled a wagon into the stadium. Opera glasses focused on the cage within the wagon, a 26-by-7-foot box of steel and double-layer plate glass, bolted airtight and air conditioned (at a constant 76 degrees Fahrenheit), circling the Garden like a Roman charioteer. Behind the bars sat Buddha, his face frozen in an apparent sneer.

To the crowds, he wasn’t Buddha, or Buddy, as he had once been called. His name as advertised on the billboards raised high above the pretzel-lined sidewalks of Seventh Avenue was GARGANTUA THE GREAT: THE LARGEST AND FIERCEST GORILLA EVER BROUGHT BEFORE THE EYES OF CIVILIZED MAN! Painted on the billboard, against a vaguely African landscape, Gargantua’s fangs glinted white between snarling lips, bloodshot eyes peered through dark folds of flesh, and tree-trunk arms reached skyward––a second away, it seemed, from ripping apart an innocent victim. Above Gargantua, the banner head read RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY, COMBINED SHOWS.


What remains of Gargantua the Great is in the basement of Yale’s anthropology building, an Italianate villa on Sachem Street. His skeleton is mounted in a hunched quadrupedal pose within a glass box, beside corporate-style armchairs, cardboard boxes, and a sign outlining proper lab attire. In 1950, the gorilla was donated to the Peabody Museum by Henry Ringling North (Yale ’33), the cigar-toting vice president of Ringling Bros circus. (“Gargantua always was a Yale man,” Ringling said when he sent over the body.)

Gargantua’s bones, especially around the joints, are honeycombed with osteoporosis. His jaws are open, as if flashing his canines in warning. The molars and wisdom teeth are rotten from the circus diet: fruit, jelly sandwiches, malted milk, American cheese, canned peaches, custard pie, cream cheese, ice cream, and a daily quart and a half of warm tea with brown sugar and a shot of whisky. Gargantua’s forehead is oddly small because he never developed the large temporal muscles that wild gorillas need to grind coarse vegetation.

The skeleton reminds me more of an oversized, emaciated Doberman than of a great ape. Above the display case is a framed circus advertisement featuring a demonic-looking Gargantua standing in the tall grass, holding, in a single hand above his head, a weeping African tribesman, with egregiously stereotypical features. The text to his right reads: THE WORLD’S MOST TERRIFYING LIVING CREATURE! The drawing’s gestural strokes and shadows imply momentum and impending blood. Looking between the poster and the wire-strung bones, I can’t decide which representation of a living creature is more dissonant from truth.


Before he was a circus star, Garagntua was a wild animal born in the swamplands of the Belgian Congo. His mother died, likely from poaching, when he was a month old. European missionaries took the infant gorilla home and raised him for a year before giving him to Captain Arthur Philips, an American merchant, who brought the animal aboard his freighter bound for Boston. Philips and his crew adored the wide-eyed gorilla, who sprung around the boat untethered. The crew made him specially prepared food and taught him some seaman duties. He became the ship’s mascot.

One night, a crewman sat on the deck, drinking whisky after Captain Philips fired him for “discipline problems.” He felt unjustly punished and sought revenge. The crewman pierced a fire extinguisher and poured the nitric acid within it across the sleeping gorilla’s face.

Burned, traumatized, and nearly blinded, the gorilla became uncontrollable. In the final leg of the trip, the animal was caged and tied down. The acid disfigured his face so terribly that he struggled to open his mouth to eat. When the ship arrived in Boston, Philips called eccentric Brooklynite Gertrude Lintz and asked her if she would take the animal off his hands.

Mrs. Lintz’s Bay Ridge mansion was a menagerie complete with 30 St. Bernards, 200 rabbits, 300 pigeons, 400 tropical fish, a pair of owls, and nine chimpanzees. She raised her chimpanzees as if they were her human children; they wore clothes, slept in beds, and ate at the dinner table. When Philips called to offer her the maimed and violent gorilla, she agreed immediately. She loved a hard case.

When the gorilla arrived, Mrs. Lintz named him Buddha, Buddy for short. She nursed him back to health and arranged for plastic surgery to repair his deformed face, which left him with his permanent sneer. Mrs. Lintz’s favorite activity was to dress Buddy in rugby shirts, put him in the passenger seat of her roadster, and cruise down Prospect Avenue as the people gaped. 

One night in 1937 when he was seven years and fully grown, Buddy, frightened by thunder, broke out of his cage in the basement and climbed into bed with Mrs. Lintz like a child seeking comfort. The bed creaked under the 500 pounds of weight and she awoke. Terrified, she slipped onto the floor of her bedroom, all the while speaking to Buddha in a soothing maternal voice. She took him by the hand and led him back to his cage, guiding him with a pear she picked up off the kitchen counter.

The experience shook her deeply, and she concluded that Buddha had outgrown his welcome. She sold him to Henry Ringling North for $10,000 (about $188,500 in 2023). North renamed Buddy “Gargantua the Great,” after the giant king in François Rabelais’ novels, which North had read and admired when he was a student at Yale.  

In a last-ditch effort to save the circus from the financial ruin brought on by the Depression, North organized a massive bicoastal advertising campaign for Gargantua, which was often fictitious but always flamboyant. (The most blatant lie repeated on nearly every banner was that Gargantua was the first full-grown gorilla exhibited in North America. There were actually at least 23 other captive gorillas in the United States in 1937, some weighing over 600 pounds, a great deal larger than Gargantua, who weighed about 460 pounds.) Fabricated or not, the campaign paid off. Gargantua the Great was a hit, drawing millions of paying customers who stood in line for hours to see him. Gorilla and cage were wheeled around the country for years. Gargantua saved the circus from bankruptcy.

For twelve years Gargantua lived sealed off behind steel. Within his four walls, the only sounds were his own breath and body and the grind of metal as the food slot opened. Through the glass, fingers pointed, tongues hissed, and teeth gnashed. At twenty, half his appropriate lifespan, Buddha stretched out and died on the cold concrete floor of his cell.


I first met Gary Aronson, a primatologist who supervises Yale’s biological anthropology labs, when he was lugging equipment into a room next to Gargantua’s skeleton. I asked him on a whim if he knew anything about the gorilla. Sure enough, he did.

Aronsen first learned about Gargantua in the fourth grade when he gave a book report on Gene Lowden’s Gargantua, Circus Star of the Century at St. Anselm’s Elementary, a Catholic school in Bay Ridge just a few blocks away from where Gertrude Lintz once lived. Aronsen went to his office and retrieved a pristine plastic-lined copy of the book to show me. On the cover was a red-tinted photograph of Gargantua, staring straight ahead with furrowed brow and snarled mouth. It was this book that made Aronsen fall in love with primatology.

In 1997, as a first-year PhD student at Yale, Aronson was asked to give an introductory lecture about gorillas at an exhibit of Dian Fossey’s photographs at the Peabody Museum. As he entered the lecture hall, he noticed a gorilla specimen and looked at the label. It was Gargantua, greeting him at the beginning of his career. “I had no idea Gargantua’s bones ended up at Yale!” he said, “My head was in the clouds. I can’t remember a word of what I said in that lecture.”

Gargantua was not part of the Peabody’s permanent collection, and like most specimens, his bones were tucked away in a dusty corner of the archives. When the anthropology building was renovated in 2006, Gary fought to bring the skeleton into the public and close to where he worked. He succeeded. Behind barless glass, right out Gary’s office, Gargantua’s bones now stand, translucent in light streaming down from high windows. The label:

Gorilla gorilla gorilla

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