The Cornish Pixie

On the night of Jan. 5th, 1905, a fearful storm raged on the South and South West coast of England. A vessel was seen making desperate struggles to keep her course. She was, however, lost to sight and the eager eyes watching, could see no more. Next morning some fishermen searching among a quantity of wreckage, discovered the mannikin, known as Dick Trelawny, tied to a beam of timber.

Washed up on the coast of Penzance in Cornwall, the fishermen who initially found Dick Trelawny eventually became wary of him and came to think of him as something sent to them by the Devil. He went to live with an old lady and, so the story goes, it was there he remained until Captain Jack Neville came across him.

Captain Neville said that he recognised the “importance of this little mite from a scientific and physiological standpoint…“and, after several Doctors looked him over, they came to the conclusion that Dick Trelawny was between 48 and 75 years of age, weighed over four kilos and was about 65 cms tall.

Cornish Pixie ImageHe initially spoke in a “guttural tongue” unable to be deciphered by linguists but soon learnt English and French.

His features, though pensive, are constantly illumined by a sweet smile which, with his merry little laugh and winning eyes, make him a most interesting and pleasant study.

He was given the name ‘The Cornish Pixie’ and agreed to go with Captain Neville to be exhibited around the world.

By June 1908 a similar story such as the one printed in The Cornish Telegraph was printed in The W.A. Record. While much of the information was the same, there were a few additional facts.

Smoke

On 1 December 1908, Captain Neville, his wife and The Cornish Pixie arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia via the S.S. Charon.

Two days later, The Daily News reported on their arrival and stated that The Cornish Pixie was on display in the window of a vacant shop opposite Brennan Brothers located on Hay Street in Perth. Advertising soon appeared in the newspapers.

Advertising

Articles boasted that The Cornish Pixie would prove immensely popular in Perth and described the “unanimous expressions of wonder and approval” by the public who had come to see him. The Australian was the only newspaper to provide a description.

Description

While initially only exhibited two times daily, it later changed to three, perhaps suggesting The Cornish Pixie was proving to be very popular with the people of Perth after all.

This wonderful mannikin proved a great source of attraction on Saturday evening, when a continual crowd of visitors thronged to and fro. Captain Neville gives a very interesting and comprehensive explanation to every batch of visitors, allowing them to lift Pixie for themselves…

Subsequent articles always took on a glowing tone, even going as far as stating how immensely popular Pixie (as he came to be known) was with the ladies. While it is possible that the writer(s) genuinely felt the exhibit was amazing, in my opinion, the articles scream of bias. Perhaps Captain Neville had befriended local reporters or, was simply supplying the Albany Advertisingstories himself.

The Cornish Pixie was exhibited in Perth from 3 December until 23 December 1908. He next travelled to Fremantle, was on display for a few days and then headed to Kalgoorlie where he was exhibited from a room on Hannan Street. Coincidentally, the location was once again opposite premises owned by the Brennan Brothers.

At the start of the New Year, Pixie was reported to have arrived in Albany and was shown from a tent on the Parade Street Recreation Ground (see left advertisement). The article describing the exhibition was essentially a carbon copy of previous articles printed in other newspapers.

From Western Australia, Captain Neville and The Cornish Pixie travelled to South Australia in late January 1909 for exhibition at No. 48 Arcade in Adelaide. Articles reiterated his success and one went further, indicating that in the past he had been received by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, the Kaiser, the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive of Egypt and the Maharajah of Mysore. Again, while genial to all people, he was noted to be particularly fond of the fairer sex, regularly taking the opportunity to bestow kisses upon them. He was also said to be “decidedly matrimonially inclined.

Jack Johnson, the well-known boxer, was also in South Australia at the time and, while there, decided to pay a visit to The Cornish Pixie. Both were apparently fascinated with the other but Pixie found the upper hand when, convincing Mr Johnson to sit on the floor, he then (supposedly) “hit him full on the nose.

Leaving Adelaide, the group headed to Melbourne for a show at St George’s Hall on Bourke Street in late February and throughout March 1909.

The articles continued in much the same way but with some minor differences. While in Adelaide he was in the matrimonial market, in Melbourne, he was “a firm believer in platonic friendships with the opposite sex.” He spoke his own language in Perth and Adelaide and had only picked up a few words of English and French but in Melbourne he was said to speak English, French and other languages fluently. It is in these slight changes that the story of The Cornish Pixie begins to look rather doubtful.

By April 1909, the group had moved on from Victoria and arrived in New South Wales where The Cornish Pixie was exhibited at 198 Pitt Street in Sydney.

Sydney Ad

Slight differences (perhaps accounting for new audiences) continued. Whereas in Perth Pixie’s age was always recorded in advertising as 45, in Sydney, the age was given an air of mystery by simply leaving it as ‘unknown’.

The language discrepancy also continued. This time, Pixie could speak French fluently but could only understand English and German. Another article stated he had been taught some English and was learning French.

It is hoped that one day he will be able to speak sufficiently well to tell his history; meantime the management offers a substantial reward to anyone who can understand the mannikin’s own language.

Towards the end of May 1909, Pixie was still on exhibit in Sydney and, due to the overwhelming popularity with visitors, had found bigger premises at 498 George Street near Adams’s Cafe. Larger rooms also meant that an additional exhibit could be set up in the window.

Clothes

Positive reports (perhaps written by Captain Neville) flooded the papers wherever Pixie went however, “Fanella”, writing the column ‘Sydney Week by Week From a Woman’s Point of View’ for the Clarence and Richmond Examiner, visited Pixie and provided a description as well as one of the rare accounts where approval was not given.

Fanella

On 12 June 1909, Brisbane newspapers began printing advertising for The Cornish Pixie. He was due to leave New South Wales and was on his way to Queensland with the exhibit opening on 15 June.

Cornish Pixie

At 145 Queen Street in Brisbane, all continued in much the same way as the other States. Pixie was put on display, details of his back-story and the exhibit were regularly printed in the paper, people visited him and, by early July 1909, he moved on. He remained absent from the papers for quite a few weeks until 20 July 1909 when it was announced that he would be on display at Gill Street in Charters Towers (a northern Queensland town located an hour and a half inland from Townsville).

Then, in late July 1909, after about eight months on the road and touring five Australian States, the truth was finally exposed. The Cornish Pixie was not (as was often claimed) a descendant of an extinct race of pygmies from central Mexico, he was nothing more than a monkey dressed up in clothes.

The labor socialist newspaper, People, was first to break the story and used the sham as a means to demonstrate the evils of capitalism.

It was with a true spirit of capitalist enterprise that “Cornish Pixie,” the smallest man on earth, was placed upon the Australian show market. Pixie, after a successful exhibition in many States turned out to be a fraud – and not a freak. But it was a clever deception. Men held him in the palm of their hands; women kissed the “dear little fellow; while many presents were bestowed upon him. Yet Pixie was a fraud – a real genuine capitalist fraud. He was not a twentieth century man at all – Pixie was a monkey.

The paper elaborated and stated that Pixie had been taught several tricks and that his voice was provided by a ventriloquist. Where ‘People’ obtained this information is, of course, never divulged. While it could simply be the writer using Pixie to push the anti-capitalism agenda, it seems likely (given the constant discrepancies in Pixie’s story) that there was more than what meets the eye.

The promoters were said to have been fined £50 for cruelty to an animal and, towards the end, the writer bluntly states “Pixie died“. It is this fact which is at complete odds with the actions of Captain Neville. He was still touring around North Queensland with The Cornish Pixie. Was ‘People’ simply inventing a story?Rumours

Captain Neville attempted to nip the rumours in the bud (left) but, it was too late. The Cairns Post was next to report on the story and provided more detail, courtesy of a letter from their Brisbane correspondent. Despite plenty of opportunities to do so previously, it is the first instance where a writer acknowledges that not many people believed Pixie’s backstory about being shipwrecked on the coast of Cornwall. Details of how the truth came to light (albeit vague) were also printed.

He is supposed to have died, either at Sydney, Childers, Crow’s Nest, Maryborough, or Bunderberg (no one seems to know he went to Townsville some weeks ago), and a magistrate is supposed to have demanded a view of the body, and to have uttered a startling cry on discovering that Dick Trelawney – to give him one of his numerous designations – was nothing more nor less than a monkey, whose face and paws had been shaved and enamelled.

Ultimately, the correspondent believed the story was simply a rumour. But the damage was done. The article set off a chain reaction as the news of the deception broke in newspapers around the rest of Australia.

Truth

The above description was written by a reporter for ‘Truth’ and while they don’t go as far as stating that Pixie was a monkey, they do provide an interesting, contrasting description of Pixie and the exhibition. It paints a far less jovial picture than what was previously portrayed, perhaps enhancing my assumption that other articles were paid for or written by Neville.

Remarkably, by 11 August 1909 and despite the damaging articles in the press, the tour of The Cornish Pixie continued. It was announced he would be exhibited in Rockhampton in Queensland and, by September 1909, he was advertised to show in Bundaberg (one of the towns he had supposedly died in). It was in Bundaberg that Pixie Bundabergwas to end his tour of Australia and, according to The Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser, was then boarding a ship destined for Europe.

Clearly, this was a ploy to attract customers. He was next noted to be showing in Gympie in Queensland and then, in October 1909, had arrived back in Brisbane for more shows. Rumours of The Cornish Pixie dying and discovered to be a monkey were proving to be quite good for business and even Captain Neville admitted this fact by stating “…we have had an excellent advertisement through all these rumours.

Despite the story of Pixie being a monkey first appearing in late July 1909 and gaining traction throughout August (especially in Perth, where reporters appeared to be rather put out at being tricked) it wasn’t until October that Captain Neville officially addressed the rumours by writing a letter to the Queensland Times. Reiterating the various statements printed in each of the newspapers, he proclaimed them as “damaging” and went on to quote articles where the exhibition had received positive feedback. He hinted at a defamation lawsuit but stopped short of going any further.

After that, I think we can be satisfied, for we cannot lose time in dragging the papers we complain of into Court – where we should probably obtain heavy damages.

Rather telling, in my opinion.

From Brisbane they went to Ipswich (Queensland); from Ipswich to Geelong (Victoria); from Geelong to Ballarat (Victoria); from Ballarat to Hobart (Tasmania); from Hobart to Launceston (Tasmania).

These last exhibits were conducted at whirlwind pace. They whizzed from one place to the other, stayed for a week or so and then moved on to the next town.

Launceston was the last town visited and in January 1910 it was reported that he had officially departed Australia and was now on show in New Zealand. Spending the first half of the year in New Zealand, Pixie visited Invercargill, Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Palmerston, Timaru and Oamaru.

New Zealanders, unlike the Australians, appeared to have been more sceptical and a letter written to the ‘Dominion’ by R. Dentith reflects this person’s doubts.

Although supposed to speak more than one language, I never heard the Pixie do so. He did not even stand on his legs, much less walk. One of the audience wanted to see his leg, but the showman refused the request, on the ground that he only undertook to exhibit the portions of him which could then be seen, viz, his head, face, and hands. Now, why should there be any objection to satisfy the public that this strange being is wholly human?

Leaving New Zealand in May 1910, it was back to Australia where he was exhibited for the first time in Broken Hill in New South Wales. Remarkably and perhaps to throw off any suspicion, a small paragraph was printed in the Otago Daily Times (New Zealand) regarding an RivalAustralian “rival” and what became of him (left).

From New South Wales, Pixie travelled to South Australia where he was first shown at Port Pirie and then once again in Adelaide for a ‘farewell reception’. Leaving South Australia, it was back to Victoria where he was exhibited in the towns of Hamilton, Colac and Bendigo.

This time Bendigo was definitely the final town where Pixie was exhibited. By mid-August 1910, after nearly two years travelling all over Australia and New Zealand, Captain Neville and The Cornish Pixie left our shores and, according to Mr Kreitmeyer (the owner of the Waxworks in Melbourne and the same man who exhibited Jun Gun) they were on their way to South Africa via the SS Persic.

It’s not known if Captain Neville, his wife and Pixie actually reached South Africa. They remained out of the newspapers for about seven months until March 1911 when a brief announcement was printed in the Evening Post (New Zealand).

The Cornish Pixie died in Calcutta on the 8th February. He contracted a severe cold, and died of acute nephritis.

The Cornish Pixie’s death was “official”. There were no more advertisements, no more overwhelmingly positive write-ups in the paper and no more exhibitions. Captain Neville and his wife, presumably, returned from whence they came with (perhaps) much heavier pockets compared to when they first arrived on the shores of Western Australia in 1908.

Initially, one might assume the story was clear-cut. Looking at the evidence of the small frame, the lack of any understandable language, the hands which were described as ‘double jointed’, the often blatant refusal of Captain Neville allowing anyone to closely investigate and the fact that there was constant contradiction of the story itself indicates that something was amiss with The Cornish Pixie. There is no doubt in my mind that what was put on display was a monkey dressed up in clothes. Some questions however remain unanswered. If the truth was exposed due to the death of The Cornish Pixie, why or how did the show continue? Did Captain Neville own several monkeys for the purpose of ‘The Cornish Pixie’ show? Was the story of Pixie being a monkey true but the story of its death simply a rumour?

As with most things when time takes hold, the exhibition of The Cornish Pixie around Australia and New Zealand faded in the minds of most people. Every now and then someone recalled their visit and experience and wrote to the papers. These later articles, unhindered because of the passage of time, shed more light on the story.

I, with others, went to see the Pixie, who was dressed as a boy and sat on a chair on a dais. “He” waved a cane and did a feeble sort of squeak now and again.

The writer was hoping that ‘R. R. Thorne’ would be able to give them more information about what happened to The Cornish Pixie. Thorne wrote back two days later. He knew Captain Neville. He considered him ungentlemanly in his behaviour. He had associated with The Cornish Pixie exhibit over the course of his work and, he confirmed Pixie was a monkey. Then, he went into great detail about how the monkey was mutilated for the show.

A human monster had subjected the little monkey to fearful tortures over a long period. Almost all its teeth had been extracted. Its face and head had been mutilated, carved, stitched and distorted. The skin had been turned inside out.

After healing it had lost the semblance of its natural self and then, with the aid of acids, dyes and paint, the poor thing had been made to look like a puny, flabby and helpless little boy-man.

Its little squeak and its pathetic waving of a small cane should have torn the hearts of spectators, but instead, raised roars of laughter.

G.M.S. will remember that the Pixie was always dressed in a bright green coat well buttoned up. The body and limbs were covered up as much as possible. Its feet were not seen. Its tiny hands were limp and feeble.

If accurate, it’s a sad end to the story of the monkey named Dick Trelawny also known as The Cornish Pixie. It’s also a sad tale of humanity and illustrates just how far some people will go in order to make their fortune. Captain Neville may have been an astute showman but it does not excuse the fact that he still disfigured an animal, exploited it, fooled the public for his own benefit and, by all appearances, managed to get away with it.

Sources:

The Prince of the Red Desert

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following blog post may contain images and names of deceased persons.

Roebourne, 13 August 1889

Mr. Alex. Edgar has arrived in town. While in Condon he received a letter from Mr. Alexander McPhee saying that he had caught a white native about 260 miles inland from Condon, and adding that he wanted to arrive in Condon by mail day.

Unable to arrive in Condon in time, Alexander McPhee (with the Aboriginal man in tow) instead sent a telegram addressed to Mr Edgar in Roebourne which provided additional information about the man. Described as having albinism, the man was considered to be as “white as any white man” and sported light brown hair and sandy whiskers.

Several days later the Acting Government Resident at Roebourne, Mr R. C. Hare, sent a telegram to the Colonial Secretary.

capture

For three months no more news was heard. Then, on 24 October 1889, the story was once again picked up and reported as if it was new. A more detailed description was printed and the man was said to have white hair, a white beard and white skin. His eyes were grey, he stood at five foot six inches tall and had quite a number of scars on his head and body. He also had the “usual tatoo marks“. Typical of the Victorian era and their fascination for people who were different, they ended the description with…

…he is a novelty if not a freak of nature.

Alexander McPhee was noted to be heading to Perth sometime in the future and it was stated that he would be bringing the Aboriginal man with him.

On 26 December 1889, Alexander McPhee, the Aboriginal man and two other Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Franklin in Cossack bound for Fremantle. The journey south along the coast of Western Australia took several days and included stops in Ashburton, Carnarvon and Geraldton. On 31 December 1889 at approximately 7pm, the ‘Franklin’ reached its destination.

Three days later it became apparent that Mr McPhee’s decision to come to Perth was for the sole purpose of exhibiting the Aboriginal man to the public.

Exhibition of the Albino Jongon, at the Mechanics’ Institute, Perth, January 4, from 10a.m. till 1p.m. and from 8p.m. till 10p.m.

mechanics-institute
The Mechanics’ Institute in 1894. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

It is in these notices however that we first learn that the man previously referred to in newspaper reports as simply ‘Aboriginal Albino’ was actually named Jun Gun (often spelt in a variety of ways but more often spelt in this manner).

Advertising was placed in the papers which called people to come and see “the wonder of the nort[h]” for the admission cost of one shilling.

the-west-aust-4-january-1890

Newspaper reporters who attended the exhibition followed up with articles detailing their observations. Most stated that he differed greatly to the “ordinary albino” and then went on to describe him:

Jungun, as the native is called, has none of these peculiarities, but differs from the ordinary aboriginal chiefly in the colour of his skin and hair. The former is of a light brown tinged with red, or what may be called a copper colour. His hair is a very pale brown tinged with flaxen. The irides of his eyes are hazel brown, and there is a slight brownish appearance about the pupils.

Described as being about 27 years old, he was dressed in white pants, was wearing a headdress of feathers and wore a piece of kangaroo bone through his nose.

Many people visited the Mechanics’ Institute both in the morning and evening for the purpose of seeing Jun Gun. During the evening show, he and his two companions sung several of their tribal songs but preferred to do so whilst behind a curtain.

Throughout the exhibition it was noted that Jun Gun was not shy or uncomfortable and Mr McPhee stated that, “He had always found him very tractable in his disposition, and of an even quiet, temper.” How McPhee managed to convince Jun Gun to leave his tribal lands is never touched upon. But, not only had he convinced him to travel to Perth, he had also convinced him to travel to the east coast of Australia.passenger-list

The exhibition of Jun Gun in Perth ran from 4 January until 8 January. Four days later, on 12 January 1890, Alex McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Albany in Fremantle bound for Melbourne. Mr McPhee was recorded as a saloon passenger while “three natives” were recorded in  steerage (right).

On 24 January, Jun Gun arrived in Victoria. The Argus was the first newspaper to pick up the story and stated “The discovery and bringing of Jungun within the confines of civilisation reads very much like a romance.” They also provided background information about how McPhee arranged and was allowed to travel to Melbourne for the exhibition.

To do this he had to give up his employment and pay a deposit of £10 for each native to the Aboriginal Board for their return.

As was the case in Perth, advertisements were soon printed in the paper announcing the opening for 1 February 1890 but, unlike Perth (where he was displayed in the Mechanics’ Institute) Jun Gun was to be displayed in Kreitmayer’s Waxworks and Museum which was located on Bourke Street in Melbourne.

kreitmayer
Kreitmayer’s Waxworks & Museum (centre – with the flag). Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Jun Gun’s appearance soon became a source of debate among Victorians as to whether he did have albinism or if he was the progeny of a relationship between an Aboriginal person and a European person. In an extremely cringe-worthy article, The Argus began by asking the question “What is it?” and then went on to say:

With a curious and pathetic interest one asks that question when looking at “Jun-Gun,” the Australian albino, at the Bourke-street Waxworks. What is it? this thing brought in from the wilderness, which yet remains to Australia; this queer white flower from the black garden?

At first suggesting that a Doctor look over Jun Gun closely in an effort to ascertain his origin, the writer then touched upon the subject of the lost explorers from Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition and raised the question as to whether Jun Gun’s appearance was due to him being the offspring of one of these lost men. Leichhardt was a German man and this theory was further enhanced in the 1930s when it was stated that the word ‘Jung’ in German means young. There was much speculation that Jun Gun’s name may have been bestowed upon him by Leichhardt.

Unwilling to fully commit to this theory however, the writer then turned to thoughts of prenatal influence.

the-argus

In a nutshell, the story of Elsie Venner (written by Oliver Wendell Holmes), was a fictional book in which a woman was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant. The woman eventually died but her baby survived; a daughter who was said to have snake-like characteristics developed because of the snake bite which occurred whilst she was in the womb.

Alexander McPhee was quick to respond and wrote a letter to The Argus on the same day that the article went to print. His letter was printed in the next day’s paper. While he refuted the claims with regards to Jun Gun having European ancestry (his tribe was said to have never seen a European man before McPhee came along) he also provided additional information in relation to the stories he’d heard from the Indigenous people which may have related to Leichhardt. Fuelled by the claims in the letter, talk soon turned to Leichhardt and the possibility of finding new traces of the lost explorers. A meeting was held and Mr McPhee was invited to attend. The group came to the conclusion that a new expedition should be established to investigate the rumours about Leichhardt. They invited McPhee to lead the party but he refused.

Unfortunately, however, that gentleman’s business arrangements will not permit of his leaving Victoria just now unless he is compensated for loss of time, and nothing definite can be done until this financial difficulty is overcome.

Jun Gun continued to be a popular exhibit at the Waxworks and entertained the crowds by singing his tribal songs and making fire using a stick. While in Melbourne, he visited J.W. Lindt’s studio and had his photograph taken. If you wish to view the photograph on the National Library of Australia’s website, please click here.

The newspapers continued to ask the question as to whether or not he had albinism and to add credence to the claim that he did, Mr Kreitmayer (the owner of the Waxworks) invited several medical professionals and other leading men to examine Jun Gun and provide their opinion. Unable to completely explain his appearance, they rested on calling him a “freak of nature.

the-waxworks

Jun Gun was on display at the Waxworks throughout most of February 1890 and, towards the end of the month, The Australasian (a pictorial newspaper) printed an article as well as an image of him.

jungun

By mid-March the exhibition in Melbourne  began to wind down and his last appearance was announced. On 25 March 1890, Mr McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men wereoverland reported to be travelling overland from Melbourne to Sydney (right).

He was exhibited first in Solomon’s Royal Museum in Sydney and by the middle of April was reported to be heading to Newcastle for exhibition at 53 Hunter Street. William Freeman, the Business Manager, placed an ad in the Newcastle newcastleMorning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (left).

From Newcastle the party travelled back to Victoria and, in early May, The Ballarat Star announced that Jun Gun would be exhibited in Ballarat at the Mechanics’ Institute. The public could view him for the cost of sixpence.

It is elsewhere advertised that the aboriginal albino Jun Gun will be exhibited in Ballarat on Saturday next. This extraordinary individual was annexed by Mr McPhee in the back country of Western Australia, and his appearance in Melbourne caused no little curiosity and speculation.

In Ballarat, unlike what was seen at the other exhibitions, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men displayed their prowess with the spear and boomerang. They also demonstrated their defence skills using a shield; batting away cricket balls, boomerangs and sticks which were thrown at them from a distance of 30 yards (approximately 27 metres). Disturbingly, the objects being thrown had such force behind them that the newspaper noted that several boomerangs had been broken.

spear

After the exhibition the aboriginals, who were in full war costume, wearing only trunks, and having their breasts and arms painted, were taken round the Oval, to give the spectators a view of them at close quarters.

It was to be Jun Gun’s last exhibition.

After this date (May 1890) he no longer appeared in the papers unless it was in association with McPhee, Leichhardt and the new expedition.

the-times

Eight months later, on 6 January 1891, The Argus printed a letter (part of which is below) received from McPhee which was dated 8 December 1890.

Sir,- Thinking that many of your readers will be interested in my return trip with Jun Gun to his country, I forward you an account of it. I arrived in Roebourne (the centre of the north-west district of this colony) about the middle of July, and started for a small station about 250 miles along the coast east of Roebourne called Yinadong, whence I started inland with Jun Gun, Timothy, and four horses. We travelled in an easterly direction over rough spinifex country for 150 miles, the only permanent water being a patch of mound springs which extend along a salt marsh for 20 miles. We met natives who knew Jun Gun, and he was so overjoyed at meeting his friends again that he wanted to leave me at once and walk to his country, so I let him go. I offered him flour and tobacco, but he refused them, saying he would rather live with the others on rats and lizards. He took off all his clothes, and got a spear from his mates, and started off with them in high spirits.

Jun Gun, it would seem, after about five months of being on display, had finally returned home.

McPhee continued with his letter stating that he’d met another Aboriginal man who looked similar to Jun Gun and then further mentioned he’d spoken to an older man who said that “when he was a boy he heard of a party of whites and horses dying a long way inland.” Once again a lost party (perhaps Leichhardt’s) was hinted at by McPhee.

Contradicting this letter, another website, The Batavia Legacy, writes that Jun Gun died in 1892 in Healesville, Victoria. Given the fact that the place of death is quite specific I deemed it worthy of follow up. I’ve left a comment on the blog but as at this post’s publishing date, it has not been approved nor responded to.

Their source for this statement however may have originated from a newspaper article printed in The West Australian in 1934. It adds the following extra detail (albeit slight) with regards to Jun Gun’s time in Victoria and adds weight to the aforementioned website’s claim.

He and his full-blooded compatriots, when not on exhibition, were taken up to one of the aboriginal reserves near Healsville (Victoria).

Jun Gun was not mentioned for several years until January 1893 when Western Australian newspapers picked up on a story printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (USA) in which he was referred to by the American writer as “The Prince of the Red Desert“.

This article, by comparison to the others, went into a huge amount of detail relating to Jun Gun; providing descriptions of his appearance, his story, his tribe, language, how McPhee found him and even attempting to write the words of a tribal song he was singing whilst in Melbourne. While the accuracy with respect to the Indigenous language (reported as being ‘Naugamont’) has not been ascertained, the article itself provides a fascinating firsthand account of Jun Gun according to the writer’s observations. It is well worth a read.

His squatting, gold-bronzed figure was flanked on both sides by a woolly headed, coal-black native of his own tribe. The three were making the tabbee, the strange music of the irghilly, beating its two blades together rhythmically, rocking too and fro on their haunches, ankles crossed, and singing a low rolling hum in chromatics…

The American further organised a ‘transformation’ while he was at Lindt’s photographic studio and arranged for Jun Gun to be dressed up in a dark blue suit accessorised with a hat and cane. Finding him to be unrecognisable in the clothing, the writer stated, “His bearing was unassuming and precisely what is meant in the best use of the word aristocratic.

Having read through various newspaper articles and records relating to Jun Gun I find myself pondering the question, what was McPhee’s intention? Was he hoping to attract fame and fortune off the back of Jun Gun’s differing looks? Was he hoping that Jun Gun’s appearance would raise questions and ultimately result in a new expedition to look for Leichhardt? Despite the exhibition being about Jun Gun, Leichhardt  was mentioned often and it was McPhee who provided the quotes from Indigenous people about lost Europeans and horses; a carrot which continually enticed others to once again look for the lost explorers.

Early in 1890 (while in Melbourne) Alexander McPhee was described by the Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA) as a “gold prospector, explorer, story-teller, showman, etc.“. Perhaps McPhee (a natural story teller) simply recognised the talk, interest and questions which would arise from Jun Gun’s appearance and decided to use it to his advantage.

Unfortunately, despite all the information that is available, it is all one-sided. We can read about McPhee’s side of the story but we can’t read Jun Gun’s. We’ll never know whether it was Jun Gun’s choice to travel with McPhee or if he felt coerced in some way. We’ll never know how he felt to be on display; to be told to sing his tribal songs and make fire; to be looked over, prodded at and inspected by people full of opinions seeking to prove or disprove his Aboriginality; to stand on an oval and fend off viciously thrown cricket balls all in the name of Victorian era entertainment.  It is my hope that in the end Jun Gun really did return home to his family and his country but, in all honesty, we may never know.

Sources: