The best scientists in the world may have long ago written off the Bathurst “baboon boy” as a hoax but more than 60 years after he died, there are still a handful of people alive who cling to the belief he was a real-life Tarzan.
“It is fascinating for those of us that knew Lucas the Baboon Boy to still hear people writing him off as bulls**t,” 81-year-old retired farmer Gordon Arnold said.
As a child, Arnold would grab his catapult and hunt birds with “Luke” – who he claims “would wring their necks, pull out a few feathers and eat them raw” – in the Trappes Valley area 70 years ago.
“I was always convinced the story of Lucas the baboon boy was true.”
Arnold said Lucas had scars all over his body, including a massive one across his face, apparently from when he tried to steal ostrich eggs with the baboon troop. “He also said he broke his leg when he fell off a krantz stealing honey with the baboons.”
South Africa’s own Tarzan boy made headlines in the Dispatch and all over the world between 1928 and 1938, and there was even talk of making a Hollywood movie . But it all fell apart when the esteemed American Journal of Psychology (AJP) labelled the story a hoax in 1940.
According to a Dispatch story on a paper by internationally renowned Wits University anatomy professor Raymond Dart to a science congress in East London in 1939, the story of Lucas was “the most strongly certified case” of a feral child .
But Dart revised his findings less than a year later when he told the AJP he now considered the story an elaborate attempt to “exploit” and cash in on a “low grade imbecile”.
In the 1953 book Assegai over the Hills, by Grahamstown author FC Metrowich, news of Lucas’ death in Settler’s Hospital in 1948 “created only a faint stir of excitement in the South African press”.
“Yet there was a time this primitive, uneducated K****r achieved worldwide notoriety,” he wrote.
In the book, a copy of which is at the Cory Library at Rhodes University, a young Xhosa baby was “kidnapped” by baboons when his mother left him under a bush while she tilled a field.
Legend has it that several years later, in 1900, a young boy was captured by police after he was spotted running with a troop of baboons near Bathurst and taken to the Grahamstown Mental Hospital.
But no records of the feral boy existed at the hospital. Subsequent interviews with officials revealed although a young boy called Lucas was found and admitted to the hospital at the time, he came from “Burghersdorp” – miles away from where the baboon boy was allegedly found near the Fish River.
It was only after he was taken in by Bathurst blacksmith George H Smith in 1903 that the baboon boy story took root. He lived with the Smiths for more than 40 years.
A treasure trove of photographs and press clippings detailing the controversial “baboon boy” are housed at Grahamstown’s Albany Museum and Cory Library, which both allowed the Dispatch access to the archives.
Norman Clayton, who went to school with Smith’s son Eric 80 years ago, told how he used to see Lucas every day on his way to school at nearby Thornhill Farm. The retired farmer, 89, said Lucas “did not talk much” and was “a bit backward”.
“Lucas used to act like a baboon … he would run on all fours.”
Although academics scoff at claims that Lucas was raised by baboons, Clayton said locals always believed it. “We never questioned it … he ran around like a baboon.”
Eric Smith died earlier this year. His widow, “Aunt Aggie”, never met the “baboon boy”, but she heard all about him during their 59 years of marriage. “Some people say it is hooey, but I don’t think so. Eric always said it was true.”
Another retired farmer recalled Lucas riding a horse with no tack. “Boet, he used to ride around bareback … he would use his feet to steer the horse.”
But US historian Professor Roger Levine, who teaches modern South African and African history at Sewanee: University of the South, Tennessee, is not convinced Lucas ever lived with baboons. Levine did a “bunch of work on Lucas” when he was in Cape Town 10 years ago that featured on National Geographic’s Is it Real TV series for an episode on “wild” children. “ I argue that the way he was presented to the world reveals a lot about white racial attitudes.”
Levine, born in Johannesburg and educated at Boston and Yale universities, is certain the story was a hoax designed to cash in on a person who was “slow or mentally retarded”. “My take on it is that he exhibited a certain set of behaviour that Smith saw and said ‘I can say he grew up that way’ – and then perhaps he coached Lucas on how to answer certain questions.” Calling the “white settlers gullible”, Levine said: “I think it’s to do with how whites at the time hoped to view Africans … almost like wish fulfilment.