James Wide worked as a signalman for the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service in South Africa. He was popularly known as James “Jumper” since he used to jump across moving trains running on adjacent tracks. One day, during the stunt, James miscalculated his jump and fell under a moving carriage. Though he survived the accident, he lost both of his legs.
Though James got wooden legs fitted but was unable to perform his official duties, he found it challenging to move around without assistance. He was worried that he would now lose his job.
One day James was at the local market. As luck would have it, he met with a farmer who has a trained monkey driving his bullock cart. James thought if he could have the monkey, he could train him as an assistant and thereby he would be able to retain his job.
James asked the farmer to sell the baboon to him. The farmer was initially reluctant, but on seeing the condition of James, the farmer agreed to sell the baboon to him. The baboon was named Jack.
Jack turned out to be a very intelligent baboon and turned out to be great help and partner to James. The baboon would help James in commuting from his home to the railway station as well as run small errands. Jack would always remain at the side of James and would observe him very keenly. Slowly Jack learnt to operate the signal levers. He started to recognise the trains and would manage the signals and tracks accordingly.
The news spread to the neighbouring villages that a monkey operates the signals at the railway station. People started coming to the station to see Jack. But some people thought that it was too risky for a baboon to operate the critical signals and complained to the authorities. On knowing the situation, the railway immediately terminated the services of James.
James was not to take this lying down as he had full confidence and faith in the abilities of his baboon Jack. He wrote back to higher-ups that they can come and take a test of the baboon. Surprisingly the authorities agreed and sent an engineer to take a detailed examination of Jack. Jack passed all tests in flying colours.
The railway authorities were so much impressed with Jack that they appointed him as the official signalman at that station. He started getting a salary of 20 cents per week and half a bottle of beer every day. Now it was James’s turn to assist Jack.
Jack worked for nine years as a signalman. During these nine years, he did not make even a single mistake. He died in 1890 due to tuberculosis. Jack’s skull has been preserved at the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa.