The Straight Dope (long running column)

Did a New York City museum have Eskimos on display?

July 15, 2005

Dear Cecil:

While attending a Nancy Drew conference this weekend, I heard the strangest story. In discussing the influence of orientalism on early Nancy Drew cover art (really), one speaker related an anecdote the cover artist used to tell. Apparently a group of Eskimos were brought to a New York City museum in the 1930s. They were cruelly put on display so that visitors could feed them raw fish for a small charge. It gets worse. Apparently said Eskimos died (I’m not clear on how), and the proprietors had them stuffed and put back on display. Relatives in Alaska, wondering what had happened, made the journey to New York to find their family members taxidermed. Naturally, in true Nancy Drew fashion, members of the audience were skeptical and asked for evidence, but the speaker insisted that it was so and said he’d read editorials from the New York papers at the time expressing outrage. Is there–could there possibly be–any truth to this story?

— Stefan Petrucha, via e-mail

On first reading your letter I thought: That’s one Nancy Drew conference speaker who could stand to get a clue. However, my steadfast assistant Bibliophage, whom I rely on to keep me abreast of developments in world literature, called my attention to Kenn Harper’s Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo (1986, republished 2000). Long story (277 pages) short, the account you heard was garbled–the Eskimos, or more properly the Inuit, were from Greenland, not Alaska, and the year was 1897, not anytime in the 1930s. But in its grim essentials the story is true.

The six Inuit–three men, a woman, a girl, and a boy–were brought to New York by would-be polar explorer Robert Peary, who was returning from his fourth expedition to Greenland. Franz Boas of the American Museum of Natural History, later a distinguished anthropologist, had asked Peary to bring back a Greenland native so scientists could study him without fear of frostbite. Peary, not a sweater of details, figured one, six, what’s the diff?

Thousands crowded Peary’s ship at dockside, ogling the new arrivals, and many more flocked to the museum, where the Greenlanders were briefly housed in the basement. All were turned away except for selected scientists, dignitaries, and of course journalists, who wrote droll stories about the visitors’ stab at adapting to civilized life. It wasn’t all that funny. The Inuit soon became ill, and within a year four were dead of tuberculosis, no doubt contracted from whites. A fifth was returned to the Arctic, while the sixth, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official.

Tragic and senseless? Sure, but up to that point more indicative of stupidity on Peary and Boas’s part than racism. Not to worry. The American Museum of Natural History decided that the bodies of the dead Inuit were museum property, to be disposed of as management saw fit. Officials turned the cadavers over to a medical school for dissection, then sent what was left to an upstate “bone-house,” a rendering plant of sorts used to prepare animals for display. There’s no indication the bodies were stuffed; the bones were “cleaned” of any remaining flesh and returned to Manhattan, where they were filed away among the museum’s artifacts. All this was done without the consent or even the knowledge of the decedents’ next of kin–in fact, the museum arranged for a fake burial to fool the survivors.

Whether any of the bones were put on public view isn’t clear. Minik later claimed to have found his father’s skeleton in a display case, but many of his stories of life in the Big Apple were patently untrue, and this one can’t be relied on. What’s not in question is that the museum had the bones and responded to Minik’s requests to return them with double-talk. It also took no responsibility for Minik himself. The boy’s adoptive father, William Wallace, was genuinely fond of him, but he apparently was also an embezzler who resigned from the museum amid scandal. His subsequent pleas for contributions to Minik’s upbringing were rebuffed. The yellow journalists of the day, bless ’em, lambasted Peary and the museum for their heartlessness, and in 1909 Peary’s people acceded to the boy’s request to be returned to Greenland. He lived there for seven years, then came back to the U.S. only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918.

The American Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, refused to turn over the bones, even after publication of Harper’s book. Not until 1992, following yet another round of bad press, did the institution agree to send the remains back to Greenland. They were finally were interred there the next year, after almost a century in a drawer.

— Cecil Adams

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