In the 1930s, 10 mischievous monkeys living on an island in an Omaha park fascinated and frustrated the city
OMAHA, Neb. - On a July evening more than 80 years ago, a young boy hurled a peanut into a park enclosure and unwittingly started a simian uprising.
For three years in the 1930s, a pack of monkeys living on a small, man-made island in Omaha’s Elmwood Park frustrated and fascinated the city. The animals’ exploits provided colorful copy for Omaha’s newspaper writers, embarrassed city officials and sparked a public debate about responsible spending as the country at large slogged through economic depression.
It all began in June 1933.
That month Frank Frost, then Omaha’s parks commissioner, announced plans for what seemed like an innocent-enough idea: The city would build a 20-by-40-foot island surrounded by a shallow moat in Elmwood Park and populate it with 10 primates from the Riverview Park Zoo.
Entertaining, sure. But it was not, perhaps, the most original idea at the time. Postcards from the 1930s and 1940s show that there were similar islands in Davenport, Iowa; Independence, Kansas; St. Paul, Minnesota; and elsewhere.
But that just proved the setup was a sure bet, The World-Herald reported at the time of Frost’s announcement: “Other cities, using the same plan, have found that the monkeys won’t cross the water.”
Then came opening day.
On the morning of July 13, 1933, park officials removed the 10 monkeys — actually rhesus macaques — from their cages at the zoo and delivered them to their new home in Elmwood Park. The island was located near the site of the present-day Elmwood Park swimming pool, said current Parks Director Brook Bench.
That first night, a crowd of about 500 people went to catch a glimpse of the new residents of what the newspaper had dubbed “The Island of Lost Souls.”
At first, the monkeys settled into their new surroundings peacefully. Then a young boy decided to toss a snack to Jim, the oldest of the primates on the island.
As the newspaper reported the following day, the peanut fell short and landed in the surrounding moat. Jim dove for it headfirst, splashing into the water.
Realizing he was able to easily navigate the shallows, the monkey waded to the “mainland,” according to the newspaper, where a crowd was gathered behind a wire fence. Excited, Jim called back to his companions, who similarly forded the water “as if they were taking a foot bath.”
The crowd gawked as the monkeys explored the shore opposite the island. Someone grabbed a stick, in a futile attempt to chase them back. Others kept their distance, fearing the monkeys were vicious.
The police were called. The officers resettled the monkeys on the island, and the episode appeared to be over.
The World-Herald reported the next morning that Claude Hender, parks superintendent at the time, “didn’t anticipate any more trouble.”
By that evening, Hender was eating his words.
The monkeys crossed the shallows again the next day, this time making it to human territory. The pack romped around a nearby parking lot, attracting the ire of authorities.
Park officials made the decision to move the monkeys back to the zoo until their island home could be reinforced. Attendants swarmed the area, corralling all the monkeys into cages.
But then — because you can’t make this stuff up — a cage door fell open, and the liberated monkeys spilled out. All were eventually caught except for Florian, who made it over the fence and into the woods near the park.
Citizens of nearby Fairacres, police officers, off-duty firemen and Commissioner Frost assembled to find the errant primate who, despite their efforts, was still missing the next morning, according to the newspaper.
It was, perhaps, an unlikely animal insurrection. At least by today’s standards.
“Sounds like they didn’t do their homework,” said Dan Cassidy, current vice president of animal management at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Though some primate species are deterred by water, Cassidy said, most macaques are capable of swimming.
Handlers moved the monkeys back to the Riverview Park Zoo temporarily as security improvements were made to the Elmwood lagoon. Workers deepened the moat and built a high concrete barrier, topped by metal fencing, around the whole enclosure.
“Monkeys Fail to Scale Wall; Stay on Island,” blazed an August 1933 World-Herald headline.
And though the primates continued to entertain — one newspaper story recounted a “revolt” against Jim, leader of the Elmwood pack — the public began to tire of them, owing partly to the decade’s economic turmoil.
“If the city has enough money to build a monkey island, why can’t it pay its firemen and policemen?” asked one 1933 newspaper story.
In one 1935 editorial, The World-Herald questioned whether parks officials could be trusted to responsibly spend federal money granted through the Works Progress Administration. The parks department had made poor decisions in the past, the newspaper said, naming monkey island as “one of the crowning examples of that kind of stupidity.”
In other editorials, citizens complained of the lagoon’s smell and of the living conditions of the animals, who were exposed to the simmering summer heat.
By 1936, as an election approached, Frost appeared to admit the idea was a failure. That year he announced that monkey island did not “fit in with the beauty of its surroundings” and ordered the monkeys returned to the zoo.
But it was too little, too late. Frost lost the election to Joseph B. Hummel, who had served as Omaha’s very first parks commissioner.
Asked after the election what he would do with the former monkey island, Hummel scoffed: “I have never seen it,” he said, but during his upcoming tenure “there will be trees and shrubs like God made ’em.”
In the immediate aftermath of closing the island, Frost announced plans to build an electric water fountain at the site.
But in June 1936, the former Island of Lost Souls was converted into a concert stage to host a performance of the WPA’s civic orchestra.
The day before the show, the newspaper reported, the musicians went to inspect the stage. They were confused and, likely, a little offended when they saw one remnant of the chaos that once drew crowds there.
Warnings, painted all around the concrete barrier: “Don’t throw stones at the monkeys.”