In fall 1875, Charles Winn bought a small pig from his neighbor Henry Bradley and named him “Ben Butler” after the controversial Union general and Massachusetts governor.
Although Butler had a slightly porcine appearance, it was more likely that the name was a reference to his character rather than his physical appearance. Butler’s strict imposition of martial law in New Orleans earned him the sobriquet “The Beast.”
Winn, however, lived in North Danville, and set about training the young porker at his farm on Pumpkin Hill.
Born in Danville in 1838, Winn was first and foremost a farmer, but in those days that meant he was a jack-of-all-trades and, by necessity, ready to do anything to make a living for himself and his wife Georgianna. To make matters worse, he had just one arm, which had rendered him exempt from Civil War service. Although his injury had kept him safe from the cauldron of war, it made a farmer’s life even more of a challenge.
Forming an almost instant attachment to his new pet, Winn found the animal a quick and willing student and he was soon able to exhibit the animal prodigy at county fairs, church socials, and local talent shows, reaping far greater rewards than the rashers of bacon that otherwise would have been the pig’s fate. Winn even billed himself as “Professor Winn,” a common prefix used by magicians, ventriloquists and confidence men in the 19th century. Ben Butler was an instant success. A newspaper from Lyndon, The Vermont Union, opined:
“Did you see that educated pig at the fairs, trained and exhibited by Charles Winn, of Danville. It was no humbug. The pig would tell by picking up figures the hour and the minute by the watch, also the numbers of cents in any piece of coin or scrip, would add or multiply figures correctly, would pick out the name of any President called for, and play a good game of euchre. Winn claims that the hog has more brains, not withstanding his stupid look, than any other domestic animal.”
As unlikely as it may seem today, the “Learned Pig” was a staple of popular entertainment throughout much of the 19th century. The most famous exemplar was Toby, the original Learned Pig, taught to respond to commands by a Scottish showman named Samuel Bisset. Toby was the toast of London, and ever after, an educated pig was often named “Toby.” So famous was this animal prodigy that, when in London (1786), Thomas Jefferson remarked upon witnessing the creature’s performance — allowing Toby equal space in his diary to that of the king. In his biography of Jefferson, Kevin Hayes commented “Jefferson seems to have preferred the oinkers company: better a learned pig than a mulish monarch.”
While Toby reigned supreme on the London stage, William Frederick Pinchbeck brought his version of the Learned Pig to the United States. An advertisement for his exhibition was printed in the Boston Gazette for Jan. 29, 1798.
“Mr. Pinchbeck respectfully informs the ladies and gentlemen of Boston that he has just arrived in town with that very great natural curiosity, The Learned Pig, which has lately been brought from England and purchased at Philadelphia for one thousand dollars. This astonishing and sagacious animal will actually perform the following surprising particulars.”
“He reads print of writing, spells, tells the time of day, both the hours and minutes, by any person’s watch in the company, the date of the year, the day of the month, distinguishes colors, how many persons there are present, and to the astonishment of every spectator will answer any question in the four first rules of arithmetic. To conclude, any lady or gentleman may draw a card from a pack and keep it concealed, the pig, without hesitation, will discover the card.”
For this remarkable entertainment, Pinchbeck charged 50 cents for admission, around $10 today.
In his treatise The Expositor, the first book on conjuring published in the United States, Pinchbeck revealed the secrets of the Learned Pig, as well as a variety of other illusions of the stage magician including The Invisible Lady, The Acoustic Temple, and other optical effects. He also explained the very popular skill of ventriloquism.
In practice, an educated pig would stand behind an array of cards with names, numbers and letters (not unlike a Ouija board), and when asked questions would answer by selecting an appropriate response card. According to The Expositor, the training should follow this pedagogic example.
Take a pig, seven or eight weeks old, let him have free access to the interior part of your house until he shall become in some measure domesticated. When familiar you may enter upon his instruction. Three times a day instruct him as follows:
“Put a card in his mouth, and hold it shut, giving him to understand he is not to drop it …”
The instructions in The Expositor are quite detailed and continue for four lessons in which Pinchbeck describes how to teach the pig to pick up a card with a corner bent upwards with this caution, “accustom him to your snuffing the nose for purposes that will appear as he progresses in his learning.” Of course, the reader is reminded to reward the pig liberally with treats when he does what he is told.
Lesson three begins, “You must now lay down three cards. He will naturally try to take the one most convenient to him; and your business is to check him not snuffing your nose; and taking it from him in an angry tone of voice, replace the same, and force him to take the one next to him or the third, snuffing your nose.” The snuffing sound then becomes the cue for the pig to take a particular card.
By persevering in this manner a few days, he will soon understand that he must not take hold until you give him the signal, which is breathing through your nose. When you have learnt him this, you may continue increasing the cards; and that animal, who in his rude state appears the most stupid, with the least share of tractability amongst all other quadrupeds, will be found sapient, docile, and gentle.
The final lesson, Pinchbeck cautioned, would take a fortnight to master.
“Spread 12 cards on the floor in a circular direction, four inches apart; within this circle keep the pig and yourself. We will suppose you before an assembly for the purpose of an exhibition. Therefore you must give up sitting as that posture would be very singular as well as impolite. The pig observing you. In this unusual position, will be much embarrassed.”
Pinchbeck also suggests controlling the pig with a length of string. “At the length of the string he will learn to walk the circle with his nose to the cards; and when he hears the signal before mentioned he will snatch at the card he shall then be opposite: immediately step back and he will follow with the same. Give him a piece of bread as his reward.”
Winn must have used the 1805 text or similar instructions to prepare his pig for the stage. With his performer thus trained, Winn embarked upon a career in show business. A note in the Montpelier Argus for October 1876 mentions the act:
“Charles Winn of Danville has an educated pig, which is so well trained as to tell by cards the time of day, the number of days in the year, and any sum in multiplication the product of which is less than one hundred. It will also tell you who was the first President and will pick out the name of any of the Presidents by hearing them called. Charlie says that his pig knows all about the old Presidents, but cannot tell who the new one will be.”
A few years later there was another brief mention in the Argus from the Washington County Fair. “The Learned Pig, exhibited by Prof. Charles S. Winn, a one-armed farmer, was fairly patronized. His merits were well set forth by Mr. Robert Burns Gammon at the entrance after the following happy manner.”
The pitchman’s spiel was effective enough to attract large crowds for Winn’s theatrical spectacle.
Winn’s pig was so adept at performing that he sold Ben Butler to a pair of Boston showmen. The St. Albans Messenger for June 30, 1877, reported: “Charles Winn of Danville, who sold his educated pig last fall, had recently commenced the task of educating a seven weeks old pig.” It was reported that two show-business empresarios from Boston paid $200 for the original Ben Butler. The clever Charlie Winn immediately set about training a replacement pig, which he exhibited the following summer and fall.
Winn passed away from heart disease in Danville on the Fourth of July 1884. The show-business pioneer was survived by his famous pig.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.