The Learned Pig Toby in All His Variations

The original Learned Pig, known as Toby and described as a “most extraordinary and singular phenomenon,”[1] was a pig that could read, write, tell time, and do mathematics. Toby would also respond to commands and answer questions. He accomplished these tasks by using his mouth to select cards with letters written on them and then he would arrange the letters into words.

Learned Pig Toby

The Learned Pig Toby. Public domain.

Toby was originally trained by a Scotsman Samuel Bisset, and he successfully exhibited Toby in Dublin. In 1783, after being assaulted, Bisset died, and, at that point, a Mr. Nicholson took over Toby’s exhibitions. He was perhaps an even more amazing trainer than Bisset. According to one newspaper, Nicholson taught tricks not only to Toby but also to many other animals: He taught a turtle to fetch and carry things, a hare to beat a drum, and six turkey cocks to perform a country dance. It was also reported, Nicholson trained three cats to play several tunes on a dulcimer (a fretted string instrument of the zither family) and “to imitate the Italian Manner of fighting.”[2] One advertisement stated:

“Among the infinite number of curiosities hitherto offered to the inspection and attention of the Public, there are none which lay so great a claim to our attention and approbation, as the wonderful and astonishing performances of the LEARNED PIG, Now exhibiting at the George an Angel Inn … The most singular Phaenomenon is one of the many surprising instances of the ingenuity of Mr. NICHOLSON, a man who is possessed for an exclusive and peculiar power over the most irrational part of animated nature. – Many of the first personages in the three kingdoms have been witnesses to his persevering temper and patience in the tuition of Beasts, Birds, &c. in a degree that has seldom fallen to the lot of human infirmity; … but above all, his conquering the natural obstinancy and stupidity of a PIG, by teaching him to unite the letters of a person’s name, the number of persons in the room, the hour and minute by any watch &c. &c.”[3]

Toby, the Learned Pig, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Toby, the Learned Pig. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nicholson and Toby were seen everywhere. There were in Nottingham and at Sadler’s Well Theatre in 1784. A year later, the Learn Pig Toby was exhibited at the Royal Circus in St. Georges Fields. Toby was also seen in Scarborough, York, and, supposedly, the proprietor of a Bath public house, also called the Learned Pig, exhibited Toby the same year. But Toby’s exhibitions were not just limited to England, similar to Madame Tussaud (before she established her permanent museum on Baker Street) he toured beyond England. Whereas she went to Ireland and Scotland, Nicholson took Toby and traveled across continental Europe amazing everyone with Toby’s tricks.

The Learned Pig, Public Domain

The Learned Pig. Public domain.

Several anecdotes emerged during the Toby’s days of fame. One anecdote that circulated involved Toby’s master. Supposedly, one day after an enraptured audience watched the Learned Pig Toby perform his tricks of grunting and circulating a deck of cards, one astounded audience member asked his master how he contrived to import such amazing knowledge to a lowly pig? “His answer was — ‘It was a hard job, sir, for I killed fourteen other pigs before I could bring this one to reason.'”[4]

Another story about Toby demonstrated that even though he might be a star, he still was a pig at heart:

“One day, Toby was led round the town by a bright chain, just by way of an advertisement of the evening’s performance, while the big drum and Panpipes were behind, and a banner, emblazoned ‘The Learned Pig,’ in front. Toby walked along, smooth, white, and decorous, merely giving an occasional grunt, or a snuff at some vegetable refuse left in the way, till the procession was passing a filthy, muddy pool by the roadside … The pool was inches deep in mud and water, and Toby; though learned, was still a pig. He must have like the old Irishwoman, ‘so horrid clean,’ for, in spite of the checking of his bright chain, he gave a grunt of delight, rushed off and the next moment was having a glorious wallow, first on one side, and then upon other, snuffling, snorting, running his nose under, and blowing up a mud volcano, and at last completely smothering himself with the cool, wet odorous slush, in whose midst he lay upon his side, half buried, winking one eye; and, in the midst of his thorough enjoyment, giving vent to little soft grunts of satisfaction, in spite of the cuts of a whip, the dumb astonishment of the big drum and pipes, the looks aghast of the banner-bearer, and the delighted roars of the crowd.”[5]

A third anecdote related to Toby involves Dr. Samuel Johnson. Apparently, one day a man was saying how sorry he was for the Learned Pig Toby because in order for him to learn his skills he must have been beaten. Johnson retorted:

“I think your sorrow and pity are misplaced … the Pig’s learning has protracted his existence: had he been illiterate, he had long since been smoaked [sic] into hams, roiled into collars of brawn, and consigned to the table of some luxurious citizen — Now he is visited by the philosopher and the politician, by the brave and the beauteous, by the scientific and the idle: he is gazed with the eye of wonder, contemplated with the smile of approbation, and gratified with the murmur of applause.”[6]

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The original pig died after being exhibited for four years. Thereafter, all the learned pigs that followed in Toby’s footsteps became known as the Learned Pig Toby. But it was the original Toby that wowed audiences and inspired numerous satirical comments and comic prints. One popular caricature of the time was “The Wonderful Pig” created by Thomas Rowlandson in 1785. It demonstrated Toby’s amazing abilities as a crowd looked on and over the fireplace a placard stated, “The Surprising PIG well versed in all Languages, perfect Arethmatician Mathematician & Composer of Musick.”

The Wonderful Pig by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain

The Wonderful Pig by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.


  • [1] “The Learned Pig,” in Derby Mercury, 19 August 1790, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “Stamford, Feb. 8.,” in Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1788, p. 3.
  • [4] Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, 1870, p. 26.
  • [5] Once a Week, Vol. 29, 1873, p. 182.
  • [6] The New London Magazine, 1789, p. 15.

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