The original Learned Pig, known as Toby and described as a “most extraordinary and singular phenomenon,” 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.
Toby was originally trained by a Scotsman Samuel Bisset, and Bisset successfully exhibited Toby in Dublin. In 1783, after being assaulted, Bisset died, and, at that point, a Mr. Nicholson took over Toby’s exhibitions. Nicholson 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.”
Nicholson exhibited Toby everywhere. He was seen in Nottingham and at Sadler’s Well Theatre in 1784. A year later, 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, because after Nicholson exhibited Toby throughout England, he took Toby on the road and they traveled across continental Europe amazing everyone who came to see the Learned Pig.
Several anecdotes emerged during the Learned Pig’s days of fame. One anecdote that circulated involved Toby’s master. Supposedly, one day after an enraptured audience watched Toby perform his tricks of grunting and circulating a deck of cards, one astounded audience member asked Toby’s 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.'”
Another anecdote involves Dr. Samuel Johnson. Apparently, one day a man was saying how sorry he was for Toby because in order for Toby 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.”
The original Toby died after being exhibited for four years. Thereafter, all the Learned Pigs that followed in Toby’s footsteps became known as Toby too. 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 look on and had a placard that stated, “The Surprising PIG well versed in all Languages, perfect Arethmatician Mathematician & Composer of Musick.”
- “Anecdote of Doctor Johnson,” in The Pennsylvania Packet, 23 July 1789
- Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, 1870
- “Extra of a Letter from Bath,” in The Times, March 31, 5 April 1785
- “Foreign Intelligence,” in The Pennsylvania Packet, 21 May 1785
- “London, March 22,” in The Freeman’s Journal, 1 Jun 1785
- “Royal Circus,” in The Times, 2 April 1785
- “The Learned Pig,” in Derby Mercury, 19 August 1790
- The New England Quarterly Magazine, Number 2, 1802
- Youatt, William, The Pig, 1847