There has been a long-standing mystery and controversy surrounding Bobo, the gregarious gorilla who fascinated Seattle and the world with his antics at the Lowman family home in Anacortes and then at the Woodland Park Zoo from 1951 until 1968. Now, more than 40 years after his untimely death, the controversy has been settled, the...
JEFF BRADLEY was quietly tending to his museum specimens one day in 2007 when his phone rang and a voice said, I’d like to ask what you know about Bobo.
It was all very mysterious. Bradley knew that Bobo was a gorilla, a genuine Seattle celebrity, and that his employer — the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture — had Bobo’s skeleton. But that was about it.
Bobo, in fact, had been an international superstar. And even now, 42 years after his death, he still exerts a mythic hold over the imaginations of those who remember visiting him at Woodland Park Zoo back in the day.
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So Bradley arranged to meet the mystery caller, whose name was Mark Moehring. Then, hoping to divine what Moehring was up to, he started doing some digging and stumbled into a long-simmering mystery about what really happened to a piece of the Bobo legend.
THINGS WERE different in the 1950s, when William “Gorilla Bill” Said could make his living selling primates to zoos. Gorilla Bill’s gruesome modus operandi — about which magazines wrote admiringly — was to kill the dominant male in a group, then capture as many females and babies as he could.
In 1951, Gorilla Bill captured Bobo. Only 2 weeks old, he was the youngest gorilla ever captured, and no zoo would risk buying him. So Said took him home to Columbus, Ohio.
Four months later, Anacortes fisherman Bill Lowman came looking for a chimpanzee to buy as a gift for his parents. When he saw the bright-eyed baby gorilla looking up at him, a little tennis-racket-shaped rattle in his hand, it was love at first sight. The next thing he knew, Lowman had swaddled Bobo, put him in a portable bassinet, and enlisted his Aunt Nell to drive them home to his parents.
“For the next two years, Raymond and Jean Lowman raised Bobo in their home. They dressed him in human clothes, taught him to eat at a table and sleep in a bed, and groomed him to live among people. While others would use the term “pet” when talking about Bobo, the Lowmans never did. “He was much more like a child,” says Bill Lowman’s daughter, Claudia.
Claudia and her sister, Sue, spent a great deal of time in their grandparents’ house, where the playful little gorilla would wrestle and hug and run around the room with the destructive force of a 4-year-old with superpowers.
It didn’t take long for word to spread that a family in Washington state was raising a gorilla as if he were human. Soon, tourists began standing in the Lowmans’ yard, staring through the windows.
“My dad said it was like living in a fishbowl,” Claudia recalls. “And the neighbors got more and more upset by the traffic.” Traffic only worsened after newspapers all over the country ran Bobo stories, Life magazine did a series on him, and Bobo newsreels circulated in the nation’s theaters.
There were other complications. Jean Lowman recounted them in letters to a researcher on captive gorillas. A typical passage: “When Bobo would run in and upset Raymond’s chair and Raymond’s feet would fly in the air sometimes, Raymond would be angry at Bobo and start after him.” She kept a detailed record of the wreckage. French door frame broken plates, glasses, cups, toys, windows smashed, books chewed, blinds torn, aprons ripped . . .
At the same time, there were terribly touching moments: “I held him in my arms almost every afternoon while he had his nap,” Jean wrote. “Kate Smith put him to sleep with her songs. (I wonder now if he’d remember ‘When the Moon Comes Over the Mountains’ if he were to hear her sing it.)”
But by December, 1953, the family could no longer cope.
IN HOME MOVIES taken the day the Lowmans turned Bobo over to Woodland Park, the family clearly struggles to let go. For three weeks, Jean spent her days in a room adjoining Bobo’s cage. But the family was greatly consoled by Bobo’s emergence as a huge draw who clearly relished his place in the spotlight.
Over the next 15 years, the crowds couldn’t get enough of the gregarious gorilla. Woodland Park leveraged his charisma to fund a new primate house — an impossible political proposition before then — and for years the media breathlessly tracked the zoo’s fruitless efforts to get Bobo to mate with Fifi, the female brought to Woodland Park in hopes that Bobo would reproduce.
As for the Lowmans and Bobo, they never really got over each other. Whenever Claudia and Sue visited, he would cease his antics and come sit against the glass, trying to touch them. One memory in particular still reduces Claudia to tears. Her grandfather was allowed to visit Bobo in his cage one day. Bobo immediately picked up an apple, twisted it in half, turned his back to Raymond, and reached over his shoulder with one of the halves, waiting for Raymond to take it. It was a role-reversed reprise of a ritual the two enjoyed when Bobo lived in the Lowman home.
Then, without warning, Bobo died on Feb. 22, 1968, at age 18. His death was front-page news in Seattle.
There was also a great deal of interest in his autopsy, not only to determine the cause of death but also to find clues as to his disinterest in females. A number of notable Seattle doctors, veterinarians and scientists were invited to attend.
It turned out that Bobo had died of pulmonary emboli, causing a massive hemorrhage, and that he had an extra female chromosome — a condition known as Klinefelter’s syndrome.
Bobo’s body went to the Burke; his skin was stuffed and put on display at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), where it remains a big draw. And there the story should have ended, with the solving of his life’s mystery. Instead, a new mystery began.
Graduate student Charles Wood, who’d come to Seattle to dissect Bobo’s remains for UW professor and Burke director Dr. Daris Swindler, went into the cold-storage locker where Bobo’s remains were and discovered that the gorilla’s head was missing.
Swindler made some inquiries as to its whereabouts, but got nowhere. Bobo’s remains were left in the Burke freezer for seven years, his skeletonization (the removal of flesh from bones) put off in part because a skull-less skeleton had less educational value.
Then, in 1975, the Burke’s freezer failed, and some 100 corpses, Bobo’s among them, were rotted beyond repair. At first, Bobo’s remains were scheduled for incineration. But just as his charisma had led him down a remarkable life path, so did it spare him an ignominious disposal. Audrey Mesford, a primate-anatomy student who volunteered at the museum and fondly remembered visiting Bobo, offered to skeletonize the remains. Working in the Burke’s parking lot for three months, Mesford performed a minor miracle (given the stench, her work was nothing short of heroic), ultimately saving Bobo’s bones for use at the Burke and in UW anatomy classes.
Swindler’s dream of reconstructing the entire skeleton, though, was deferred to the day when he could recover the skull. But who could have taken it, and for what purpose?
THREE YEARS passed without an answer. It wasn’t until 1978 that someone suggested to Swindler that the skull was in the hands of one Dr. Merrill Spencer, a famous physician and vascular physiologist who had come to Seattle in 1963 to help work on another celebrity captive, Namu the killer whale. Spencer attended Bobo’s autopsy and was known for his extensive research into blood circulation in the brain. Swindler wrote to Spencer, but let the matter drop when he got no reply.
Another three years would pass before David Humphries, in the Feb. 24, 1981, Seattle Weekly, came close to resolving the mystery. Humphries recounted his repeated calls to Spencer, who finally picked up late one night at home and said in answer to the question of whether he had Bobo’s skull, “I might.”
Then, astonishingly, Spencer agreed to let Humphries take a picture of it. Humphries told Spencer, “The Burke wants its skull back.”
“Look, you,” Spencer replied heatedly, “all you want to do is start a controversy. And if it’s controversy you want, tell the Burke that the Namu skull also belongs to me. I cleaned it and it’s mine.”
Humphries dutifully passed along Spencer’s sentiments to Swindler. But oddly enough, and Humphries’ photograph notwithstanding, nothing happened. And the public notion prevailed that the skull’s whereabouts remained a mystery. This was most apparent when a writer for The Stranger, Melody Moss, revived the story 19 years later. When Moss called Spencer about the skull, he said curtly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and hung up. Told about that call, Swindler responded, “He’s a lying old devil!” — a line that Spencer’s family remembers with tremendous feeling to this day. (When asked about Swindler’s insult recently, Spencer’s widow, Joanne, said heatedly, “I’d like to clonk him in the head!”)
This was what the Burke’s Bradley unearthed in his research. “So I figured Moehring was trying to revive the scandal,” he said.
There was some information, though, that had not yet made it into the public record.
BACK IN 1968, when Bobo’s head went missing, Charles Wood had to find another research project. He’d developed a special fondness for Bobo, though, because the gorilla had brought him to the city where he met his future wife — a woman who had visited Bobo every year on her birthday, throughout her childhood.
Wood became a highly respected instructor specializing in anatomical illustration. He was convening a UW Extension class one evening in 2002 when a student named Tim Myers showed up with several specimens from his employer’s collection. This was no trifling matter, as real skulls are hard to come by; Wood generally has to settle for plastic ones.
One of the skulls was a gorilla’s, with a small square piece cut out of one temporal lobe, then put back in place. Curious, Myers had eased the small square out and discovered, written inside in pencil, the word “Bobo.”
“I really didn’t know much about Bobo,” Myers recalled. “All I knew was that this was a kind of tawdry topic in Seattle folklore.” Just how tawdry he was to discover when he showed the skull to Wood. “He just took a deep breath, and he looked at me and he asked, ‘Is that Bobo?’ And I said, ‘Take the bone off and read what’s inside.’ And he did that, and then he just kind of sat down. It was real emotional for him.”
Invaluable as a real gorilla skull was for art instruction, Wood insisted that Myers get the skull out of his classroom. “It had so many implications,” said Myers. “Chuck and I both felt like it was a cursed skull, and we didn’t want it in our possession.”
Myers returned it to his employer — Merrill Spencer — without comment. Then he ran off to consult with his boss, Mark Moehring. Moehring concluded that “the skull basically belonged to a museum.” But Spencer’s extreme sensitivity on the topic was well known, and the two didn’t dare confront him.
A man whose accomplishments in medicine and science were wide-ranging and legendary, Spencer was your basic, um, 800-pound gorilla in the medical arena — a classic, highly charismatic, Type A personality. He was the first to do an electrocardiogram on a whale; he founded the Virginia Mason Medical Center hyperbaric medicine lab and Spencer Technologies, where his inventions spun off two medical laboratories still operating in Seattle; he published more than 350 papers, many of them groundbreaking, on such topics as renal and cardiac physiology and cerebral emboli.
Yet for all of that, Spencer came to believe he was destined to be remembered in Seattle solely as The Man Who Stole Bobo’s Skull. So, Moehring said, “it wasn’t a topic we could bring up with him.”
ONLY AFTER Spencer died in 2006 did the time seem right for a final resolution.
Moehring, tasked with disposing of Spencer’s scientific materials, resolved to “repatriate” the skull with the rest of the skeleton. But his concerns about Spencer’s reputation were so strong that he kept the skull — and its secret — for a year.
So when Moehring showed up at last to meet with Bradley, he took a fair amount of time getting to the point. “He had a lot of questions about how we do things here,” said Bradley, “and it wasn’t until we were sitting here face-to-face that he said he knew the family who’s got the skull and they’re interested in giving it back.”
Bradley was dumbfounded. The last thing he expected to hear from Moehring was that he’d come bearing Bobo’s skull. Moehring told him that “the family would like to see it done without dragging Dr. Spencer’s name through the mud.” Ultimately, Bradley listed the donor as “anonymous.”
For his part, Bradley harbors no ill will toward Spencer. Noting that the doctor needed Bobo’s head with the soft tissue still intact when he took it for his research, Bradley pointed out traces inside the skull of Spencer’s having injected rubber latex into the blood vessels. “In a sense,” he said, “the purpose of our collection is for researchers. So he was doing what people should be doing with a specimen. And I can’t say he took a ‘Burke specimen’ because he took it before it was a Burke specimen.”
As for how this matter has finally come to light, that’s a whole other story. Suffice to say that it would be another two years before all was revealed. And why did the story come out at all? Says Moehring: “Because it was just too delicious.”
Fred Moody is a Seattle-area freelance writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.