The Richmond Register

November 20, 2007

Tale of the Parkes Monkey

Robert Grise

Thirty-eight years ago, we ran a Madison’s Heritage column in the Richmond Daily Register telling about a Madison County man who was accused of working monkeys in his hemp fields. After all these years people are still asking about that story. So, for all who are interested, here is the monkey tale again.

James B. Parkes, who lived near Kingston and who was known to many of his neighbors as one of the best, hard-working farmers in Madison County, achieved nationwide fame in 1887 when a practical joke about him got out of hand.

Joe Mulhattan, a traveling salesman who liked to play tricks, was in Richmond that year. During his visit here, he heard a “tall tale” about a Texas planter who used monkeys to pick cotton. Intending to make the most out of the story, the trickster Mulhattan telegraphed it to a large regional newspaper, substituting hemp for cotton and changing the location to Parkes’ farm at Kingston. A brother in Africa and a brother-in-law in Shelby County were added to the story.

Failing to check on the source, that regional newspaper ran it as serious news with editorial comments about how this would affect the labor supply and employment in the whole country. The story spread like wildfire from one newspaper to another across the nation. For several weeks, the surprised Parkes received about 25 letters a day, some berating him (as one writer said for “putting honest, hard-working laborers out of work,”) while most were inquiring about the practicability of the experiment.

The New York Times ran a long article repeating the story and giving Parkes “what-for” for trying to ruin the labor movement in the U.S. The Times reported the story, adding the statement that Parkes had successfully trained seven large monkeys to work in his hemp fields to break and prepare the hemp for sale to rope factories! The cost was estimated to be about one-fourth of human labor.

Not only that, the Times also claimed that Parkes already had sent his brother to South Africa to catch and ship 10 more monkeys back to farm, and that a brother-in-law in Shelby County was preparing to train monkeys for his farm because the project had worked out so successfully in Madison.

The Times viewed all this as a great danger to the organized labor movement. If this monkey business is not stopped as once, the editor stated, many laborers, “especially Irishmen and Italians” would be put out of work. Moreover, monkeys would not spend money on things such as clothing and books, affecting the whole U.S. economy. The editor wrote that “the thing to do is to put Parkes under ban of perpetual boycott.”

In desperation, Parks went to the (Richmond) Kentucky Register newspaper and had a notice inserted declaring:

1. That he has no hemp field, never had a hemp field, and never expects to have a hemp field.

2. That he has no brother-in-law in Shelby County, never had and never expects to have a brother-in-law in Shelby County.

3. That he has no brother in Africa, never had and never expects to have a brother in Africa.

4. That he has no monkeys, never had and never expects to have monkeys.

Parkes was a modest, retiring person and a successful farmer without monkeys, stated the Register editor, and it was high time that newspapers and people left this innocent young man alone.