Mr Moke the Talking Chimpanzee
Mr Moke was the stage name of a chimpanzee called 'Moko'. Mr Moke was claimed to be the worlds only talking chimpanzee and he may well have been at the height of his fame. He was definitely not the 'one and only' ever though. There was Johnny and Kokomo Jr to name just two. I have personally known a few that came pretty close to producing words but none quite sounded like human speech. Chimpanzees are very intelligent and are only hampered from actual 'speaking' by the restrictions of their anatomy. A slight deformation could actually aid such a phenomenon. Captive animals can definitely understand spoken English and have proven this time and again (even an elephant, would you believe?). Personally I have always talked to chimpanzees when I worked with them. Not ‘baby talk’, just normal chatter about nothing in particular and am convinced they understood more of what I said than they ever let on. They understood nothing of politics, cinema or tv programmes but they did understand much of what was said about their surroundings. They were definitely familiar with words like ‘lock’, slide, door, rain, give, no, ok, come, go, brush, floor and I could go on.
Why the name Moko? Well his first owner was one Robert Tormachin and he was a rather strange and mysterious character. He was apparently a US citizen but later searches of records were unable to turn up any information on him. Robert was definitely no stranger to the Pacific Ocean and may well have had an Antipodean connection. Moko is the Maori word for a facial tattoo. Moko was also the name of a circus monkey popularised in a 1952 childrens book. In fact Moko seems to have been quite popular as a ‘monkey’ name.
Moko the chimpanzee was very much a 'fairground' animal earning his owner a living on the TV show and nightclub circuit in the 1960s. He had a very limited vocabulary but was reputed to be able to say "Mama", "Goodbye" and “No” and was able to do a few other 'tricks'.
Mr Moke Postcard
'Johnny' Talking Chimpanzee
The chimpanzee was originally purchased by Robert Tormachin from a Florida animal dealer when it was just six months old. The original purchase was profit motivated and shortly after Robert and Moko took an aircraft and flew to Papeete in Tahiti. Here Robert had every intention of displaying and using the little animal to make money during the Bastille Day celebrations and possibly even selling the little chimp. His plans went awry because along the way he became very attached to him.
Getting to Tahiti had been easy enough but returning to the US presented a legion of problems. He could not obtain the necessary paperwork to take the little chimp back to America. On July 18th 1957 not to be outdone Robert managed to get passage on a 35 foot private yacht owned by a Canadian couple. This was the ‘Flying Walrus’ which was sailing for New Zealand via some other islands.
Robert Tormachin and Moko
The Henderson Island Incident is a maze of confusing stories
- On the 1,500 mile journey they encountered terrible weather and so Robert asked that he and Moko be put ashore on the 28th July. This was on the uninhabited ‘Henderson Island’. The only thing they took with them was condensed milk for the little chimpanzee.
- According to his story Moko had been none too popular with the wife of the yacht owner and anchoring near Henderson island they had put Robert and the chimp ashore for a few days to cool off. They had then sailed away without him.
- There was the suggestion that Roberts parents had been shipwrecked on Henderson Island some time before and Robert had gone to seek evidence.
- Another theory suggested treasure.
- Robert at one point had said he was not telling anyone why he went there.
- He had claimed that he had never even heard of Henderson Island and yet there are stories to suggest that he had researched the place in some depth and had visited previously.
Whatever…he and Moko were left on the island and the ‘Flying Walrus’ sailed away.
Though the ‘Flying Walrus’ stopped in Pitcairn island only a casual mention was made of a crewman being left or ‘jumping ship’ at an island en route.
On September 7th 1957 the MS Corinthic stopped at Pitcairn and made mention of seeing a man and child on Henderson island as they passed by. The ships captains excuse for not stopping was that he thought it was Pitcairn islanders or perhaps a scientist.
‘For forty days they lived alone together on the island subsisting on coconuts from the trees and fish caught around the island. Eventually they were able to hail a passing ship. The captain agreed to take Robert on board but refused to take the little chimpanzee. Robert would not leave Moko and so he and the chimpanzee were left once again to nature.’ This again seems to be a story, though may be true
News of their predicament somehow leaked out and reached the ears of native fishermen on Pitcairn Island some 165 miles away. They set out to collect Robert and Moko and take them home to Pitcairn. Robert claimed at the time to have been cast ashore and was not there by choice.
The truth is difficult to fathom because Robert was hardly in dire straits. He had a sturdy well stocked tent, 12 cases of tinned food, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, fishing rods, spear fishing equipment, radio, record player and records, traveller’s cheques, a 44 gallon drum of water and even some chickens. This certainly does not suggest abandonment or jumping ship.
On the 10th September a radio message from the ‘Flying Walrus’ said that Robert had paid them to put him ashore on Henderson Island. Subsequent conversations with the owner showed that Robert had paid them to take him and leave him on Henderson Island. Why? We will never know. Robert had talked about writing a book but if he ever got round to it it is lying unpublished somewhere.
So Robert returned in the longboats to Pitcairn Island and, in spite of the distance it was an uneventful journey. There was great celebration because of the safe return of the boatmen but also because of Robert and Moko.
This did not last long. Robert was 27 years old, fit and athletic. The close knit islanders did not take kindly to the attention being given to him by the girls of the island.
Sensing there was a problem the Governor of Fiji ordered that Robert must leave on the next available ship and if possible Moko must go too. If this was not possible then Moko should be destroyed. The islanders themselves did not like this idea because they knew how much Robert cared for Moko so they agreed to care for him for three months. If arrangements could not be made to remove him by that time then he would become property of Pitcairn and the islanders would decide his fate.
Here they faced the same maze of regulations they had faced in Tahiti. The authorities managed to persuade Robert to leave Moko behind by promising to sort the paperwork as soon as they could. Robert left the chimp and set sail for Panama. After waiting a while he realised that they were not being good to their word. Robert was worried about Moko but very short of funds so he stowed away on a ship heading towards Pitcairn.
Pitcairn refused the stowaway permission to disembark onto the island and so he had no choice but to carry on to New Zealand. This was not without a fight however because when Robert discovered that he was not to be allowed to disembark he went crazy and had to subdued with firehoses and locked into a hold till they were way out at sea again.
In New Zealand Robert was already quite famous due to his rumoured exploits. Here he gave several newspaper interviews and was misquoted by the ‘Auckland Herald’ so he sued them for £300. He was then able to pay off his stowaway fine and head on back to Pitcairn.
'Kokomo Jr' Talking Chimpanzee
Reunited the pair headed back to the USA where they worked the circuits and appeared several times on TV for a few years. Business was good but not quite good enough and Robert was drawn by a ‘business deal’ which he reckoned would take him away to Tahiti for about a year. What the deal was is not recorded and whether it involved another trip to Henderson Island will remain a mystery.
So Moko was sold for $1,575 to the St. Louis Zoo by his owner, the 27 year old Robert Tormachin . Robert was worried about handing Moko on to just anybody whilst he was away and figured that the zoo would be the best place to care for him. The zoo had something of a reputation and had been presenting a Chimpanzee Show since 1925. The zoo renamed Moko and called him Mr. Moke.
On his return Robert was of the opinion that Moko was heart broken and requested that the zoo sell him back. Robert described his relationship with the animal to be that of 'father and son'. By this time the animal was popular with zoo staff and visitors alike and so they refused. On the dark night of December 21st 1959 Robert sneaked into the zoo and stole back Moko. It was not as if the Robert wanted to steal him because he was obviously very attached and so he left in the animals place a cheque for $1,000 and an IOU for $2000. In effect he as nearly doubling the money he had received from the zoo when he first sold him. Robert did not feel so much that he had stolen Mr Moke so much a bought him back.
The missing animal naturally made headlines and the story even appeared in Life Magazine. They allegedly headed for Mexico. During this missing period Mr Moke appeared in the Jerry Lewis movie 'The Bellboy" which must have earned Robert a bit of money.
Mr Moke and Robert were eventually caught in Florida. Here they sought sanctuary and requested that governor of Florida speak out on their behalf. Sadly they got little sympathy. The lawyer for Robert Tormachin tried to argue the case by comparing it to the separation of a human child. It was suggested that the relationship between Robert and Moko was that of ‘Father and Son’, and this may well have been the case in reality. In this instance Roberts lawyer, John B. Orr of Miami, compared the situation to the ‘Hildy Ellis’ case where the law was bent to suit the situation.
Hildy Ellis was a Catholic child adopted by a Jewish couple. The case was so controversial; it was frequently in the press for several years.
John B. Orr also put forward the argument that there was no law in Missouri about stealing a Chimpanzee and it was not against the common law in Missouri to steal an inedible animal.
No-one could deny that the lawyer made supreme efforts on behalf of his client but sadly the defence failed and Mr Moke was boxed up and flown back to St. Louis Zoo in 1961. The unfortunate Robert was sentenced by a jury to four years in prison.
The little chimpanzee continued to perform in the zoo until 1965 when he was ten years old. A ten year old Chimpanzee is no longer small. Big, strong and unpredictable he was sensibly retired from performances. He died in the early 1970s after an illustrious career which included another escape. This time though he was alone and had to be sedated by a tranquiliser dart as he had bitten the zoo train driver in the interim.
Robert Tomarchin ended his days as a dog trainer on the Gold Coast of Australia. Many of his dogs he called Moko or Mr Moke.
Robert died on the 18th of June 1995. He is buried in Allambe Memorial Park near Nerang, Australia.
If anyone passes that way please put a flower on his grave for me. Robert was definitely an odd character but I do believe he really loved that little chimpanzee.