When my father would talk about his mother, Josephine, he would inevitably say something like “But that wasn’t really her name”.
Her name was Johanna, the same as her cousin Johanna Durney who was a few years older and lived in Queens. According to the story my father told, the two girls were at the zoo, saw a monkey named Johanna, and promptly changed their names to Josephine.
I always wondered about that monkey, but how could I ever prove the story? There must have been hundreds of monkeys at the zoo and which zoo – Central Park or Bronx?
Last year, through the magic of the internet, I was able to find my Durney cousins. It turns out their Great Aunt Josephine, who was called Josie, lived a long life and they knew her well. They had also heard the story of the name change, with one slight, but significant difference: it wasn’t a monkey, it was a gorilla.
Gorillas are a bigger than monkeys, in more ways than one – they’re much bigger news. I went straight to the internet and sure enough Johanna the gorilla was big news in 1894 when my grandmother was 7 and her cousin 11.
She was part of Barnum and Bailey’s circus and spent the summers touring and the winters in Central Park Zoo. She arrived in December 1893 to great fanfare. Every newspaper carried a story, often illustrated, with descriptions of what Johanna ate, her temper, her appearance, and her “husband”, Chiko. She was the star of the day.
Those two little girls must have been mortified to have the same name as the gorilla in the zoo, no wonder they changed their names.