Best fad in history: The ‘Learned Pigs’ who could read, do math

In Entertainment by Robyn Pennacchia / July 30, 2013

Every once in a while, you stumble onto an entirely mind-blowing, life-changing Wikipedia page. So it was, when– in danger of running out of pig-related puns for a hypothetical SyFy movie about a killer pig– I came upon the Wikipedia “List of Notable Pigs.” It included the following entry:

In 1784-5 an unnamed pig was exhibited in London under the title The Learned Pig. The pig could spell words and solve arithmetical problems. Later Learned Pigs were exhibited under the name Toby, and were said to be able to read minds.

I died. Right then and there, died. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the notion of trick animals– in fact, when I was a child and asked how old I was, my mother instructed me to flap my foot upon the ground once for each year, in the style of a trick horse.

However… Learned Pigs who were all named Toby and were said to be able to read minds?? TOTALLY IN.

These Learned Pigs, it turns out, were exhibited all across Europe and the US, and people would come from miles around to see them spell out words, do math, and, apparently, “discover people’s thoughts.”

While the plebes were vastly intrigued by this, the intellectuals of the day thought it was totally hilarious and had themselves a good ol’ fashioned snark-fest at all the Tobys and their admirers. They compared all the people they thought were terrible to the Learned Pigs, and generally lamented the fact that these pigs were more celebrated than the brilliant minds of the day. For instance, this anonymous poem sarcastically suggests that the passing of Samuel Johnson was mitigated by the arrival of a Learned Pig in London soon after his death:

Though Johnson, learned Bear, is gone,
Let us no longer mourn our loss,
For lo, a learned Hog is come,
And wisdom grunts at Charing Cross.

Imagine if these people had Twitter, amirite? I feel like this goes to show you that there really is nothing new under the sun. Learned Pigs named Toby were basically like, the Sharknados of their day.

In my excitement about all of this, I must confess to having shelled out $9.95 on Amazon for a reprint of a 25 page book from 1805 titled “The Life and Adventures of Toby, the Sapient Pig; with his opinions on men and manners. Written by Himself.” Really, how the hell could I not?


Toby supposedly dictated this “autobiography” to Nicholas Hoare, his manager. While he was born of an “illicit amour” between his father and mother (who supposedly ate a volume of the classics during her pregnancy, which is possibly the genesis of his genius), he was immediately spirited away upon his birth by Hoare, who taught him to read by the time he was a mere four months old. Toby reminds us that many children do not achieve this by their fourth birthday, and should be appropriately shamed for it. His name, we discover, was derived from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech.

Having had no other companions, Toby dedicated every waking hour to his studies, and imagines that if other tutors were as dedicated as Hoare was to his education, that “we should not have so many blockheads in the world as we see every day; and truly, they are a very numerous race.”

Another thing Toby credits with his vast intellect is his abstention from all foods but bread and water, and the fact that he never touched alcohol. However,  as this appears to have been written at the height of his fame, we do not know what became of him afterwards. I mean, remember when Britney Spears wore a purity ring?

It is, of course, entirely possible that Toby the Learned Pig went licorice all-sorts of Sunset Boulevard/Amanda Bynes in his later life. This, personally, I think would make for a way better pig-themed movie than Charlotte’s Web or Babe. I may, indeed, write it myself.

image: Kimball Stock