Samson the Gorilla is Milwaukee’s prime mate

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Photo by Alex DeBuhr (alexander.debuhr@marquette.edu)

Samson lives on at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Although the Milwaukee County Zoo is home to many beloved animals, there is one animal that stands out among the rest, and his name was Samson, the 650-pound silverback gorilla. 

Samson was a gorilla that was bought by the Pabst Brewing Company and donated to the zoo in 1950. Pabst Brewing purchased Samson and adopted brother Sambo from New York animal dealer Henry Trefflich.

Trefflich was a German immigrant who worked as an animal dealer for more than 40 years. During that time he sold over 1.5 million monkeys, which earned him the title “Monkey King of America.” He is also known for selling other famous apes such as Cheetah from the Tarzan movie

When Samson first arrived in Milwaukee in 1951, he was situated in Washington Park Zoo, now known as Washington Park, just west of campus. Samson and Sambo would live in Washington Park Zoo for nine years before moving to the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“When Sambo and Samson arrived, they were tiny, baby gorillas. Baby animals are cute, and baby gorillas are very cute.” Mary Kazmierczak, Milwaukee County Zoo librarian, said in an email. “Gorillas have long childhoods, like humans. And their behaviors are similar to human children. They’re playful, cheeky, naughty, and endearing – and very photogenic.”

Shortly after the move to the new zoo, Sambo died of tuberculosis, which left Samson solitary in his space. But in 1975, he would be accompanied by a female gorilla, Terra, but Samson largely ignored her and she was moved to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. However, Samson was never truly alone in the acquiesced limelight from zoo visitors. 

Timothy McMahon, associate professor of history, remembers visiting the exhibit when he was a little boy.

“It was always an event to go see Samson. It was like he was the celebrity of the zoo. I grew up in Wauwatosa in the late 1960s and Samson was a big part of the zoo,” McMahon said. 

Samson lived in the Milwaukee County Zoo up until his death on November 27, 1981. Whether tapping on the glass to attract attention or just lounging, his theatrics dazzled crowds and earned him countless treats.

“Usually he was just regal, it was cool to see an animal that big, move slowly and then all of the sudden move super fast … most of the time he was super gentle. He had tires in his exhibit and he would play around with those. I don’t really remember him climbing stuff but I remember him rolling around the tires.”  McMahon said. 

McMahon wasn’t the only one who was amazed by Samson’s stunts. Local media, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, frequently reported on Samson the gorilla. Alicia Armstrong ran a column called “Zooperstars” which highlighted the zoo’s antics and was published in the Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet.

“Samson was often the most popular Milwaukeean in polls. He was beloved because he wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t controversial, he didn’t offend anyone. He was someone with whom everyone could feel a connection. Gorillas are charismatic animals. When you look into their eyes, you see their intelligence. When you looked into Samson’s eyes, you wondered what he was thinking, you wondered if you made a connection with him. But you never knew. He was an enigma.”  Kazmierczak said in an email.

Samson’s legacy lives on in the memories and stories of Milwaukee residents. Every year the Milwaukee County Zoo hosts a fun run “Samson’s Stomp & Romp” in memoriam, and Samson’s remains are on display on the first floor of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

This story was written by Connor Baldwin. He can be reached at connor.baldwin@marquette.edu.