It’s a story that seems incredulous to modern sensibilities.
On September 1897, American explorer Robert Peary and his crew docked their steamer under the Brooklyn Bridge after returning from a long expedition to Greenland.
It was one of several trips Peary took to the Arctic beginning in the 1880s in his quest to become the first Westerner to reach the North Pole.
Peary didn’t reach his goal on this voyage. But he did bring back some curious cargo, which he displayed a few days later at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for thousands of New Yorkers who turned out for a glimpse.
On deck was a 100-ton meteorite—and six Inuits, including a father and his 7-year-old son, Mene, but called Minik.
It’s unclear why Peary brought the Inuit people, who were dressed in sealskin coats trimmed with polar bear fur and appeared somewhat distressed in the early autumn sun, reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Apparently he thought experts he knew at the American Museum of Natural History would like to study them.
Abandoned by Peary and with no where to go, the Inuits were housed in the museum basement and “treated as specimens and spectacles,” according to pbs.org. They were not part of an official exhibit but were on view for some museum guests.
With no immunity, all six became ill. In the fall, Minik’s father and three others died; one returned to Greenland. Minik survived but was now on his own.
Although he found New York at first to be “like a land that we thought to be just like heaven,” and he laughed when he saw bicycle riders in Central Park, he was now an orphan.
“Alone and out of place in New York, Minik benefited from the benevolence of one person—William Wallace, the superintendent at the Museum of Natural History,” stated pbs.org.
The Wallace family (with Minik, above) educated him; he even attended Manhattan College. “But despite being adopted and raised as part of the Wallace family, Minik never really felt at home in this foreign land.
“One newspaper described him as a “virtual prisoner.”
To make matters worse, he discovered that museum officials never gave his father the proper burial they claimed. Instead, his body became part of the museum collection.
In 1909, the same year Peary (at right) claimed to have reached the North Pole (a claim that has long been in doubt), Minik was finally able to leave New York and sail back to Greenland.
“The appeal of the Eskimo, Mene Keeshoo, brought here by Commander Peary and left on the lee shore of New York, to be returned to his native North Greenland again proves that home is a lodestone’s attraction for the most uncivilized of God’s creatures,” wrote the Eagle.
It wasn’t the homecoming he’d hoped. Minik didn’t feel as if he belonged in Greenland either. In 1916 he returned to America, where he found work in a New Hampshire lumber camp.
There, he contracted influenza during the epidemic of 1918 and died.
Minik is not the only human who lived in the museum. In 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga also spent time there—before being put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. Really.