The tatty old man of the road was none other than Alfred Aloysius Smith-or ‘Trader Horn’ as he was better known. The novelist realized she had a gold mine sitting in her living room and transcribed his stories into a series of best-selling books.
Horn’s tale was the stuff of pulp fiction. Born in Lancashire in 1861 he was educated at St Edwards College Liverpool. Here he was taught French, Portuguese and Spanish but he was soon expelled for “always being on the roof”.
He took a ship to the West African country of Gabon were he got a job with the British trading company Hatton and Cookson’s, buying ivory and rubber and selling various trade goods. This is were Horn’s story really takes off. He claimed all kinds of jungle adventures, canoeing down unexplored rivers, hunting just about ever wild beast, saving a princess, freeing slaves, meeting Cecil Rhodes and generally behaving in a manner fitting of a character in a H. Ryder Haggard novel.
After five years of jungle shenanigans he came home to Lancashire and married his childhood sweetheart. Soon after they moved to London and Horn became a reporter, and then a policeman. But these jobs didn’t satisfy him. He joined up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus and moved to Pittsburg USA. After his wife died he shipped his two children back to England and decided to roam the world. Like some kind of Wandering Jew he traveled all across the globe visiting Mexico, Australia, Madagascar and finally his beloved Africa once more. Eventually poverty caught up with him and he ended up in a Johannesburg doss house. Soon after he met Etherlreda Lewis and Dame Fate smiled on him again.
The books the pair wrote about his life proved a runaway success. Horn died in 1931 and was buried in Whistable, Kent.
How much of his wild stories can we trust? We have to remember this was an old man remembering events decades past. Could it have been that Horn was spinning yarns merely to keep a roof over his head and warm bed? Equally Etherlreda Lewis as a novelist may have spiced up the stories.
“Apart from a few unimportant slips the statements made by Trader Horn about the country are generally accurate.”
Horn had a run-in with a cryptid too. By some lakes in the Cameroons he came upon three-toed tracks the size of a frying pan and linked them with some unknown beast known locally as the Amali or Jago-Nini. Horn also found a cave painting of the beast depicting it as a long-necked creature. He is said to have carved the painting out of the cave wall and presented it to US President Ulysses S. Grant in the early 1880s.
In his 1927 book Trader Horn, he writes: 'Aye, and behind the Cameroons there's things living we know nothing about. I could 'a' made books about many things. The Jago-Nini they say is still in the swamps and rivers. Giant diver it means. Comes out of the water and devours people. Old men'll tell you what their grandfathers saw, but they still believe it's there. Same as the Amali (N’yamala) I've always taken it to be. I've seen the Amali's footprint. About the size of a good frying pan in circumference and three claws instead o' five.'
On the year of his death, 1931, MGM produced a film of Horn’s life. It has never been released on DVD but I recently tracked it down on YouTube. It has to be seen to be believed and the story of what happened whilst it was being filmed is almost as amazing as the story of Trader Horn’s life itself!
The movie Trader Horn directed by W. S. Van Dyke was the first non-documentary film to be shot on location in Africa. It stared Harry Carey (a well know actor who was one of the silent screens first big stars) as Horn, Duncan Renaldo (who later found fame as the Cisco Kid) as Horns sidekick Peru, the lovely Edwina Booth as the ‘White Goddess’ and Mutia Omoolu as Rencharo, Horn's Gun Bearer. The story follows Horn and Peru as they search for a murdered missionary’s lost daughter who was kidnapped by natives as a baby. After many adventures they find her living as a White Goddess (much like ‘Haggard’s She’) worshipped by the Isorgi ‘the savagest tribe in Africa’. Horn and Peru are about to be sacrificed when the girl, in reality Nina Trent, falls in love with Peru and sets them free. The three of them then have to escape the clutches on the enraged tribesmen.
The filming of the movie sounds like one of Horn’s adventures. One of the African crewmen fell into a river and was eaten by a Nile crocodile. Another was killed by a charging rhinoceros. This was captured on film and used in the movie. The camp at what was then Tanganyika was destroyed by a couple of hippos forcing them to relocate to the Belgian Congo. The second unit crew filmed in Mexico to avoid American laws protecting animals. Apparently leopards, lions and hyenas were starved to make them aggressive and fight for the film. Back in the Congo local pigmies who were paid in salt to appear in the film, mistook the black cables that lead from the cameras to the sound truck for black mambas and fled in terror.
On another occasion the pigmies surrounded Edwina’s tent and danced for three hours in an ever closing circle. The camp was empty apart from Edwina the pigmies and her interpreter. The latter told her that the pigmies had decided that she really was a White Goddess and had decided to take her back into the deep jungle with them. The little people grabbed her and put her on their shoulders. She screamed and fought until she heard laughter. Looking up, she saw film company members appearing from behind the surrounding trees. Edwina realized at once that she had been set up, and she suspected Harry Carey was behind the prank.
If this wasn’t enough the three main actors were forced to confront wild lions at their kill! One scene during their escape from the Isorgi tribe called for Edwina, Duncan and Harry, who were crazed with hunger, to drive feeding lions off their kill and eat the meat themselves. The filming crew found three lions feeding on a topi. The director, Van Dyke, ordered them to charge and drive the lions off the carcass armed with nothing more than sticks!
After sitting in the tree in the hot sun for an extended period of time, Edwina suffered sunstroke and fell to the ground. Fortunately, the lions had not yet gathered. Enraged by Van Dyke's behaviour, Duncan, according to his own account, charged Van Dyke shouting, "You son of a bitch, I'm going to kill you."
The dangers the director put the cast through seem insane by today’s standards. Wild animals loomed large in most of the cast’s misadventures. A white hunter broke an arm by tumbling into a stream bed while running to rescue Edwina from a threatened attack by enraged baboons. A big crocodile tipped over a canoe in which Edwina was paddling and almost plunged her into water. A week later, a hippo rose unexpectedly from the water and tipped over a boatload of cameramen. Duncan sprained an ankle in a wild rush while escaping from 38 panic-stricken elephants. He had earlier shaken a stick at them for the benefit of the camera. In fact it is amazing more people did not die during the filming of Trader Horn.
Van Dyke also apparently scared the natives into behaving by placing a microphone in a drum and making it ‘speak’. Carey, who had been a cowboy in Montana, lassoed a python and a baby hippo earning him the name Mr Hippopotamus with the locals. Van Dyke became "Big Boss," Duncan Renaldo was called "The Young One" and Edwina was dubbed "Miss Few Clothes."
By today’s standards the film is very racist. Horn refers to Rencharo the native gun bearer as a ‘black ape’ and to one porter at a trading post as a ‘monkey’.
The cast and crew, including the director, were beset by mosquitoes and tsetse flies.
Edwina Booth, who was required to don a skimpy costume for her roll, suffered the worst. She was cut by elephant grass and thorns, and covered with ticks the size of fingernails. The studio had neglected to provide a decent insect repellent and Edwina was struck down with malaria and became hysterical as well as suffering from hallucinations.
Actress Olive Golden, (who played the missionary mother Edith Trent) also remembered the young actress's emotional trauma. She said Edwina "would get a funny look in the eyes, almost a demented look, an irrational look, a starry look, and get up and pretty soon she was gone. ... She'd get back to her tent and then lie down and say “Oh I am sick!"
During a bout of hysteria at Murchison Falls, Dr Clark gave Edwina a quarter grain shot of morphine to calm her. That would normally have been enough of the drug to knock out a horse, but it had no effect on Edwina.
A number of accounts report that Edwina slept only a few minutes at a time while she was in Africa. Fitful dreams seem to have bothered her during those brief moments of sleep. Five months after her return from Africa, Edwina told a Hollywood magazine: "One night ... I heard Mother calling me. I got up and ran. A native boy caught hold of my arm just as I was going down the bank into the Nile."
Edwina’s malaria effectively put an end to her acting career. Upon returning to the US she was bedridden for six years leading to stories that she had actually died from the disease. Whilst she had been in Africa her young husband had had their marriage annulled. The wife of one of the actors on the picture sued Edwina for $50,000 for alienation of affection.
She sued MGM who apparently settled out of court $35,000. She used the money to seek medical help at a tropical-disease treatment center in Europe. She stayed in hospitals in London, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. She retired from acting and finally died in 1991 at the age of 86.
This cinematic extravaganza can be seen in its full glory here.