A group of boys playing in the park spotted it first.
It was May 26, 1943, and there was a monkey on the loose, up in a tree in what is now known as Peace Park.
Patrol officers couldn’t reach it. The anatomy department thought the gravitational pull of food would lure it back to the ground, sooner or later.
The primate’s escape spurred a weeklong rescue mission above, on and under the grounds of the MU campus. And it led to the genesis of a ghostly legend, largely lost to time.
However, newspaper clippings and materials from MU’s archives provide clues about the animal’s adventure.
It all started with a small glass window.
In 1943, MU had a generally uneventful setup for its research animals.
The university kept some of those creatures in McAlester Annex, a small brick building inside Peace Park — including three monkeys.
Late May of that year brought a glitch in the system.
That’s when one of the monkeys, described consistently as 20 inches tall, escaped the annex through a window. (Accounts vary on whether the monkey was male or female.)
No one saw the monkey for an entire day after it left until a group of young boys spotted it in a tree near Elm Street, which runs along the northern border of campus.
The anatomy department sent a technician with a ladder. He climbed within an arm’s length of the monkey, which was idly playing with a squirrel. But just when he closed in, the primate jumped to a second tree.
A crowd of 60 or 70 people watched as the technician moved his ladder to the next tree, only for the process to repeat. He gave up after the monkey moved to a third.
Some onlookers threw rocks — and someone shot an air pistol into the sky — but the monkey wouldn’t budge.
Patrol officers came next. If they could bring a cat down from a tree, couldn’t they do the same with a monkey?
They quickly learned otherwise.
“Called to help get monkey from trees at Elm Street,” officers wrote in their nightly report after a failure. “Monkey only went higher.”
Efforts to reach the primate paused with the assumption that food would inspire a return.
The monkey lived in Peace Park’s trees for three days before descending for a drink of water.
Then, in a freshly-hydrated frenzy, it dashed through the assembled group of students.
The primate headed toward MU’s School of Journalism, which also bordered the park. Somehow, it entered Neff Hall, finding an open janitor’s closet.
That closet led to the university’s steam tunnels, an expansive subterranean network connecting campus buildings. The monkey disappeared.
Those on primate pursuit duty felt confident they would be able to catch their target on a weekly walkthrough of the tunnels. That week, though, there was no sign of the creature.
The monkey had completely vanished.
This is where details become cloudy. Columbia’s two newspapers stopped writing about the monkey, meaning mythology takes over.
There’s an assumption that the primate never made it out of the steam tunnels. That has led to stories of strange noises emanating from beneath the ground and rumors of a ghostly monkey silhouette occasionally visible in steam emanating from sidewalk grates during May finals.
It’s the stuff of legend now. There’s even a Facebook page named for the monkey ghost — dubbed the Mizzou Steam Tunnel Monkey Ghost community page — which occasionally posts reminders of its adventures.
But fresh evidence suggests the monkey may have left the tunnels after all.
Buried near the end of a 1,000-page book on the history of MU’s medical school lies reference to a markedly different ending to the monkey’s tale:
“Happily Mr. Monk, in about a week, was finally enticed to return home for food.”
There’s no fully proven resolution to the monkey’s escape, though, leaving its fate as foggy as a burst of steam.