Samuel Phillips Verner (14 November 1873 - 9 October 1943) was an American missionary and African explorer who transported people from Africa for ethnographic spectacles in the United States of America. He also traded in wild animals from Africa that he sold to American zoos. Most well-known and controversial among Verner's transported African natives was Ota Benga who was held as a human spectacle in the Bronx zoo until he killed himself.
The first son of a South Carolina Presbyterian slave-holding family he studied in Columbia and then went to the University of South Carolina graduating in 1892 as the best of his class. After suffering a mental breakdown he worked as a laborer in the railroads for about a year. He then moved tow work for his uncle A.L. Phillips in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Here he taught at the Stillman Institute of which his uncle was a superintendent. He had begun to read the works of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley on African travels and got in touch with the family of Samuel N. Lapsley, the first Presbyterian missionary who died in the Congo. He decided to move to Africa in 1895 on appeals from Dr S.H. Chester who was the secretary for the Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. Verner was ordained under an extraordinary clause on 25 September 1895 at the Tuscaloosa Presbytery after an examination in various subjects. He and Joseph Phipps sailed from New York to London aboard New York and from Southhampton to Antwerp and finally aboard the R.M.S. Roquelle to Matadi in Congo. Verner stayed in the Congo and studied the Tshiluba language. On 15 December 1897 while out on a hill near Ndombe he fell into a trap for animals and was pierced by a poisoned stake. His African assistant, Kassongo, ran to the nearby village of Bindundu and he was treated by a medicine woman. After two weeks he returned to Ndombe and he continued to recuperate even a year later in Baltimore. The account of his injury has been questioned by Pamela Newkirk in her book. She also notes that Verner left at least two children that he fathered with a Congolese woman in Luebo. He resigned from missionary work in 1899. In 1898 he brought three Congolese assistants who he intended to teach English and other skills before returning them. This included Kassongo who was killed in a stampede in 1902 at Birmingham where he went to hear Booker T. Washington. In the 1900s he made visits again to bring African peoples to the United States.
Verner wrote articles based on his African experiences and was considered an expert on the pygmies and on various matters of African colonialism. Verner became a friend of William Temple Hornaday to whom he brought chimpanzees. Verner had been hired to procure specimens of African natives for the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Verner brought Ota Benga again in 1906 to New York and Hornaday would exhibit him at the Bronx Zoo. Verner had obtained Benga from near the confluence of the Kasai and Sankuru rivers where he claimed that the Baschilele people had held Benga captive. Verner claimed that Benga was free and that he did not gain from the exhibition of Benga at the zoo. A book on Ota Benga was written by Verner's grandson Phillips Verner Bradford.
Verner appears to have gone into obscurity after the Ota Benga affair. In 1912, a patent application for a trapezoidal animal trap gives his address as living in the Obispo Panama canal area.