What at first held his attention now made him want to flee. It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees.
The group was brought to St. Louis, Missouri, in late June 1904 without Verner, who had been taken ill with malaria. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun, and the Africans immediately became the center of attention. Ota Benga was particularly popular, and his name was reported variously by the press as Artiba, Autobank, Ota Bang, and Otabenga. He had an amiable personality, and visitors were eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. The Africans learned to charge for photographs and performances. One newspaper account, promoting Ota Benga as "the only genuine African cannibal in America", claimed "[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors".
The zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds. Verner was unsuccessful in his continued search for employment, but he occasionally spoke to Benga. The two had agreed that it was in Benga's best interests to remain in the United States despite the unwelcome spotlight at the zoo. Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into Reverend Gordon's custody.
Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage which he supervised. As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga's relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived with the McCray family. So that Benga could more easily be part of local society, Gordon arranged for the African's teeth to be capped and bought him American-style clothes. Tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, Benga could improve his English, and he began to attend elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.
Similarities have been observed between the treatment of Ota Benga and Ishi. The latter was the sole remaining member of the Yahi Native American tribe, and he was displayed in California around the same period. Ishi died on March 25, 1916, five days after Ota.
Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, wrote a book on the Mbuti man, entitled Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (1992). During his research for the book, Bradford visited the American Museum of Natural History, which holds a life mask and body cast of Ota Benga. The display is still labeled "Pygmy", rather than indicating Benga's name, despite objections beginning a century ago from Verner and repeated by others. Publication of Bradford's book in 1992 inspired widespread interest in Ota Benga's story and stimulated creation of many other works, both fictional and non-fiction, such as:
When Verner arrived a month later, he realized the pygmies were more prisoners than performers. Their attempts to congregate peacefully in the forest on Sundays were thwarted by the crowds' fascination with them. McGee's attempts to present a "serious" scientific exhibit were also overturned. On July 28, the Africans' performing to the crowd's preconceived notion that they were "savages" resulted in the First Illinois Regiment being called in to control the mob. Benga and the other Africans eventually performed in a warlike fashion, imitating American Indians they saw at the Exhibition. The Apache chief Geronimo (featured as "The Human Tyger" – with special dispensation from the Department of War) grew to admire Benga, and gave him one of his arrowheads. For his efforts, Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology at the close of the Exposition.