Monday, September 3, 2012

Tusko the elephant and other sadness

Recently, while writing about the architect and planner George Bartholick, I was looking for some background on the Woodland Park Zoo, for whom George had proposed an ambitious new plan that would result in more natural and humane spaces for the animals living there.

Looking for some specifics on how zoo animals were housed in the earlier days of the zoo, I stumbled on the story of Tusko, the elephant, reputed to be the largest of his kind in captivity and who was quite a sensation in the Northwest during the 20s and 30s. 
Tusko and his trainer, George 'Slim' Lewis
Buckles Blog
Tusko had been seized off the streets of Seattle by the mayor himself, John Dore, in 1932.  The elephant had been recently sold by a circus to one hapless promoter after another and they were exhibiting him at Mercer and Westlake Avenues where he was fed at city expense while his new owners pondered the elephant’s next gig and the considerable logistics of moving Tusko about.  They also were thinking about shooting the animal and stuffing him, reasoning that while it required a high initial cost, the long-term maintenance was quite reasonable.  They were also broke.

After a well-reported walk from Virginia and Westlake, going over the Fremont Bridge and up the hill to Phinney Ridge, visitors streamed in to see the remarkable animal at the Woodland Park Zoo, the mayor loudly supervising many of the key details. The Park Board hired George “Slim” Lewis, a well-known elephant man, and paid him $3.50/day to care for Tusko.  Children began collecting pennies to enlarge the present elephant house and reimburse the last owner of the elephant.  Even as Tusko’s prospects were rising, he collapsed in 1933 of a massive stroke.  He was 43.

His death amped up the controversies surrounding Tusko.  There was a long struggle to figure out what to do with poor Tusko’s remains, which were the subject of claims from several past owners.  Meanwhile, University of Washington medical students removed the skin and bones which were finally taken by a former owner, M.M.  Bull, who lived in Eugene.  At the same time, Tusko’s 48 pound heart found its way to the Olympic Hotel’s lobby where it was exhibited at the state’s medical convention that year.  Years later, after failing to sell what remained of Tusko, Bull’s son gifted the skin and bones to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum.  They are still there.

After reading Tusko’s story, I resolved to spend some more time with this animal to see if I could organize my own thinking about the elephant history in the United States, their diaspora across the globe, the relentless attacks, the unspeakable cruelty some have been subjected to and their utility, if any, in captivity. 

It is a painful, instructive and sometimes beautiful journey, but mostly painful.

Poster, Tusko, then Ned, is in the middle
Circus History
Let’s start with Tusko’s arrival in America, where he came in 1902, from Thailand, at 12 years old.  Less than a year later, he was sold to a man named Lee Clark who owned the Lee Clark Wagon Show which performed across the south.  The cavalcade would travel mostly at night along the performance route, sometimes 50 miles, setting up the next day in a town big enough to handle the show.  Amazingly, another major wagon show sometimes would travel with them, setting up and competing head to head, tent to tent. 

It must have been quite a scene.  In 1908, the Clark Show alone was carrying 12 cages of animals, about 60 wagons and 200 horses and mules. They had two large horse tents – one for the trained horses and wagon horses and another for the mules that pulled the baggage wagons.   Advance men would hire out farms to provide water at stops along the way.  The Clark Wagon Show had four elephants, two of whom were called ‘pushers.’  Their role was getting behind a stuck wagon and pushing it along a muddy rural road.   

Tusko’s name then was Ned and he was still growing into what would become a very large animal standing 12’5” and weigh 17,000 pounds.

It is sad but true that our culture considers anything big, wild and different a killer and Ned was branded one.  He could cause trouble and had a few broken ribs on his ledger, but Ned was not a killer, though it didn’t hurt that the audience thought he was.  And, it is true that at certain times of the year the male animals would go into ‘musth,’ when the testosterone would flow.  During those times, Clark would send Ned to winter quarters in Texas to ride out the storm.  

That's Ned on the left, about a year before the show in
Chalmer Condon Collection
Clark tried to convert his operations from the mule wagons to the railroads and he nearly went broke, which forced him back to the wagons and made him think of other ways to make money off Ned.  When the show was in El Paso, Clark struck a deal with a Mexican promoter to match Ned with four fighting bulls in the Juarez bull ring for $2,500. 

There are many versions of this story, but the one I will offer comes from the El Paso Times archivist Trish Long, who worked with contemporary clippings of the time.  Ned plods across the border along streets filled with amazed people.  He’s led into the bull ring and it’s a full house.   The first bull charges, Ned is surprised but knocks the bull down.  Three others are let into the ring and Ned responds with the full athleticism elephants possess.  Soon he has the ring to himself, two bulls have been thrown into the crowd.  There are injuries to some of the patrons and the Mexican organizers place an attachment of $500 on Ned and lock the gates of the ring with the intention of holding Ned there so they can sort out what had just happened. 

That night, Clark’s young son approaches the arena and asks Ned to come out.  Ned follows the familiar voice, easily pushing open the locked gates.  He calmly follows the boy across the border to his circus home.

The circus evolved slowly and the display of animals in early America was a simple matter of having something exotic and charging admission to the barn or fenced in lot.  There are references to elephants in America as early as 1720. 

Somers, NY
Historical Society
A ship captain, Jacob Crowninshield, brought a two year old elephant from Thailand to New York in 1796, exhibited her around New York and sold her to a man named Owen for the enormous sum of $10,000.  Owen exhibited her throughout the eastern part of the United States.  Strangely, the animal was never given a name and, was last noted in 1816 in York, Pennsylvania. 

An animal named ‘Old Bet’ began touring about 1804 and was owned by Hachaliah Bailey who sold shares in his acquisition.  Bailey, yes that one, made Old Bet the star of the first real circus – four wagons, several pigs, a couple of dogs and Old Bet.  She inspired the Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York, that is today an historic landmark and the site of many weddings. 

Elephant Hotel, Somers, NY
On tour, she was killed by a group of men who allegedly thought she was violating the blue laws by working on Sundays.  They ambushed the circus procession bringing her into town and shot her. 

‘Young Bet,’ was the first trained elephant in the United States.  She was able to do several tricks, such as opening a corked bottle and drinking the contents.  She was also shot to death.  Egged on by the promotional materials put together by Bailey that her skin was so tough a bullet could not penetrate it, a group of Rhode Island men shot her to death in 1825.  

Life-sized statue of Jumbo in St.  Thomas, Ontario
St.  Thomas, Ontario, Canada
In 1882, P. T.  Barnum bought the African elephant ‘Jumbo’ from the London Zoo.  Jumbo was the biggest elephant then known and, benefitting from Barnum’s promotional genius, became the best known elephant ever.  However, just three years later, while on tour in Ontario, Canada, ‘Jumbo’ was hit and killed by a Grand Trunk Railway switch train after getting out of his specially built rail car.

His stuffed remains went to the Barnum Museum of Natural History where he was adopted as a mascot for the athletic teams at Tufts University, for whom Barnum was a generous contributor.  Students would also put pennies in its stuffed trunk or pull the elephant’s tail on the way to an exam.  In 1975, Barnum Hall and all its exotic contents burned to the ground.  All that was left was Jumbo’s tail, now in the university archives.  After the fire, the assistant to the athletic director, Phyllis Byrne, sent a student over to collect some of Jumbo’s ashes which he scooped up in a Skippy’s Crunchy Peanut Butter jar.  Frequently, Tufts athletes will rub the jar for good luck before a game.  I am not making this up.  
According to the May 13, 1922 edition of the Bellingham Herald, a young farmer boy and highly skilled horse trainer was on hand in that Ontario rail yard when Jumbo was struck by the train. His name was Al G. Barnes. 

The Bellingham Herald wrote: “Gazing on the dead Barnum elephant, young Barnes declared, 'Some day I'll have a bigger circus than this one and I'll have a bigger elephant than Jumbo!’"

The Al G.  Barnes Circus comes to town
Tusko in the lead.
Circus History
That bigger elephant was Ned, purchased in 1921 and renamed Tusko, staring in the Al. G. Barnes circus production ‘Alice in Jungleland,’ a production employing 1,080 people, 550 horses and 1,200 wild animals.  

Three days later, the Olympia Record reported:

“SEDRO WOOLEY -- After being at large all night, TUSKO, said to be the largest elephant in the world, was captured about three miles west of here at about 10 o'clock this morning. The elephant escaped from a circus which showed here last night and caused considerable public damage. TUSKO ... upset two automobiles standing by the circus tent, stalked angrily down the main street, where he broke up a street dance, then strode to the outskirts of the city to a district known as the Garden of Eden where he wreaked vengeance on fences and a farmer's young orchard.”

The next night, reported by the Bellingham Herald as ‘chastened,’ and ‘heavily chained,’ Tusko went through his paces before record crowds. 

Tusko was with Barnes for ten years until sold to a Portland man named Al Painter, the first of several owners that led, ultimately, to Westlake and Virginia, an elephant with nowhere to go, a preening Mayor Dore and a few months of peace at the Seattle Zoo.  

“When he is first captured, he is a demon incarnate. But the elephant is a philosopher and when he learns it is useless to fight against his fate, he gives up the contest and straightway decides to make the best of the situation.”

W. Henry Sheak wrote that in the Natural History Magazine, exactly eighty years ago. However, the human/elephant interface is not as comfortable as Mr. Sheak told audiences then.  

A Swedish man, Dan Koehl, has tracked 12,760 elephants, 5,640 of them dead and 7,120 living of which 2,307 are wild elephants and nearly 5,000 living elephants in various categories of captivity in 114 countries. This completely remarkable Internet treasure gives us the ability to track elephants over time and is a repository of thousands of individual animal stories.  

Elephants die and/or are euthanized for many reasons – old age, severe arthritis, elephant tuberculosis, broken limbs, sepsis, miscarriage, elephant small pox. But for those elephants who don’t ‘make the best of the situation,’ as suggested in the Nature article, their ends were deadly and gruesome in the extreme.  

Nick, an aggressive P. T. Barnum elephant, was strangled to death in London in 1898. That same year, Prince, a Great Wallace Brothers elephant, was strangled by two canvassmen who placed a rope around his neck and pulled in opposite directions. 

Thomas Alva Edison executes Topsy
The Swedish database says that 150 people have been killed by captive elephants – trainers, spectators, bystanders. The elephant Topsy, residing at the Luna Park Amusement Center in Brooklyn, had killed three trainers in the early 1900s and her owners, the Forepaugh-Sells Show, decided that she had to be destroyed. But how to do it?

Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor, volunteered to electrocute Topsy and use his film company to document the event. Edison’s electricity company made and sold direct current electricity which was a competitor to Nicola Tesla’s alternating current product. Tesla’s electricity could be transmitted over great distances and produced outside the cities where most of the market existed at the beginning of the electricity era. Edison’s product required many plants dotted around the cities because its transmission was distance-limited.  Tesla's product clearly had the upper hand so Edison did what marketing people have done forever.  He changed the subject.

Edison’s said that alternating current was not safe and would kill many of those who purchased the product. So, Edison took to electrocuting all kinds of animals to prove his point, and Topsy was too good an opportunity for the competitive Edison. If Tesla’s alternating current could kill an elephant, then we ought to be truly afraid. Topsy was led out and 6,600 volts of alternating current went through her body with the clever Mr. Edison’s hand on the switch.  

The cultural norm was that a human death was a death sentence for the animal. Each of the big circuses were putting down one or two animals a year because of aggressive behavior at the turn of the last century. 

The hanging of Big Mary in Erwin, TN
Some of the deaths, however, carried the idea of retribution. More than 2,500 people attended the hanging in Erwin, Tennessee of Big Mary who had, a few days before, killed her groomer. Faced with threats of local mayors to not allow the Sparks Circus into town, the circus put a chain around Big Mary’s neck and, though the first chain broke, put a second, heavier chain around her neck to close out the job.

It is possible that retribution worked both ways. Black Diamond killed a trainer in 1926 but it was considered out of character and he was allowed to live. He was purchased by the Al. G. Barnes Circus in 1928, just before it sold Tusko. Black Diamond was very connected to his trainer, Curley Pritchett, whom he had known for 28 years and worked with for seven.

In Corsicana, Texas, Black Diamond witnessed a conversation between Curley and Eva Speed Donohoo, the former society editor at the Houston Post who offered Curley a job at Shoestring Ranch, where she kept exotic animals. Curley accepted and left the circus and Black Diamond. When Barnes returned to Corsicana a year and a half later, Pritchett and Mrs. Donohoo came to see Black Diamond. The elephant hurled Pritchett over a car and then attacked Donohoo, killing her by impaling her with his tusks. A mob formed and Black Diamond was chained between two trees until a volunteer firing squad was assembled and the animal could be shot.  

Even when aggressive elephants were not killed, subsequent events were tragic. Ziggy was named after his owner Florence Ziegfield, the producer, who had purchased a baby elephant for one of his children. When the animal became too big, Ziegfield sold it to a circus, Singer’s Midgets, who, in turn, donated it and three other aggressive elephants to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Ziggy attacking Slim Lewis
The Zoo was unable to do anything with Ziggy and soon brought in our friend Slim Lewis to figure out how to manage Ziggy, however gingerly. He was making real progress until April of 1941 when the elephant slapped Slim with its trunk and Lewis landed 50 feet away. Then Ziggy was on top, plunging his tusks repeatedly trying to impale Lewis. Lewis was able to stay in the space in between the tusks and, when the tusks stuck in the ground for a moment, Lewis darted away and jumped the moat surrounding the exhibit. After, Ziggy was tethered by a chain in a small enclosure where he spent the following 30 years. A newspaper reporter and the zoo director began an effort to find a better life for Ziggy and they did, though Ziggy died shortly after falling into the moat around his spacious enclosure. It seemed a tragic accident, but not to Slim Lewis. In his book, ‘I Love Rogues,’ Lewis says it was probably because he was trying to grab someone with his trunk.  

It is hard to be optimistic in the face of such heartbreak and slaughter, but wait, in the wild, it gets worse! Researchers at Oxford University who are studying human elephant conflicts in India point out that the 40,000 Indian elephants live alongside 20% of the world’s population. The great northern Indian reserves have seen a huge increase in human elephant conflicts. More than one person a day is killed by an elephant in India and, in return 100 elephants annually die as a consequence of human retribution.  

There are many reasons why – loss of habitat through deforestation and expanded farming, culling and poaching of animals and other human encroachments – but at the core, the psychological relationship between elephants and humans has changed. Gay Bradshaw, an Oregon State University researcher, in her essay “Elephant Breakdown,” notes that these conflicts have led to a breakdown of a gentle culture into one that is significantly more aggressive.

“Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed,” Bradshaw says. “What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence. Now, I use the term ‘violence’ because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behavior of elephants.”

Bradshaw says that there is a kind of Post Traumatic Stress affecting elephants that leads to aggression.  She says that elephant leadership from older, larger elephants is lost to poaching and culling and young elephants no longer have the benefit of the training and acculturation the older elephants provided.  

Not only is the violence directed at humans, but at other elephants. A South African researcher says that 90% of elephant deaths in South Africa are attributable to other elephants.

The elephant is also part of the crisis in Sudan. For some 20 years, the Janzaweed Arabs have killed thousands of elephants and sold their ivory to finance their terror against Darfur. 

The uneasy peace between elephants and people is getting more unstable.  Along with all our other wars, we are falling into one between the two smartest species inhabiting the plant. 

But don’t worry, there are just 500,000 or so of them and seven billion of us. 

Piece of cake.

Dan Koehl's Elephant Encyclopedia Website

Gay Bradshaw's Kerulos Center on interspecies psychology



  1. Animals need our love and care. Tusco was one of them who needed love from his master. I am sadden to hear about his collapse back in 1933

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    1. A side note, it seems most sources claim that the Crowninshield elephant came from India, not Thailand, and was supposed to have been shipped from Calcutta to USA, please see this arhived website

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  5. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this article. The photographs evoke incredible emotion and sorrow. These majestic nature of these beautiful creatures, forced into oppression, to conform, and to endure such tortures that should never be bestowed upon any sentient life. A creature with feelings, intelligence, and capable of unfathomable compassion. Their history is tragic and heart breaking. I'm glad that it wasn't lost in time. Thank you for sharing

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