Mark Washburn

Charlotte’s circus of horror and the mad elephant Chief

Circus elephant Chief was stuffed by a taxidermist after his 1890 death and displayed in Cincinnati.
Circus elephant Chief was stuffed by a taxidermist after his 1890 death and displayed in Cincinnati. University of Cincinnati archives

People don’t like going to the circus if it doesn’t have elephants.

In part to appease animal rights advocates, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its elephants last year. Attendance fell, and now the circus will go out of business this year, its final tour stopping in Charlotte in February.

A circus and an elephant star in one of the strangest chapters of Charlotte history, one that lives on in legend and stone. It is the cruel tale of Chief, the killer elephant. It is a story jarring to modern sensibilities and a lesson about the depths of moral corruption.

Chief was captured in the wilds of Asia in 1872 and shipped to the United States for exhibition. It can be surmised that he missed his jungle and detested his servitude: he rebelled against captivity to the end of his days.

Training elephants for circus tricks in those days was a vicious routine of operant conditioning. Chief endured the brutality, then reciprocated against his captors when opportunity allowed.

In the spring of 1880, the leader of the John Robinson Circus had had enough of Chief’s insubordination. It was time to teach the animal a lesson.

While touring Ohio, the five-ton Chief was tied with strong ropes to a tree, beaten and speared, then a kerosene fire lit against his belly.

“Such cries,” said a witness, “neither man nor brute ever sent up before. They were pitiful beyond description.”

A few months later, on Sept. 27, 1880, the John Robinson Circus pulled into Charlotte. Amid the hubbub of setting up camp, Chief had his revenge. He crushed the animal keeper John King against the wall of a circus car.

Chief then bolted up the railroad track into uptown. Terrified onlookers fled in every direction. A posse of citizens was being assembled to shoot the truant beast when circus workers captured and chained him.

King died by morning; his funeral was held that afternoon. Charlotte has never seen another like it.

King’s hearse was followed by Mary and The Boy, two elephants of the circus, “whose stately tread in perfect time with the dirge which the band was playing,” The Charlotte Observer reported, “seemed to indicate that the intelligent animals felt the solemnity of the occasion.”

King was buried in the Catholic section of Elmwood Cemetery. Local lore (sometimes repeated to this day) has it that every year when the John Robinson Circus returned, the elephant Chief was led to King’s grave and knelt there in reverence.

That’s nonsense, of course. Chief’s touring days were over, and things were only going to get worse before they got worse still.

Chief was returned to Cincinnati, home of the circus, and penned in the animal stockade. He would occasionally break out, defiantly wandering the streets of the city’s West End. He vexed his keepers for nearly a decade, using his facile trunk to lob coal or bricks at them.

In April 1889, the circus persuaded the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens to take the rogue. Chief was a big draw for visitors at the zoo, but his militant nature was just too much.

One day he tore up his quarters with his tusks, then chucked a plank at a keeper. Zoo president Adam Burkhardt decided Chief had to go.

On Dec. 9, 1890, a military marksman with a Springfield rifle unleashed 11 shots into Chief’s skull. Other than unexpectedly calming the elephant, who perhaps sensed his misery was nearing an end, the shots appeared to have no effect.

A firing squad of three men – each sharp-shooter armed with a .45 caliber Sharps military rifle – was assembled the following day. Hundreds gathered for the spectacle.

Chief’s executioners aimed for a white circle painted on the creature’s left flank where his heart was reckoned to be. They fired one volley, a second, a third, a fourth. Chief stood tall.

With the execution now botched beyond measure, one of riflemen stepped up close and fired a shot behind Chief’s ear. Chief bellowed.

“Those who heard it will never forget it,” reported The Cincinnati Enquirer. “This shot settled him and the vicious beast fell on his left side, almost rolling onto his back, shaking the wooden building,” the paper stated. “There was a yell of triumph from the crowd.”

Though insentient, Chief’s debasement would continue for decades.

Within days, elephant steak appeared on the menus of some of Cincinnati’s finest restaurants. At the Palace Hotel, The New York Times reported, loin of elephant was offered as a delicacy:

“It was, in fact, a part of Chief, the vicious elephant who was shot in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden and was not bad eating as some of the force of this office can testify. It was without exception the best roast elephant that any of us had ever tasted.”

Even in death, Chief couldn’t escape show business. A taxidermist stuffed his considerable bulk, and he was returned to the zoo. To move him for display, his carcass was affixed to a dray, like a giant pull toy.

Chief was later donated to the University of Cincinnati. Over the decades, his stuffing disappeared, but his two-story skeleton remained on display, a monstrous curiosity harvested from another continent.

At Elmwood Cemetery at the edge of Charlotte’s uptown, John King rests beneath a stone marker. Commissioned by the circus, the obelisk features an idyllic carving of an elephant, peaceful beneath a tropical palm.

Chief never made it back to such a scene, though. He’s never escaped the winter cold of Ohio. In 1998, his bones were transferred to the Cincinnati Museum Center, which maintains an extensive zoology collection.

Chief is now in the care of an admirer, Heather Farrington. She’s the museum’s zoology curator. Chief hasn’t been displayed there yet, but she’d like to arrange a respectful exhibition someday.

“It is a sad story,” she says, “but a lot of people still know about Chief up here.”

Modern sensibilities have changed the views toward Chief – now we see who the real beasts were.

Chief, the defiant behemoth, is a monumental presence in Farrington’s storage chamber. His brittle remains, which now inspire awe, outlasted even the giddy spectacle of the circus.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs