Saturday, March 3, 2018

Who Was the Fiendish Elephant Killer? 
by Robert A. Waters 

A week before Christmas in 1941, a bizarre caption in the San Antonio Light read: "Crazy Hate of Animals Behind the Circus Elephant Murders?"  The article was on page 74, far away from the wild headlines following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Still, readers must have paused when they saw the full-page story complete with the picture of an elephant graveyard and a sleazy, mustachioed fellow wearing a derby hat. 

Written by Robert D. Potter of American Weekly, the story begins: "The mystery of who killed the 11 elephants, worth $100,000, of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus is still unsolved.  But the psychiatrists, those scientists who probe the obscure workings of the human mind, have already rounded out the picture of what kind of a fiendish person the poisoner will be." 

It began on November 5, in Atlanta, Georgia.  Early that morning, the "mammalian-tractors" were performing their daily chores, that is, pushing around equipment.  Then employees noticed that several of the 50 pachyderms owned by the circus had gathered around two of their fellow slavers.  These two, called Alice and Lizzie, had dropped to the floor, as if they were sick. 

Head keeper Walter McClain knew how to tell elephant slackers from those with true ailments.  He brought along a basket of apples and held them out to the two.  Unless they're sick, McClain told reporters, the elephants will always eat their favorite food.  Alice and Lizzie ignored the bait and were soon pronounced dead. 

The circus, suspicious of the sudden transformation from mammalian-tractor to corpse, had an autopsy performed.  Doctors confirmed that the pachyderms had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. 

Two days later, three more elephants, Lizzie II, Clara, and Palm, fell dead. 

The next stop for the circus was Macon, but workers had to leave four more elephants behind in Atlanta.  All, including perennial crowd favorite, Peggy, were sick.  A few days later, Peggy seemed to recover, and was transported to Macon.  The trainer of Gargantua, the world-famous guerilla, told reporters that his charge had brightened up because he thought his elephant friends were returning.  "He has been bluer than anyone," the trainer said. 

But Peggy had a sudden relapse and died.  By the time it was over, eleven were dead. 

The circus was massive.  It employed 2,000 workers, including the famous Wallendas.  In addition, artists, musicians, jugglers, dancers, and laborers made up the bulk of the show.  One of the major draws was the "Ballet of the Elephants," performed to a score by world-famous composer Igor Stravinsky. 

Local police and private eyes hired by the circus attempted to catch the poisoner.  Even the FBI became involved.  Henry Ringling North, vice president of the "big show," announced that officials of the Washington Zoo had received death threats to three elephants.  It seemed that all over America, elephants were being targeted.  Soon, however, the G-Men withdrew from the case, the circus moved on, and no killer was ever identified. 

Investigators explored several avenues in the search for the elephant slayerA disgruntled employee seemed to be most likely.  In fact, Walter McClain, who had worked at the circus for 19 years, was questioned and released.  After he was cleared, newspapers speculated that some employee may have had a grudge against McClain and poisoned the pachyderms in order to frame the trainer. 

Then there was the theory that the poisoner viewed elephants as powerful creatures, and, disliking people of power, had killed the pachyderms in some form of misguided rage.  One shrink told of a case where a man had poisoned a dog when he was young, and even when he was older, still had a blinding hatred of dogs.  Maybe that's what happened here, the shrink said.  (Okay, that theory didn't make a lot of sense, but somebody floated it out there.) 

Or maybe the killer just hated all animals.  The killing of the elephants would have satiated that hatred for a while, the psychiatrists said, but he would continue to kill.  All animals were deemed to be at risk. 

So, did an animal-hater poison the beloved pachyderms? 

To me, the disgruntled employee theory sounds best.  But we'll never know because the elephant serial killer was never caught. 

1 comment:

Ostrich said...

Well... Thanks for posting that. I was completely unaware. I can't help but notice that Nov 5th, when the elephant poisonings began, is less than two weeks after Disney's "Dumbo" opened in theatres. Even if there's no connection in terms of motive, that had to be on people's minds.