Some desire an impressive demise, that they may be remembered by posterity. Sometimes, though, a conspicuous passing not only comes at a heavy price, but leaves a melancholy shadow for future generations.
Take John King. He’s buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte, NC. His grave marker depicts an artfully designed elephant and palm tree carved into a marble shaft. It reads:
“Erected by the members of the John Robinson Circus in memory of John King. Killed at Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 27, 1880 by the elephant CHIEF. May he rest in peace.”
King was an elephant trainer and Chief one of seven elephants that were part of the John Robinson Circus, a family-owned circus that toured the country from 1842 until 1911.
Chief, described as a large bull elephant, was apparently a handful and not fond of King. However, all the other elephants in the circus were said to love their trainer, who was quite accomplished at his trade, according to a story the New Orleans Picayune ran more than a quarter century after the event, based on a 1907 interview with an individual who was on hand when King was killed.
One elephant in particular, named Mary, was said to be “crazy” about King, and would “trumpet with delight whenever she saw him approaching,” Ed Cullen told the New Orleans paper.
Mary was far bigger than Chief, and her weight and power gave her the right to shine in the role of the wife who wears the trousers, but for all Mary’s Amazonian tendencies she was not a flirt, and gave Chief no cause for jealousy. But Chief early took a dislike to King, the trainer, for no other reason, I believe, than that Mary showed great affection for the man, and there were times that if King ever came near Chief the elephant would give unmistakable signs of anger and a dangerous gleam would show in his mean little eyes.
Once Chief lashed out at King with his trunk when the trainer was sweeping Mary’s sides with a broom, and the swing of the blow just missed the man. King jumped to one side, and as he did so Mary, with a bellow of rage, smashed the smaller elephant a blow on the head with her trunk that brought Chief to his knees. Mary was ready for a charge, her big head lowered to serve as a battering—ram, and Chief would have fared badly that had not King acted promptly. He knew that he could trust Mary. And, springing in front of the big beast, extended both his arms, and cried: ‘Get back, girl: there now!’ His order was obeyed, and Mary, wheeling around, went off quietly to her place, and so a panic in the elephant house was averted.
The John Robinson Circus traveled not by train but by using its elephants and horses to move its animals and wagons from town to town, Cullen recalled. Mary was particularly adept at keeping the other elephants in line, moving wagons out of ruts on hard country roads, carrying tent poles in their trunks or handling other manual labor as needed.