A memorable finale not always all it’s cracked up to be

John King 2

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.

The circus was scheduled to put on a show in or near Charlotte on Sept. 27, 1880, and as the date approached, Chief continued to act up, despite being on the receiving end of several punishing blows from Mary.

Gravestone of John King, killed by elephant Chief, September 27, 1880, in Charlotte, NC.

Gravestone of John King, killed by elephant Chief, September 27, 1880, in Charlotte, NC.

Chief’s misconduct was due in part to a periodic condition bull elephants go through called musth. It is characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone spikes to astronomical levels during this period.

Many bull elephants undergoing musth become extremely violent toward humans and other elephants, and require segregation and isolation until it passes.

Unfortunately for King, he hadn’t noticed that Chief was going through musth, as the trainer failed to notice a small blister that had formed on the elephant’s right temple, an indicator.

Even without noticing the change in Chief, King left the elephant out of the performance in Charlotte because the latter’s ill temper made him difficult to handle.

After the show the circus members slept. They broke camp at daylight the next morning. Cullen recalled the fateful events that unfolded:

King got his elephants in marching order, and followed in the wake of the moving vans, and all went well until the heavy cage in which were confined the four lions stuck fast in the muddy road, a short distance from town. The six horses drawing the cage strained and pulled to no purpose, and as a last resort King was called up and asked to bring one of his elephants.

King went away and returned in a few minutes with Mary and Chief. Whatever possessed him to bring that mean bull elephant I don’t know; his choice, poor fellow, cost him his life. King spoke to Chief and ordered him forward, and the elephant obeyed, although unwillingly, and as he stepped into the mud, he swung his trunk dangerously from side to side. No amount of prodding with the driver’s hook would prevail on Chief to put his head to the cage, and King, thinking the elephant was frightened or disconcerted by the rumbling roars which came from the imprisoned lions, stepped into the mud and leaned against the van, and made as though shoving.

Chief’s time had come; he saw the one great chance to fill his cup of vengeance, and turning suddenly strike the cage. The elephant’s bulk crushed into King and jammed him against the cage, and the great beast, throwing all his weight into the effort, smashed that unfortunate trainer as flat as a pancake – pardon the term, but it is the only fitting one I can find. Every bone in King’s body was crushed into a bloody pulp, with what few features that were distinguishable flattened out and twisted as though a stone grinder had passed over them.

With the act of murder the mad mood claimed Chief entirely, and throwing his great trunk into the air and trumpeting shrilly he dashed wildly down the road, overturning several horses that were in his way.

Chief proceeded to strike out toward the railroad track, scattering the crowd. He got into Charlotte before circus members, employing Mary and another elephant named The Boy, overtook Chief and brought him back.

Mary appeared to grasp the enormity of Chief’s misdeed and beat him with her trunk as they returned.

King died the next morning and was buried that afternoon. A hearse carried his body drawn by four white circus horses. Mary and The Boy followed his casket, according to the blog Gravely Speaking.

The Charlotte Observer, reporting the events shortly after they happened, recalled them slightly differently, claiming Chief and the other elephants were off-loaded from train cars:

“Just after the elephants were unloaded, one of them, called The Chief, became enraged at its keeper, John King, and turned upon him and crushed him against the (train) car. The man sank down without a groan, and the elephant turned and started up the railroad track, the excited crowd fleeing in every direction. …”

King, according to the Observer, “didn’t last the night.” The Observer concurred that four white horses pulled the hearse, adding that Mary and The Boy “trod behind in a solemn pace, each footfall in time to the Chopin dirge played by the circus band.”

Chief was shortly thereafter sent to the Cincinnati Zoo. Unfortunately, his relations with humans did not improve and he is believed to have killed at least two other people before he himself was put down.

Chief was then stuffed and put on display at the zoo for a decade or so, then moved to the University of Cincinnati, where they remained until 1998. Chief’s bones were later donated to the Cincinnati Museum Center.

The memory of King, who might not even have given deep consideration to how he might exit this world, lives on through the delicately carved gravestone, a reminder of a painful death suffered 135 years ago.

(Top: Gravestone of John King, Elmwood Cemetery, Charlotte, NC.)

12 thoughts on “A memorable finale not always all it’s cracked up to be

  1. WordPress has finally allowed me to ‘follow’ you again…belated Christmas present from them?

    Leo was at a procession in Sri Lanka…decorated elephants everywhere…when a male ran amok,demolishing stands full of spectators. What amazed him was that while attempts were made to control the elephant and rescue people,the rest of the elephants turned as one and left the scene,tramping purposefully and peaceably away.

    • They are apparently quite intelligent creatures. While I understand the concept of wanting to harness all that brute strength, I think I’d prefer to let alone something that could easily turn me to jelly. Must have been an interesting show for your husband.

      • He was there on business…in the midst of the civil war.After what he saw of the destruction of Tamil areas I suppose he thought a festival featuring elephants would be a distraction.
        He did describe having to avoid mounds of elephant dung in the roads…not something his car could overcome without the tropical version of crampons and ice axes…

  2. I have to wonder why a bull elephant was intact. One does not keep male horses or cattle intact except for the specific purpose of breeding. I don’t think Mr. King was in the elephant breeding business and surely knew that breeding males are aggressive and often dangerous – some much more so than others. Something to ponder.

    Interesting story with a predictable ending.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the gelding/castrating/neutering question of bull elephants. I think it is uncommon to do so and there must be a very good reason why it is uncommon. Just blathering around in my head with no facts or experience, I’ve concluded that it must be a fairly complicated procedure. Gelding a stallion is certainly riskier (for the animal) than castrating cattle or cutting hogs. Many experienced horsemen and/or farriers can geld horses but there is a risk. The risk lies in the anatomy of the horse – not the temperament or size of the animal. So, I guess with elephants there might be even more risk and given their truly enormous size I suspect that the castration might have to be done at quite a young age and I’ve no idea if that would affect their adult size or muscle mass. It does not with cattle but an elephant isn’t a bull calf.

    On the other hand, during my time in northern India I was bemused by all the intact bulls and stallions wandering around. It was dead common to see a couple of stallions fighting. I figured the lack of neutering might be philosophical or partially religious but I didn’t discount the Indian way of tolerating and/or ignoring whatever isn’t beating you about the head and face. I saw elephants only in religious pageants. As far as I can remember, there were no bull camels working. Camels are grand creatures but I think perhaps bull camels might be generally a little hard to persuade from their chosen behavior.

    Ah well. Clearly, I am a Southern countrywoman with an affinity for and interest in livestock.

    • Very interesting. I wasn’t even aware that there was a danger to stallions as opposed to cattle and hogs. I think you might be onto something, however. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one whose job it is to geld a bull elephant.

  4. What a way to go. You do find the greatest tales. I can remember seeing the Shriners’ Circus when I was a kid. I didn’t realize they still did traveling circuses until I looked it up after reading your post. Reading the Elephant Whisperer awakened a rebirth of interest in elephants for me. This man sounds like he was a forerunner of the Elephant Whisperer. Sorry he came to such a bad ending. Thanks for sharing the story.

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