January 24th, 2011

The Imperative Mood of Must


   Many elephants found in provincial museums ended up there because they were circus animals that died when touring in the vicinity. Circus owners must have been delighted if they could dispose of the carcases in this way and thus save on their transport and burial.

   'Punch', a bull elephant on display in the Toulouse Museum of Natural History died the 11th December 1907. He belonged to Pinder circus. After he killed a couple of horses and badly injured his trainer the army was called in to shoot him, twelve soldiers formed the firing squad. Punch remained upright after the first fusillade so a second was fired.

   'Fritz', a bull elephant on display in the Tours Museum of Natural History, died the 11th June 1902. He belonged to the Barnum and Bailey circus. Fritz had killed a circus employee in Bordeaux earlier that year and had once more become unmanageable, so they elected to put him down. Of the 18 elephants on this three-year Barnum and Bailey tour 6 died (including all the bulls).
   The illustration below shows Fritz (transformed into an African elephant) being strangled by a team of men, but in reality the ropes were pulled by two horses. It took hours for him to die. Choking an elephant to death in this manner was not an isolated event; in 1888 the Adam Forepaugh Circus had strangled to death 'Big Chief' - only this time the ropes were pulled by two elephants. As elephants are highly social and hierarchical animals, one wonders what the psychological impact was on the two executioners. It also makes one question why Fritz and Big Chief weren't shot like Punch, unless bullet-ridden hides and shattered skulls were less valuable to natural history museums...

   There were various reasons given for the sudden aggressiveness of these animals – Punch had had a change of trainer, Fritz had been burnt by a cigar – incidents which may well have played a part, but it would seem most likely that these elephants had entered 'must', the period when a bull elephant's testosterone levels are many times higher than normal and his temperament changes accordingly.
   I have visited dozens of natural history museums and, somewhat conveniently, have never dwelt on the manner of dispatch of the animals therein, at least not beyond classifying them vaguely as victims, the older specimens of colonialism and the more recent ones of speeding cars.
   It occurs to me there are human parallels with these circus elephants that found themselves doubly victimised. If a man is convicted of murder he receives a life sentence or capital punishment; Punch and Fritz received both.