perhaps, a work crew laying cable or pipe will unearth a large set
of bones near a busy Wichita
They may think they have found the remains of some prehistoric creature,
but they would be wrong. Should a paleontologist be consulted, the
expert would readily determine that the bones, while old, did not
come from a wooly mammoth, but its evolutionary descendant, the elephant.
How an elephant came to be buried in Wichita
Falls is a story of incredible cruelty – at least by modern standards
– that from this distance smells like a shrewd if terrible publicity
stunt. Whatever the motivations involved, a bizarre set of circumstances
converged in this Northwest Texas city in 1899.
It started when a circus hit town. Back then, more than a decade before
the discovery of oil in Wichita County would transform the place into
a boom town, Wichita
Falls was just a sleepy county seat cow town. The arrival of the
circus train had been a big enough deal, but that was nothing compared
with the story the circus owner started spreading: The circus company
had a killer elephant under sentence of death.
The animal had been spared after killing one man some years before,
but when the pachyderm killed a second, the circus proprietor sentenced
it to death. At least that was his story. Could be the animal was
just getting old and the circus boss figured the publicity attendant
to executing a “killer” elephant would be worth a whole lot more than
the hay it took to keep the animal swinging its trunk.
Plastering the town with handbills, the circus man called on the good
people of Wichita
Falls to lend a hand in the creature’s execution. It had been
five years since local residents had broken the tedium of everyday
life by lynching two bank robbers from a downtown telephone pole,
so enthusiasm for the scheduled event ran high.
On the date set, circus handlers walked the condemned animal from
the Big Top to a spot then on the edge of town near where Brook now
crosses Kell Boulevard. Handlers staked the trained beast with leg
chains. Whether truly a pachyderm gone bad or simply old, this would
be the elephant’s last public appearance.
“Everybody in Wichita
Falls who had a shooting iron repaired to the scene,” one newspaper
reported. “There were folks with shotguns, revolvers of various kinds
Unfortunately, no one had the kind of firepower it would take to drop
an elephant. The beast took on more lead than 20 coats of old paint
and seemed not much worse for the wear. The only noticeable effect,
totally understandable, was its considerable annoyance with those
doing the shooting. The elephant roared and lunged at its chains,
but fortunately for the crowd, the iron held.
Shotgun pellets bounced harmlessly off its thick hide as the beast
continued to cry out in fear and rage.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals not yet having
a toehold in Wichita
Falls, the circus gang came up with another idea. A railroad track
being nearby, and with the ready cooperation of the local station
master, two switch engines were employed to stretch out a heavy chain
fastened around the big animal’s neck.
The killer elephant, if indeed it was, finally died of strangulation.
Safe at last from the possible rampage of a purported man killer,
the people of this Northwest Texas community faced another not-so-little
problem: How to dispose of a dead elephant.
As city officials pondered the situation, someone noticed the town
scavenger in the crowd and had an idea. He could have the hide if
he would bury the elephant.
The man, thinking the near bullet-proof skin would make a fine roof
for his small house at Seventh and Austin streets, agreed to what
literally was quite a large undertaking. With help from his family,
he skinned the elephant, dug a hole sufficient to contain the body,
and somehow got the carcass in it. For a time, the junk dealer had
the distinction of having the only elephant skin roof in Wichita
Falls, the state of Texas and perhaps anywhere in the nation.
But fame, and utility, proved fleeting. After the first good rain,
the elephant roof shrank like so much green rawhide. By that time,
of course, the circus had long since pulled its tent stakes and moved
on to the next gig.
© Mike Cox
- 2003 column, modifies January 8, 2015
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