Elephant crushes keeper, sends Charlotte crowd fleeing

On this day in 1880: Shortly after being unloaded in Charlotte, The Chief, a circus elephant, turns on his keeper and crushes him to death against a rail car.

“The man sank down without a groan,” reports The Charlotte Observer, “and the elephant turned and started up the railroad track, the excited crowd fleeing in every direction. The loose elephant got into the main streets of the city, and a crowd was being formed to hunt him down and shoot him when it was learned that the circus people were after the truant beast.

“They took the other two elephants, Mary and The Boy, and, driving them rapidly through the streets, overtook The Chief, chained him to the others and finally got him back to the circus grounds.”

John King will be buried in Charlotte’s Elmwood Cemetery beneath a five-foot monument donated by his fellow circus workers. On it is carved the image of an elephant and a palm tree.

Did arsenic in Charlotte kill 11 circus elephants?

“[In 1941, while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was] touring the South, 11 elephants died suddenly, most of them during their Atlanta stand. Autopsies revealed the animals had consumed large amounts of arsenic. At first a member of the circus train crew was arrested on suspicion of poisoning, but charges were dropped. Police picked up several other suspects — including a recently fired worker — then let them go as well.

“Old hands remembered that in the early ’30s several elephants had fallen sick in Charlotte, North Carolina, from grazing near a chemical plant by the lot, and one of the last stands before Atlanta had been Charlotte. While many circus folk accepted this explanation, the connection was tenuous at best. The cause was never conclusively determined.”

— From “The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy” by Stewart O’Nan (2000)