That Time an Elephant Escaped in Uptown

Chief, his handler, and a mad chase through uptown Charlotte

MAYBE JOHN KING WAS DRUNK, or maybe Chief was hormonal, or maybe neither or both, but when the man found himself between the five-ton elephant and a metal cage, it didn’t much matter. 

The John Robinson Circus had come to Charlotte on September 27, 1880, after playing a series of small towns in the South. King, the elephant trainer, was responsible for handling Chief, the bull elephant, along with Chief’s mate, Mary, and child, The Boy. If you believe one version of the story, King had been drinking that day. Regardless, the most complete account of the affair came from Ed Cullen, a circus employee of some sort, who described the scene in tabloid-quality detail for the New Orleans Picayune.

“The elephant’s bulk crushed into King,” Cullen told the paper, “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.”

Cullen believed Chief was suffering from a surge in testosterone, a regular process called musth that coincides with the mating season and can lead to a 60-fold increase in reproductive hormones. “Elephants—that is, some elephants, and Chief was included in that class—have periods of madness,” he explained. 

Mad indeed. After Chief crushed his handler, he charged up the railroad tracks on Trade Street, cut over to 5th Street, crossed Tryon, and headed west, past a hardware store where terrified Charlotteans went to round up guns to shoot the rogue animal. Circus employees caught up with Chief on Church Street. They chained him to Mary and The Boy and hauled him back to his cage. 

King died the next morning. Circus workers carried his coffin on a hearse pulled by four white horses to Charlotte’s Elmwood Cemetery in Fourth Ward. Mary and The Boy walked behind the small funeral procession. Chief did not. The Robinson Circus paid for King’s ornate grave marker, roughly five feet tall with an epitaph and an elephant standing beneath a palm tree chiseled into the stone. 

A decade later, on the last week of 1890, at a hotel in Cincinnati, a chef served Chief for dinner. 

The bull had been exiled to the Cincinnati Zoo, where he continued to be unruly. After he reportedly killed two more trainers, the zoo put together a firing squad to kill Chief. A few days later, The New York Times included a note about the peculiar roast elephant loin on the menu at Cincinnati’s Palace hotel: “It was, in fact, a part of Chief, the vicious elephant who was shot in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, and was not bad eating, as some of the force of this office can testify,” the paper reported. “It was without exception the best roast elephant that any of us had ever tasted.”

Visit King’s Grave Site: John King is buried in Charlotte’s historic Elmwood Cemetery, which is located at 700 W. 6th St. in uptown’s Fourth Ward. His grave is located in section A2, just inside the cemetery’s main entrance. 

This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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