The Ghost of Romeo, the Circus Elephant

The Ghost of Romeo, the Circus Elephant elephant ghost in sheet

The Ghost of Romeo, the Circus Elephant

The biggest news under the Big Top is that Ringling Brothers is going to phase out elephant acts at its circuses by 2018. Animal rights activists have been pushing this for quite some time, but the animals’ iconic association with the circus, and, one assumes, not much of a market for used elephants, have maintained the status quo. There have long been accusations of cruelty to circus elephants. The hooked goads, starvation, beatings, white-hot irons, and painful restraints were defended by trainers as necessary to protect the public and themselves. Nineteenth-century accounts of the treatment of “rogue” elephants make for harrowing reading:


The war elephant “Romeo,” belonging to Forepaugh’s menagerie, and better known among showmen as “Old Canada,” has been celebrated for years as being the most vicious, vindictive and dangerous elephant in the country. He has killed, at different periods, three of his keepers, and has frequently created the most dire consternation, besides damaging property to a considerable value in his surly moods. It will be remembered that two years ago this winter he killed his keeper, Williams, at Hatboro, Pa., and remained in a frenzied condition nearly the entire winter, before he could be subjected. Since then he has caused but little trouble, until Monday last, when he made his quarters, near Connersville, Ind., the scene of considerable disquietude and no little danger. A day or two previous the female elephant “Lalla Rookh,” which Mr. Forepaugh had recently purchased at the sheriff’s sale of Dr. Thayer’s circus, in this city, was placed in the same building with Romeo, but was confined some distance off. During the night she succeeded in drawing the stake to which she had been fettered, and in the early hours of the morning, when Mr. George [more likely Adam, the circus owner’s son] Forepaugh, Romeo’s keeper, entered the building to look after his charge, he found the two elephants standing together, and Romeo evidently much delighted with his new companion. But Mr. Forepaugh thought it prudent to mar this new-born pleasure, by returning the female to her proper place. This was instantly resented by Romeo, by seizing his keeper with his trunk and throwing him against the wall. More alarmed than injured, Mr. Forepaugh fled from the building, and mounting his horse sped to the village for assistance. The necessary aid was quickly summoned, and a little army of showmen and villagers returned to the fairgrounds, where the elephant was confined. They found him in a state of the greatest fury, and their first reception was a large piece of timber which Romeo had torn from the rafters above him, and which he hurled at them with tolerable aim and direction, but which fortunately, struck, nobody. He next seized a coach-dog, which for two years had been his constant companion, and for which he had always evinced the warmest attachment, and dashed him, lifeless, against the roof. Finding his rage so terrible and his mood so revengeful, it was determined to subject him by hunger, if possible, and up to Friday last he had not received a particle of food or water, but which treatment had not the slightest effect in appeasing his fury. It was then determined to “take” him. It becomes necessary to explain this term to the general reader. Whenever it becomes expedient, from death or otherwise, to furnish an elephant with a new keeper, or an old one is required to bring him under subjection, they “take him,” as it is called in showmen’s parlance. This is done by confining him beyond the power of resistance, and then beating him until he trumpets forth his subjection, and yields submission to his tormentors. In this instance, guy-stakes were driven in the ground, a distance of about one hundred feet both in front and rear of the elephant, and to these, ropes were securely fastened, running through falls and blocks, and which, by very adroit management, were attached to the fetters which encompassed and bound his legs. To accomplish this successfully, it was necessary for one of the keepers to stand in front of him with a gun heavily loaded with bird-shot, and, whenever he offered to strike at those who were fastening the ropes to his fetters, a charge was fired into his trunk, causing him to roar with rage and pain, but to desist from offensive demonstrations. When everything was ready, the huge monster’s legs were drawn from under him by the men at the ropes, and he was brought to a recumbent position, lying broadside on the ground. His legs were then brought together and bound similar to that of a calf tethered for the market, and then the work of subjection commenced in earnest. His keeper, the only man that was allowed to utter a word, advanced, and driving the elephant spear deep into his flanks, commanded him in sharp, decisive tones, to “speak!” He met with no response but a definite blow from the elephant’s trunk. He was then belabored for eight hours with stout iron rods, and wounded with the spear innumerable times, until he was brought under complete subjection, and begged long and loud for mercy. He was then released form his bonds, and rose to his feet in a very sorry plight, and in such abject fear of his tormentors that, to use the rather expressive words of his keeper, “a child can now drive him with a rye straw.” Cincinnati Enquirer. Columbian Register [New Haven CT] 1 January 1870: p. 1

Of course, Romeo’s rage on being separated from the female elephant suggests the rampage known as “Musth,” a condition of male elephants, who, under its influence become highly aggressive, attacking anyone unfortunate to cross their paths. That said, Romeo was undeniably a killer.

“Romeo” has an eventful history, having killed five keepers since his advent in America, besides destroying any number of fences, barns, garden patches, cornfields, orchards, &c. He was purchased by an agent of J. Mabie [of Mabie Brothers Circus], in Calcutta, about twenty-five years ago, having been taken from a brick-yard, where he was being used in grinding clay. [other articles said he was a “war elephant” from Ceylon, captured in battle.] The price paid for him was ten thousand dollars in gold, and he was brought to America along with nine others. In 1852, while south of New Orleans, he killed his keeper known as “Long John,” whose successor “Frenchy” Williams, shared the same fate near Houston, Texas, in 1855, a third, Stewart Craven, was killed in 1860 near Cedar Rapids, Iowa [perhaps a different keeper, because Craven, a very famous elephant trainer, died in 1890] ; the fourth, Bill Williams, was sent to his last account in Philadelphia, in 1867; and the fifth, named McDevitt, in Ohio, in 1869, complete the list of “Romeo’s” victims…his grim hide now bears the scars of numerous bullets and red hot irons used to subdue him….His last hours were not among the pleasantest of his life. He had been eminently “fast” in his young days, away back in forgotten time; was something of a beau, perhaps, with the untutored, sylvan maiden elephants of his native wild, and in old age, this early dissipation told upon him. His body followed his manners, and became corrupt. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 10 June 1872: p. 6

Whether malevolent killer or misunderstood and tortured animal, it was a low blow to claim that he died from his youthful “dissipations.” In fact, he died of leg and feet infections after some horrifically brutal “treatments.” Which brings us to the third and fortean ring of this circus: Romeo’s ghost.


If You Have Any Bigger Ghost Story Than This, Trot It Out.

[From the Chicago Times, 30th.]

There is a good deal of excitement extant among the people connected with Forepaugh’s Circus, now exhibiting in this city, on account of an exhibition or manifestation not included in the programme, and at an hour most unusual. It will be remember that it was in this city the famous war elephant “Romeo” departed this life from the effects of sore feet and a surgical operation. Well, this same Romeo, whose stuffed carcass [actually mounted skeleton–the body decomposed too quickly for stuffing] is now one of the attractions of the Chicago Medical College Museum, it is reported and believed, was seen again on Thursday night among his old friends.

This is not the first time that defunct animals are reported to have appeared as apparition. The books are full of curious mention of these matters. And if it be at all possible for an animal to return, the coming back of Romeo, if there be enough materializing matter in the other world for his make-up would be mostly likely, on account of surrounding circumstances and former associations.

When Forepaugh’s Combination exhibited in this city two years ago, Romeo, probably the most famous elephant ever connected with a show, and one of the most ponderous, was of it. But he came in a sore plight. His legs, from his toenails up to his knees, were literally rotten, and in order to keep inflammation out it was necessary to keep his understandings in tubs of water.

It was finally determined to perform an operation on him, and Professor Boyd, of the Chicago Medical College, and Dr. Withers, veterinary surgeon, were invited to the task. They went at it with huge carving-knives and red-hot soldering irons, as the only tools that could be used effectually on such a mass of corruption, and they carved and burned away for several hours, making a most horrible stench. Romeo, generally the wildest of brutes, stood it like a hero, and only grunted now and then when the seething iron touched upon the live flesh. No less than a hundred red-hot soldering irons were run into his legs, making huge tunnels that one could run an arm full length into. But these kind offices were of no avail. Two nights afterward Romeo gave a last look around, blew his bugle gently once again, and with a thud that shook the ground for a block around, dropped on his side and expired. Every animal in the menagerie seemed to know what was the matter for they set up a combined howl so dismal and prolonged that the oldest showman confessed he had never before heard the like.

Juliet, Romeo’s female companion for some years previous, seemed absolutely inconsolable, and even the ever-coveted peanut and apple, tendered by charming little misses, failed to draw her from the sad reflections induced by the death of her consort.

The death occurred on the precise spot where she is now chained for show, as she was then. Romeo’s stuffed carcass is but a few miles away. What more natural than that this spirit should hover about the spot so associated to him by the ties of life and defunctness? At least so say the showmen, when you laugh at them for what they pretend to have seen.

What they say they saw is this: On Thursday night the crowd dispersed about half-past ten o’clock , and the keepers were put on the watch. Nothing unusual occurred until sometime after midnight, when a tremendous commotion became noticeable among the animals. The lions roared, the tigers yelled, the hyenas screamed and the monkeys chattered their teeth as if a North Pole ague fit had struck them.

Juliet seemed fairly beside herself. Her ears stood on end, her trunk and tail ditto, and she squirmed, and wriggled about as if, well, yes, as if she saw a ghost. And that is what the keepers declare she did see, and they themselves saw. There in the old spot stood Romeo, by the side of Juliet, caressing her with his huge trunk, and at times almost lifting her from the ground with it. Romeo, jun., seemed to see the apparition, too, but appeared to be rather frightened at it, and moved away to the furthest stretch of his chain. But Juliet, after the first scare, so to speak, took kindly to the ghost, and gave every indication of intense satisfaction.

The watchmen, meanwhile, were astonished out of their wits. There could be no mistaking what they saw. Did they not know every hair on old Romeo’s body, and there he stood between the two live elephants, just as natural as life, his grand proportions as of old set off to the best advantage by the diminutive size of his former playmates. The apparition lasted several minutes. The Times has no explanation to offer. It simply gives the story as it is current among the showmen. While houses are being upset by ghostly visitants in California, young ladies’ spirits appear in white dresses in England to be hugged by grave professors –a la Katie King and Prof. Crookes—it is just as likely that Chicago should be able to raise the ghost of an elephant. She always does everything on the grandest scale. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 1 June 1874: p. 6

Putting on my Relentlessly Informative hat, I’ll interject that the ghostly visitants in California refers to a Mr. Clarke’s house in Oakland, haunted by screams, voices, moving furniture, and a ghostly woman’s face.

Vintage stories of the circus are often sprinkled with some of the fairy-dust that creates that three-ring magic. It’s hard to know if mistaken/inventive stories arise from circus spin[ning-plate] doctors or careless/paid-to-puff journalists. The fact that Forepaugh’s Circus was in town at the time of this article, suggests the latter.

Some romanticized accounts of Romeo’s death say he pined himself to death over Juliet, who had died before him and whose bones, it is said, lie in Lake Delevan, Wisconsin. When Juliet supposedly died there in 1864, the corpse was left on the ice because the ground was too frozen to dig a grave, and when the spring came, the body sank into the lake. Yet Juliet, if we can credit the newspapers, survived Romeo.  Perhaps there were two Juliets, because this account seems to bear out the lake-burial story.

I know of one other ghost elephant story, that of Topsy, another badly mistreated elephant of the Forepaugh menagerie, who was electrocuted by Thomas Edison at what is now Luna Park. These are the largest ghosts I’ve ever heard of.  Can anyone make a case for a larger? Trumpet your findings to Chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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