Gypsy the circus elephant, Lowndes County, GA 1902

My father told me about the circus elephant that escaped in Valdosta and ran as far north as Cat Creek, a few miles from where we live, going on 111 years ago. My great-aunt Evalyn told us more; she was 17 when it happened and about 97 when she told us where she was then living in Texas. It seems she got it mostly right, although it’s not clear exactly what the right story is.

Lowndes County Historical Society and Museum, undated, Gypsy the Elephant,

The story of Gypsy the elephant is one of Valdosta’s most bizarre and notable stories. In 1902 Gypsy, a large Asian elephant who belonged to the Harris-Nickle-Plate circus, killed her trainer, broke free, and went on a rampage in Valdosta before eventually being brought down north of town by the chief or police. At the time, the incident was so peculiar that people in surrounding towns accused the citizens of Valdosta of fabricating the entire story for publicity.

Our old family neighbor Albert Pendleton (from when we all lived on Varnedoe Street in Valdosta; way before my time), added:

From some newspaper accounts of the incident, it was said that there were mixed emotions of people returning from Cherry Creek that day, a mixture of sadness and yet relief. They had watched Gypsy as she looked at them and the rifle, as it fired. They had heard her shriek and had seen her die. It took a big hole in the ground to bury Gypsy, and a detail of men chopped her up and buried her in several different holes near the spot. An estimated 3000 people rode out to see the dead elephant. The incident was the only topic of conversation in town.

Albert Pendleton, Way Back When Vol.II No.11

This story says Cherry Creek: variations like that happen in oral history. And the oral version included the elephant chased the trainer into a basement and crushed him there. I never understood

  1. how did an elephant fit through basement doors?
  2. a basement in Valdosta?

Martin Register wrote at an unknown date some time before 6 Sep 2004, The Rampage of Gypsy the Elephant, with an opposite version, citing a primary source:

On the chilly evening of November 22, 1902, Gypsy, “the largest elephant in the world,” looked down at her trainer, James “Whiskey Red” O’Rourke, as he lay comatose on a Valdosta, Georgia street. The man did not know it at the time, but this was the last road he would ever travel.

As was his habit, O’Rourke had once again had too much to drink and, from most accounts, had simply passed out and fallen awkwardly from his seat astride Gypsy’s neck.

He flopped in an ignoble heap at the intersection of Central Avenue and Toombs Street.

According to an account of the incident published the next day in the Valdosta Times, Gypsy, to the great pachyderm’s credit, tenderly attempted to lift O’Rourke back to his place atop her neck, but her trainer was unresponsive. She reportedly prodded him a few more times and, still getting no response, proceeded to lower her five-ton bulk onto the trainer, crushing him into a bloody mish-mash of teeth, hair and bones.

Ray City History Blog 5 March 2012, Bones of Gypsy the Elephant, quotes the entire VDT article of 25 Nov 1902, ELEPHANT GYPSY GOES WILD AND IS KILLED NEAR HERE, includes this part which mabye Auntie conflated into a single trainer in a basement:

One of the clowns, Barney Shea, who was formerly her keeper, undertook to lead her toward the depot and place her on the cars there and it was believed that he would succeed, as the animal knew his voice and followed him nearly to the Plant System depot. In the meantime, a large crowd had gathered and excitement was running high. A train was stopped on the crossing where the elephant was to pass and this, together with the excited crowds, seemed to rattle her. She turned back toward the Christian church, from which some of the members of the circus were calling to her in “elephant talk,” but it was apparent that she was getting thoroughly aroused. She grabbed an electric light pole with her trunk and shook it until the lights flew out all along the street. Then, she began to hurl bricks and pieces of timber through the air.

Elephant Thoroughly Aroused.

Billy Mincer, another of the clowns in the circus, was hemmed in a rear door of the new Christian church but was pulled out and hurled some distance of the angry animal. She started to renew her attack upon him but he was pulled out of the way by some parties who were near by. He was in an unconscious condition and was carried to the Valdes Hotel for medical. In the meantime Barney Shea and Clem Kerr, the latter being the advance agent of the circus, were in the new Christian church calling to “Gypsy” and trying to get her under control. Shea fired at her with a pistol several times, but the bullets did no harm except to make her mad.

Register’s writeup names the First Baptist Church. That church’s own history says its current building was dedicated 18 November 1900, so it would qualify as “the new Christian church” of the VDT story.

And here’s yet another contemporary version, from the New York Times 24 November 1902, Elephant Kills Keeper. Beast Terrified by a Wreck Crushes Him to Death in a Car.

Elephant Kills Keeper. Beast Terrified by a Wreck Crushes Him to Death in a Car. New York Times 1902-11-24 Gypsy, a big elephant belonging to a travelling show, went crazy six miles from Valdosta yesterday afernoon and killed her keeper, James O’Rourke. The circus train had been in a wreck in Tifton early in the day when several animal cars were wrecked and two or three trained horses killed. Gypsy was in a highly nervous state when the train pulled out for Valdosta, the next show point.

Six miles out from that town Gypsy became so restless that O’Rourke entered her car as the train stopped at a small station to try to quiet her. Immediately the mad brute attacked the man and crushed his life out against the side of the car. O’Rourke for some reason did not close the door of the car after him, so after killing her keeper, Gypsy escaped to the woods. Her absence was noted before the train left the station and a hunt was organized. The big beast was shot a number of times before she succumbed to rifle balls in the breast.

O’Rourke’s body was taken to Valdosta where it was given a spectacular burial this afternoon, being taken to the cemetery in a circus wagon drawn by six white horses. His home was in New Orleans, where he had a wife and family.

So Gypsy was either in a basement, in a train car, on the way to the fair grounds, or supposed to get in a train car, at the time her trainer (O’Rourke or somebody else) either fell off her back in a drunken stupor, ran away from her, or followed her in, when Gypsy either tried to revive him or crushed him in a rage, after which she ran about the town trumpeting, maybe in grief, maybe as a delayed reaction to a train wreck, maybe in glee, maybe because her tusk broke, or maybe because people were shooting at her. Unvarying elements of all the versions include that people shot at Gypsy the elephant until they killed her north of town near a creek, apparently Cherry Creek by all the contemporary accounts.

Also, 1902? My family didn’t move to Valdosta until 1903, so either Auntie Evalyn was visiting other relatives in Valdosta at the time, or she was repeating the talk of the town some 80 years later in about 1982, which is now 30 years ago. I don’t recall her saying she saw the elephant personally herself, and I don’t know where the audio tape of her talking about it is.

According to the Martin Register article:

In his article, Mr. Pendleton explained that Ms. Morgan’s memory of Gypsy appearing with the circus at Troupville means the elephant probably had been known to Valdostans for over 40 years. Indeed, at the time of her death, circus employees estimated Gypsy’s age to be between 65 and 67 years, claiming she had been bought by circus management in India around 1847.

Gypsy the Elephant (1837?-1902) R.I.P.

-jsq

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  1. Pingback: Bloody History of Gypsy the Elephant | Ray City History Blog

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