Bloody History of Gypsy the Elephant

Valdosta Police Chief Dampier used a borrowed Krag-Jorgensen rifle to bring down the rampaging elephant, Gypsy, in November 1902.

Valdosta Police Chief Dampier used a borrowed Krag-Jorgensen rifle to bring down the rampaging elephant, Gypsy, in November 1902.

In 1952, Billboard magazine reported that the bones of Gypsy the  infamous  man-killing elephant were in Ray City, GA.  (See Bones of Gypsy the Elephant.)  The elephant was killed in Lowndes County near Cherry Creek in 1902, after trampling her trainer and escaping from the Harris Nickel Plate Circus.

But the elephant Gypsy had a well documented history as a man-killer long before the bloody rampage in Valdosta.  There were reputed to be notches filed on her tusks for each of her victims.

 The Valdosta Times

The One that Didn’t Get Away!
      The monster brute of the Harris Nickel-Plate Show trampled her keeper to death and ran amuck.  After terrorizing the business portion of the city [Valdosta], she dashed out to Pine Park and was shot down six miles north of the city Sunday morning After trampling her keeper and leading the townsfolk on a chase lasting all night and far into Sunday morning in the Cherry Creek area of the city, Gypsy was killed by Chief of police Calvin Dampier with a single shot from a Krag-Jorgenson rifle.  This is said to have been the first animal of its kind ever killed by a rifle in the country.

For more than a decade, Gypsy had been one of the star attractions of W. H. Harris’ Nickel Plate Show.

Advertisement depicting Gypsy and Barney in Harris' Nickel Plate Shows.

Advertisement depicting Gypsy and Barney in Harris’ Nickel Plate Shows.

Circus historian C. E. Duble gave this description of the Harris Nickel Plate Show:

The Harris Nickel Plate Show
Bandwagon, Vol. 1, No. 10 (Oct), 1942, p. 4.

      One of the prominent old-time one ring shows of years ago was the W. H. Harris World-Famous Nickel Plate Show originated in 1893 in Chicago by W. H. Harris. This show was a big success. As far as I can learn the show was 10-car size during its long career. The show came to Jeffersonville, Ind., in the early 1890’s and the last appearance was on September 28th 1901. The writer passed bills for the show on that occasion. Admission was 10 and 20 cents. Among the performers were Miles Orton, principal bare back rider; the Millette’s aerial performers etc.; and the St. Leon Family Acrobats. One of these girls Elsie At. Leon was Star of the play “Polly of the Circus”. The side show and menagerie were under one tent.
       A parade feature was a combination Bandwagon and Lion Den, this being of elaborate design, with heavy carvings and mirrors; band rode atop under canopy over rear of wagon and drawn in parade by six or eight camels docked out in oriental robes and trappings.
      Show had one elephant “Gypsy” of immense size, appeared in parade and performance. Hand bills had a half tone out of the Lion Den referred to and a cut of the elephant with this exact wording “Famous Historic, Gypsy Still Lives – THE LARGEST ELEPHANT THAT WALKS THE EARTH.”
      The Territory of the Harris Nickle Plate Show was the middle West and South, Winter Quarters at the time were Valdosta, Ga. The elephant killed her keeper O’Rourke there, the Winter of 1902. W. H. Harris died about 1902 and Chas. O. Wilson became manager for Mrs. Harris. Later he was traffic Manager for years with Ringling Bros. After twenty-one years tour the show came to an end in August 1904 at Sebree, Ky.
      The old dirt ring bank remained at Jeffersonville for years. On the same spot where the tents of the Harris Nickel Plate Show were in 1901, the High School stands today.

Gypsy the elephant about 1894, with trainer Fatty Shea, and a smaller elephant possibly Pearl. During this time Gypsy was with the George W. Hall circus.

Gypsy the elephant about 1894, with trainer Fatty Shea, and a smaller elephant possibly Pearl. During this time Gypsy was with the George W. Hall circus.

W. H. Harris had acquired Gypsy for the Nickel Plate Show around late 1885.

Purchased from the deep South’s W. W. Cole’s Circus, she  proved to be a huge brute that put fear into everyone. Charley Curran, the trainer, examined her tusk stubs and noting many notches there-on, exclaimed, “I knew it!, this is Pogie O’Brien’s notorious outlaw and as she has nine notches filed into her tusks, she has killed at least that many people”. “Well”, dryly commented Harris, “we bought her as Gypsy, so don’t anyone mention her bloody history”. – White Tops, April 1930, Col. C. G. Sturtevant.

Indeed, the “bloody history” of Gypsy aka Empress was no secret.  Just months before her purchase by Harris, she had killed a man in Philadelphia.  Although Empress belonged to O’Brien’s Circus, she was temporarily being housed at the winter quarters of Forepaugh’s Circus in Philadelphia. The  sensational story was reported all over the United States, even in the small communities of south Georgia:

The Weekly Sumter Republican
Americus Georgia

October 12, 1885


    Philadelphia, Oct. 12th. – Yesterday afternoon R. White, about 55 years of age, an employe of Forepaugh’s circus, was attacked and killed by the large Elephant Empress, who struck him a fearful blow with her trunk and threw him across some cages with such force as to disembowel him.

October 16, 1885 news clipping: Killed by an elephant.

October 16, 1885 news clipping: Killed by an elephant.

The New York Times told more of the story:

The New York Times
October 12, 1885


 An Ugly Elephant Attacks A Circus Employe [sic] Without Warning

    Philadelphia, Oct. 11. – The big performing elephant Empress added another victim to her long list today by attacking and almost instantly killing Robert R. White, a watchman employed at the Winter quarters of Forepaugh’s Circus, at the corner of Lehigh avenue and Edgemont street.  As in almost every other instance where this beast has injured people the attack was made without provocation or warning.  White was in the elephant building, which is detached from the quarters of the other animals, in company with a  man named Allen and  a song and dance man who has been connected with O’Brien’s Circus during the past season.  When the men entered the building Empress trumpeted loudly and moved restlessly about in her stall.  As she had received her quota of hay White knew that she could not be hungry, and for a time was at a loss to account for her uneasiness.  He then jumped to the conclusion that she was thirsty, and told his companions that he would give her  a drink.  They knew her ugly disposition and tried to dissuade him from releasing the big brute, but he protested that he could manage her and entered the stall.
      Empress stood perfectly passive while White unwound the heavy chain that secured her foreleg to a stake in the ground.  She obediently backed out of the stall and started toward the water trough at the other end of the building .   She had not gone half a dozen paces, however, before whe gave vent to a threatening snort, and raising her trunk in the air felled White to the ground with one tremendous blow.  She struck him another blow as he lay prostrate, and then rearing on her hind legs brought one of her front feet down on White’s chest with the full force of her ponderous weight.  She paused for a moment apparently to see whether her victim would offer any resistance, and when he moaned feebly she thrust down her immense head and with her tusk literally disemboweled him.  In the meantime,, White’s companions, who had been rooted to the ground with horror for an instant after the attack began, ran from the building  and gave the alarm.  There were very few of the employes [sic] about, but those who were within call quickly assembled and held a hurried consultation at the door of the elephant house.  They could hear Empress tramping about.
    Daniel Taylor, an attaché of the circus, picked up a spear, and dashing into the elephant house plunged it into the brute’s leg.  She stopped thrusting at the prostrate man with her single but ugly tusk, and turned her head to look at her assailant.  Taylor followed up his attack by plunging his spear into the beast’s side, meanwhile shouting at her.  She turned toward him and made a movement as though she intended transferring her attention to him.  Taylor never wavered, but continued prodding the brute with his spear, and commanded her to go to her stall.  Empress hesitated a moment, and then doggedly turned and walked to her stall, where she was  promptly secured.  White was taken to a hospital, where he died very soon afterward.
    Empress has been traveling with O’Brien’s  Circus during the past season.  It is said that this animal has killed two or three persons and injured and maimed a dozen or more.  Her last escapade in the city was on the morning of Aug. 31 last, when she was exhibiting at Broad and Dickenson streets.  At the time a young man named John Kimberline, who was employed with the show as cook, stole into the elephant’s tent when Empress was lying down apparently asleep.  Near her was a pile of hay, which constituted her allowance for the night.  Kimberline abstracted an armful  and spreading  it under the lion’s cage made a bed for himself and went to sleep.  His actions were watched by Empress, who after Kimberline had gone to sleep drew out the stake to which she was chained, picked him up with her trunck and hurled him across the tent.  The young man was seriously injured, but subsequently recovered.  Three months before this occurrence Empress attacked an old employe [sic] of the circus named John Loudon, and injured him so severely that one side of his body was partially paralyzed for life.  Another employe had been attacked by the brute shortly before and severely injured.  Several years ago she hurled a female performer across the tent and seriously hurt her.  Soon after Empress came under the control of her present trainer,  Mr. Colley, she took him unawares one day and, forcing him against a cage, thrust her trunk almost completely through his body and fractured three ribs.  She is very intelligent, and performs some remarkable tricks with her trainer in the ring.  It is thought now it will be necessary to have her shot.

But  Gypsy was not shot.  Instead, she continued to tour the country with circus shows.

The New York Times
March 26, 1896


Lion Tamer Scott Paid For His Ride With His Life at Chicago. Gypsy Resents Her Keeper’s Attempt to Direct Her Movements and Beats Him to Death with Her Trunk – A Woman’s Brave Battle with the Enraged Pachyderm – A Building Wrecked and the Police Defied by the Beast.

      Chicago, March 25. – W. H. Harris’s big elephant Gypsy became unmanagable at Winter quarters on the West Side this afternoon, and before she could be got under control, killed her keeper, tore down a frame building, and created an excitement which drew thousands of people to the scene.
     Harris’s circus is quartered at the corner of Roby and Jackson Street in a six-story brick building, and Gypsy occupies the greater part of the first floor.  Her regular keeper is Bernard Shea, but Shea is at present in Omaha, and the animal was temporarily in charge of Frank Scott, a lion tamer.
     Scott this afternoon took Gypsy out for a ride in the alley.  Gypsy did not seem inclined to stop at the boundary of the alley, and Scott gave her a jab with an iron hook.  The beast became enraged, and, throwing her keeper from her head, where he had been riding, proceeded to pound him with her trunk, and succeeded in killing him and knocking him through a board fence.
      Mrs. Harris came to the rescue with a pitchfork.  She was knocked down, but pluckily jumped up and gave the brute  battle. She soon had blood streaming from wounds in the elephant’s side. Gypsy ran toward the end of the alley.  Here was standing a large crowd, and many were scattering which took place when the elephant started out of the alley. 
      Gypsy did not go far, but went back for Scott, who, in the meantime, had been moved into a wood building just opposite the elephant’s quarters.  The animal knocked in the whole side of the building in her efforts to get at the man again.
      Mr. Harris had sent for all the bread and cake that could be bought in the neighborhood, and also telephoned for Claude Orton, his horse trainer, who soon arrived.  The elephant quieted down somewhat while she was eating fifty loaves of bread, a large number of cakes, and other delicacies which were placed before her.

The Oswego Daily Times ran the same story about Gypsy’s March 25 rampage, adding:

      Finally she walked into her barn and the heavy doors were shut after her.  The door had no sooner been shut than the elephant, with one blow, shattered it and ran out again.  By this time every street in the vicinity was crowded with excited people.  Three wagon loads of police came to the rescue, but could do nothing further than keep back the crowds.
    The elephant had her own way for about four hours, when she went back into her stall and allowed Orton to chain her.

The NYT article concluded with:

      Harris has owned the animal for five years and has had no trouble with her before.
      Frank Scott’s right name is unknown.  He would never tell who he was, and although he had been with the Harris circus for six years, no one knows anything of him except that he went under an assumed name. His body is now in the hands of an undertaker, and will be buried from the home of Mr. Harris.

The story continued:

The Alexandria Post News
Alexandria, Douglas County, Minnesota
Thursday, April 2, 1896, page 7

Her Seventh Victim.

      Omaha, Neb., March 26.—Bernard Shea, the former keeper of Gypsy, the elephant which created so much trouble in Chicago Wednesday, will take the first train for Chicago to assume his old position. Mr. Shea has been Gypsy’s keeper off and on for the past ten years and says he has never had any troubles with her. In an interview he stated that Gypsy is only another name for Empress, the original old Empress, the first elephant imported into this country, and that the killing of her late keeper, Scott, makes the seventh victim of her vicious character.  
      The first was Harry Cooley, in 1870, at Forepaugh’s winter quarters in Philadelphia; then George West had the life crushed out of him in 1874, traveling on the road with Robinson’s show. “Jimmy, the Bum,” was the next man, at New Iberia, La., in 1882, followed by William Devoe, with O’Brien’s show at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1886. Patsy Hulligan was the sixth victim, and he had his arm torn out at Cincinnatti in 1894, and died two days afterwards.

Glad to See Him.

      Chicago, March 27.—Trainer Shea arrived in town last night and made haste to reach Gypsy’s quarters. The meeting between the two astonished those who beheld it. Shea patted the elephant as he asked: “How are you, old girl?” Almost instantly Gypsy wrapped her big trunk around the waist of her friend and held him firmly, yet tenderly, for many minutes. Then, receiving a reassuring kiss from Shea, the monster slowly lowers him to the floor. While her trainer remained in her quarters Gypsy trumpeted merrily, and it was not until the keeper left the place that the beast ceased these manifestations of her joy.

After the death of Frank Scott, public sentiment rose against Gypsy.  Pehaps too dangerous to show and too infamous to sell, Harris sought to exploit her infamy.   He made a publicity stunt out of offering her to Tomás Estrada Palma, Maximo Gomez and Cuban insurgents who were fighting for independence from Spain before the beginning of the Spanish-American War.

The New York Times
January 2, 1897


Showman Harris Says His Elephant Would Help the Insurgents.

CHICAGO, Jan. 1. – Gypsy, the bad man-killing elephant, is not to be killed by electricity. She has been reprieved and may be sent to Cuba to trample down the ranks of the Spaniards.
Her owner, W. H. Harris, sent a telegram to Senor Palma last evening tendering the insurgents the four-footed terror, and she is now in her cage on the Pan Handle tracks in Rockwell Street, subject ot Palma’s orders.
Following is the telegram sent by Mr. Harris:

CHICAGO, Dec. 30.

Senor Palma, American Representative of Cuban Insurgents, New York:
       I have Gypsy, large man-killing elephant, on track, awaiting electrosecution, as she is too vicious for show purposes.
      She is a trained performer and will obey any command, and I think she would be serviceable in the rough country of Cuba, where it is, I am told, difficult to manipulate field pieces.
      I want to dedicate her to the cause of humanity and liberty. Will ship at your expense to any American port, and will agree to secure you animal man to go with her to Cuba.
      If Hannibal found elephants useful in battle, why should not Gomez conquer with Gypsy.
W. H. Harris

But harnessing Gypsy as a weapon of war was impractical, so the elephant remained in America.  Talk again turned to her execution.   Harris, of course, turned the prospect into a media circus, capitalizing on the novelty of  electricity in 1897.  Just four years earlier Nikola Tesla had stunned the world with an electric display of 200,000 lightbulbs  at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.  (It would be another 25 years before electric lights illuminated Ray City, GA. )  The Columbian Exposition was a triumph for Tesla’s alternating current (AC) over the safer direct current (DC) favored by Thomas Edison. For the next decade, Tesla and Edison battled for public opinon concerning the superiority of AC versus DC.  Edison took to touring the country staging shows where he demonstrated that alternating current was deadly by electrocuting various animals. Not to be outdone, Harris proclaimed he would electrocute Gypsy the elephant. “He accordingly hit upon the idea of a public execution with a five dollar admission fee.” There was talk that Gypsy would be stuffed and exhibited on the Circus tour.

Gypsy the elephant slated for electrocution, May 6, 1897.

Gypsy the elephant slated for electrocution, May 6, 1897.

But once again, Gypsy was spared. Perhaps Harris concluded all the publicity over her pending execution made her more valuable alive than dead.  It would remain for Edison to stage the world’s first electrocution of an elephant,  an event which he recorded in 1903 with another famous invention, the motion picture camera.

By the end of 1897 Gypsy “the man killing elephant” was back on the circus show route, even appearing in Thomasville, GA.

1897 Advertisement for the Nickel Plate Show and Gypsy appearance at Thomasville, GA

1897 Advertisement for the Nickel Plate Show and Gypsy appearance at Thomasville, GA

The Thomasville Daily Times-Enterprise
December 8, 1897


“Gypsy,” The Man Killing Elephant, Is With the Show.

Harris Nickle Plate Show will be in Thomasville next Monday, and with it will come Gypsy, the most notorious of living elephants; Wallick, the man-eating lion; a full company of acrobats, a long string of wagons, many horses, dogs, parrots, and all  the other paraphernalia that is the requisite of every first class show. 
    Speaking of Gypsy, the man-killing elephant, the Atlanta Journal had the following notice on the occasion of the visit of this show to Atlanta last month;      “When the cars of the show came to a standstill this  morning and the work of unloading began a crowd of idlers gathered around a mild-looking elephant of huge proportions.  The mild-eyed mountain of flesh was Gypsy, the elephant who only a few months ago killed two men in Chicago and created excitement in the Windy City that lasted for weeks. Gypsy one day decided to run amuck and began operations by killing her keeper and another man who attempted to stop her.
      After these two murders she smashed several doors out of the big barn she had been placed in for winter quarters and started into the streets.  Men ran from her, but a woman, and a woman of small statue, barred the way.  This woman was Mrs. W. H. Harris, wife of the owner of the show.  She had as a weapon a huge pitchfork that she used with vigor upon the head of the crazy elephant. Thousands of persons who had gathered at the place expected to see her killed,but instead the great beast came to a standstill and was finally secured. Gypsy was ordered killed by the authorities and Harris fixed the day and was to charge an admission, when the Humane society interfered and the life of the elephant was spared.

Five years later,  in Valdosta, GA, Gypsy killed her final victim. For the story of that still remembered day, see Bones of Gypsy the Elephant.

How the elephant bones were brought to Ray City and what eventually became of them is not known.

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  1. April 27, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    Gypsy #legend #hero

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