The subhead for this article says that the Elephant Man tells a story of one of the most thrilling moments in his career.The Elephant Man I was thinking of had been dead for over 20 years by the time this story was written, so I assumed they weren’t talking about him, but I wonder what his answer would have been. Anyway, this elephant man is actually the man at the circus who handles and trains elephants.
Yesterday a reporter of The TImes penetrated into the “greenroom” of the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, which is now performing at the Madison Square Garden. Let it be said that this “greenroom” is of Homeric proportions: Twenty-four elephants, camels, other strange animals, and horses and men beyond number, were lined up there waiting for the cue for the grand entree. The Times man, as the circus progressed, wandered about and asked the question: “What has been the most thrilling moment of your circus career?” Is it surprising that the people who are constantly flirting with death spoke only of elephant stampedes and cyclones?
You very likely have seen him — the man in the blue uniform who appears in the Barnum and Bailey grand entree at the head of the elephant herd. His name is Harry Mooney, head elephant man of the circus, and he has been all over the world with shows that ranged from one to three rings.
The Times man asked him for the most thrilling moment in his life.
“It’s hard to pick and choose, but I should say that it was out in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was in charge of five elephants. Water was scarce in those days in Johannesburg. In order to give the elephants the bath which they so much hanker after, particularly in warm dry climates, I led them out to the compound around one of the diamond mines.
“You know these compounds are big stockades built around the diamond mines to keep the negroes from getting away with valuable finds. The negroes work in the mines by day and at night sleep in huts within the stockade. Pumps are going constantly to drain the mines, and the water from these makes good-sized puddles in the compounds.
“There was an American negro and one South African native assisting me with my herd of five elephants.
“We led the herd into the compound, but immediately there appeared what looked to me like three thousand negroes. I guessed none of them had ever seen an elephant before. They crawled out of huts, from behind heaps of dirt, and from every other place conceivable.
“As soon as those negroes appeared the elephants made a rush for the gate. Luckily the gates were closed, and I was able to round the herd up. But I couldn’t get them to go back and take their bath.
“A week later, or about that, I again took the herd back to see if they hadn’t changed their minds. The minute we reached the gates they seemed to recognize them, just like human beings. They began to trumpet, swung around, and before you could snap your fingers they started off down the street.
“I was a little way behind the herd, and when they came at me I swung my elephant hook into the fore flank of one of them. It hung, and I was able to catch and grab hold of his ear. At that instant another elephant of the herd came alongside. The two of them started to run side by side, and I got jammed between them. I guess it only lasted for a second, but it seemed to me like a year. That new elephant simply wiped me from my hold on the elephant’s ear, and I got rolled between the two.
“I realized that if those elephants got a little closer together it would be all up with me, but if they separated a little I would drop — very likely beneath their feet. It was two chances for a bad job.
“Before I knew just what was going to happen, those two elephants had rolled me their entire length, and left me sprawling on the ground. I picked myself up and gathered my wits together just in time to see them disappearing through a lumber yard.
“My knowledge of the town let me know that there was a side street by which, if I beat it quickly, I could head them off. I cut through this and, sure enough, I got there just in time to see the herd of five coming down the street lickety-split.
“The crowd? — yes, and the policemen, too — were beating it in all directions. It was no time for elephant hooks. If you are going to stop an elephant herd at all it is with your voice, and you’ve got to have mighty good reason to know that they are acquainted with that voice, and know just what it means.
“I jumped out into the middle of the street. The five elephants were coming full steam ahead. I yelled, ‘Ho, hey, ho!’
“The five elephants stopped.
“I breathed a relieved breath, and the circus management didn’t have 5 cents to pay.”
If that story of animals forced to perform tricks, breaking free of their captivity, and ultimately being prodded with hooks has made you eager to see the circus, here’s the Greatest Show on Earth tour schedule.
“THE MOST THRILLING MOMENTS IN CIRCUS MEN’S CAREERS” The Elephant Man and a Midair Acrobat Tell Stories and a Clown Spins a Funny One. (PDF)
From April 16, 1911