Storm scattered exotic creatures

Storm scattered exotic creatures

The touring Van Amsburgh's Menagerie touted its ability to tame wild animals; however, the show lost to wild weather in Bellville in 1870.

On the evening of Oct. 21, 1870, a great wind struck and the rain poured down in the dark night as exotic wild animals howled and women and children shrieked with fear.

“Everyone a prey to direst apprehensions of still more tangible horrors,” noted the New York Times (Nov. 4). The Times plucked the very strange story from the Oct. 29 Columbus State Journal, which augmented the slightly calmer account in the Oct. 27 Mansfield Herald.

The dateline was Bellville, and the circumstances surrounding the event so weird that it’s a wonder it didn’t survive in legend, if not in history. How often does a tornado clash with a huge menagerie tent full of people and wild animals in a small Ohio town? Film rights, anyone?

Van Amburgh’s Menagerie was one of the oldest and largest traveling animal shows in the United States. Bellville was a good place to set up, because the railroad cars could pull off on the outskirts of town and unload.

The single performance, according to news reports, attracted an audience of about 800 seated in tiers on one side of an “immense, oblong pavilion, equal in length to six circus tents joined side by side and supported by six center-poles … and innumerable smaller poles, all of which securely fastened by guy-ropes extended to stakes driven deeply in the ground.”

On the opposite side of the audience were arranged cages with lions, leopards, an eland, a rhinoceros, a couple of camels and two elephants — Tippoo Saib and Hannibal Jr. Their trainers worked with these behind bars, showing off their ability to tame the wild beasts. Less threatening animals, such as dogs and ponies, performed in the center space.

Eyewitnesses said the night was clear and star-studded one moment, and the next a large black cloud came whirling down the railroad track directly at the tent. Workers were sent inside to lower the top, but the tornado picked up the canvas, with its numerous masts and stakes, over the heads of the audience, “rising like a balloon and falling directly afterward in the adjacent fields, a mixed and tangled mass of cloth, lumber and cordage.”

All the artificial lighting was snuffed.

While the audience sat bewildered in the dark, the cages were being overturned in the wind, one badly injuring the cat trainer, Professor Langworthy, billed as “the Lion King.” One of the elephants broke loose and headed for someplace safer — cornfields. His handler caught up with him and tied him to a tree so he wouldn’t end up wandering the hills of southern Richland County.

“He (the elephant) was very angry,” the Mansfield Herald reported, “and almost unmanageable, and they did not perform with the next day on account of his wrath.”

Then the rain poured down, and people scrambled for safety. Injuries were mostly minor, resulting from flying pieces of the tent, but a few were more serious. David Stetts’ 10-year-old daughter was hit on the head and still could not speak the following day. A 3-year-old daughter of William Gearheart suffered a fractured skull. Emma Charles was badly bruised on the face, head and shoulder. Dr. Whitcomb got a black eye.

“There were a great many narrow escapes,” said the Herald, one of them rivaling the performance of a daredevil in a regular circus:

“David Zent (of Bellville) was sitting on the upper seat. He turned round, jumped down and went out under the canvas and, finding himself entangled in the ropes, could get no further. He looked up and saw the canvas and poles come down upon him. He folded his arms and straightened up and jumped out of a hole about a foot square, thus saving his life.”

The rain must not have lasted long, because torches were lit to help everyone find their way home. Workers were busy gathering up and repairing the tents, and the next day Van Amburgh’s Menagerie exhibited as advertised in Mount Vernon. None of the stories mentioned refunds.


Disclaimer connected to this blog…Things said are of my opinion and the opinion of others…Stay tuned  -B


~ by topcatsroar on June 4, 2013.

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