That time when an elephant got loose in Wilmington for a few days
Back in 1922, a circus elephant went on a rampage and trampled its way around an entire city. But you know what it didn't trample? Hearts.
Here’s a request from the publisher of Queen City Nerve:
Folks, service journalism is my passion. I was happy to use each and every skill I’ve learned over a two-decade reporting career to get to the bottom of this story. In this case, that involved looking for news clippings and other hundred-year-old evidence of an 8,000 pound elephant tearing shit up in Wilmington for a couple of days.
How It Started (in 1922)
Back in October of 1922, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was in town. It was one of the biggest circuses out there, rivaling Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. It’s more well-known for one of the worst train crashes in American history, but by the time they pulled up in Wilmington, that was old news.
They rolled into Wilmington, set up 17 (!) tents at the corner of 13th and Ann Streets, held a parade through town, then put on two shows that attracted more than 5,000 people each despite the pouring rain. The performances went off without a hitch, except for an incident when a little boy in the grandstand got whacked upside the head by a flying horseshoe. He was fine.
Then came the rampage.
Sometime after the show on October 9, a four-ton, 110-year-old (!?) elephant named Topsy got loose. It’s not exactly clear how. The local newspaper, the Wilmington Morning Star, didn’t give a reason. Reports in newspapers elsewhere said Topsy got pissed off after someone gave her tobacco when she’d been expecting a peanut. The Associated Press had a completely different story. Its report said she was being loaded into her railroad car when a pack of wild dogs nearby started barking at her, making her nervous. Then someone fired a pistol. Topsy backed off the ramp and started to chase the dogs, which scurried into a backyard. To get at them, Topsy trampled fences and plants and put some large dents in nearby cars. Her message was clear: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.
Calls started coming in to a very confused police department. A woman on Carolina Avenue stated that there was an elephant in her backyard. The officers on the other end of the line talked about what to do. Before they could decide, a woman came back to say that the elephant had left. Up at 20th and Princess, another caller said the elephant had trampled his fences. A man in an alleyway apartment thought there was an earthquake, and, upon being told well actually it was an elephant, became even more confused. At one point, Topsy was laden with rampage flotsam and jetsam. One citizen reported that she was running around with a chicken coop around her neck like a yoke.
Sometime during the night, a citizen fired a shotgun at Topsy. That just made things worse.
Reports of a rampaging elephant came in from all around Wilmington. But for some reason, Topsy focused much of her anger and confusion on a laundry business named the Eureka Dye Works. From the Wilmington Morning Star:
The animal walked through a closed door, tore up the piping, and destroyed the top to a delivery wagon and hurled large quantities of dye to the four corners of the building.
Here is an incomplete map of the places where people spotted Topsy:
After a long night, someone saw Topsy heading into the swamp that once sat between the Cape Fear River and Greenfield Lake, south of town (it’s marked by the black dot above). The area was thick with cypress and wet, making it hard to see through and harder to walk in. The only people who went in willfully were—you guessed it—young boys. Some of them found Topsy and told the police. Two officers, Leon George and Bill Walton, later discovered the elephant mostly stuck deep in muck.
So how did they get her out? Hay. Peanuts. Talking like a baby. “Come on Mumsey,” George was telling her, according to the Wilmington Morning Star. “Come on little girl.”
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Topsy was tired, and kept sinking in the muck while following George out of the swamp. A few times, she used her trunk to pull herself forward, and knocked down a few trees in the process. It was only after a long effort that Topsy got to the edge of the swamp, where she was chained to a sturdy tree and allowed to chill out.
Hundreds of people came to visit her there. They also gawked at her in the rail yard where she was to be loaded on to a train for the circus’s next stop: Fayetteville. The next morning, circus trainers made sure there were no dogs nearby, and started to coax her up the ramp.
It was at that point when Topsy said eh, screw this, turned around, trotted 300 yards, jumped off a dock AND SWAM ACROSS THE CAPE FEAR RIVER. She quickly disappeared into the swamps on the other side. It took another day before a search party found her again, and coaxed her out to the village of Cedar Point with all of the hay and peanuts she could eat.
Finally, she was loaded with a crane onto another box car and sent down to rejoin the circus, which at this point had moved on to Charleston, South Carolina. It was discovered then that she’d lost an eye during the rampage.
The story was a sensation. It was picked up and run by nearly every major newspaper in North Carolina, and up and down the east coast. A few days later, the Washington Evening News put the saga into a political cartoon on its front page:
A reporter tracked down Topsy’s former trainer a few days later, who defended her by saying she was easily distracted and spooked by things like, say, falling leaves. She was a “stampeder,” the trainer said. He added that she’d gone on a nine-day walkabout in Florida a few years before, but despite all of that, she was a sweet girl. The best way to get her under control wasn’t with hooks or cruelty, he said, but with brandy: “As soon as she feels better inside, she’ll feel better outside.”
Nobody was hurt during the whole thing, and despite newspaper headlines that talked about “terror” and “wild rampages,” everybody seemed to be in a pretty light mood about it. There were lawsuits filed to recover damages to brick walls, fences, roads, and outhouses, sure. Eureka Dye Works, which had its insides demolished by Topsy, sued for $5,000. But in the days that followed, they and several other businesses immediately tried to capitalize on the popularity of a circus elephant running amok:
And… that was it. The damage was fixed. Leon George, the police officer, was murdered by a moonshiner in 1924. The circus itself, after being bought up by Ringling Brothers, closed for good in 1938. Topsy got loose again the next year in Danville, Virginia, and was with the circus until 1930. But she never made national headlines again. Over time, her story was eclipsed by another Topsy the elephant, who was electrocuted in 1903 in a gruesome manner that Thomas Edison had filmed. Today, there’s a navigational waypoint for pilots near Wilmington named Topsy, but otherwise, no physical reminders of the rampage remain. It’s hard to remember anything about something that happened 100 years ago, except in the most millennial way possible: Some entrepreneurs opened a restaurant in the old laundry that Topsy once wrecked.
h/t to John Hirchak’s Legends of Old Wilmington & Cape Fear, which has a chapter about Topsy, and many thanks to Jan Crawford at the Cape Fear Museum, who sent along notes, newspaper clippings, and pointed me to this podcast episode about Topsy:
Have a old story you need to know more about? Email me or leave a comment.
But do you know about Chief, the elephant? Memorialized with a grave marker in Charlotte which tells the story of how he deliberately sat on his trainer? The grave belongs to his trainer, John King. I happened on this grave, one day walking in the cemetery and couldn’t believe my eyes.