Circus Tragedy in Charlotte, 1880

A preserved Chief visits the University of Cincinnati after his death. Image from the University of Cincinnati.

On September 27, 1880, Chief, a performing elephant, killed his trainer, John King, in Charlotte.

John King’s grave marker in Charlotte. Image from the University of Cincinnati.

The John Robinson Circus, of which Chief was a part, had arrived in Charlotte that day with two shows planned. Crowds of spectators were camped out near the circus, anticipating the next day’s shows. Many of them witnessed the horrifying events of that evening.

Chief, a large male elephant, charged his keeper and smashed the man into a railcar, mangling him to the point that he was dead within minutes. The elephant then charged away from the scene, chased by circus workers who finally caught and lassoed him to an older, female elephant named Mary. Mary appeared to grasp the enormity of the younger elephant’s deed and beat him with her trunk as they were returned to the circus grounds.

King was buried in Elmwood Cemetery with the circus band playing and two other circus elephants in attendance. For the grave, Confederate veteran Billy Berryhill carved an obelisk monument with an elephant in the shaft.

Chief never worked in the circus again, although he remained with them and marched in the parades until he was exiled to the Cincinnati Zoo. Unfortunately, after killing several other keepers, Chief was killed himself.

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