Many people have heard the story of Jumbo the Elephant, who was killed by a freight train, or of Topsy, who was electrocuted at Coney Island, but how many know the history of Fritz the elephant? We recently discovered vintage photographs that tell this tragic story.
Fritz (ca. 1870-1902) was an Asian elephant measuring 2.90 meters and weighing about 7.5 tons. Given the large number of animals who died during the five year European tour of Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth (1897-1902), Fritz was added to the company during the tour’s final year. In May 1902, while performing in Bordeaux, Fritz the elephant killed an employee of the circus who was greasing his feet and workers started keeping him in chains.
During a parade through the city of Tours, in front of the Place Nicolas Frumeaud, Fritz the elephant became agitated and then, uncontrollable. There are several versions of this story. Perhaps someone burned the elephant with a cigar or fed him something inedible. Perhaps it was a physical condition, due to the chains and unhealthy treatment. Circus workers surrounded him, wrapped him in chains, tied him up with ropes, and eventually strangled him. After several hours, Fritz died in the public street on June 11, 1902, as onlookers watched in horror.
Circus director J.A. Bailey (1847-1906), who was with the company, decided to leave the elephant in Tours. Fritz was stuffed and his body remains on view at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Tours (Tours Museum of Fine Arts). Read the memoir of Fritz’s trainer: George Conklin (1845-1924), The Ways of the Circus: Being the Memories and Adventures of George Conklin, Tamer of Lions, Set Down by Harvey W. Root, with a foreword by Don C. Seitz (New York: Harper ). Recap 4298.264