A while ago I read the book The Historical Bigfoot, by Chad Arment. In the book, Arment reproduces 19th- and early-20th-century accounts of “wildman” sightings from contemporary news reports. It’s an interesting compilation and well worth a gander.
Anyway, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the great lengths the authors of said reports would take to justify the unknown creatures. Commonly, the articles end with a sentence along the lines of, “The animal is thought to be a gorilla that escaped from a crashed circus train,” or some such. Reading this over and over, one gets the sense that the twisted wreckage of ill-fated circus trains, with frightened exotic animals fleeing unchecked into the countryside, positively littered the tracks of North America. That just seems unlikely; how many circus trains could have crashed?
I did some research, and the answer was surprising. Circus trains, and trains in general, were crashing with astonishing frequency Back in the Day. It seems there was about one major wreck of a circus train per year in the United States from around 1880 through 1920 or so. (A partial listing of known circus train wrecks can be found here.)
This is not surprising when you think about it. Train travel was relatively new, safety standards were not yet developed, and there were many, many circuses. Circuses were criss-crossing the country regularly. Such live entertainment was a major event in isolated towns in the days prior to radio, movies, and TV.
Of course, even what might be called mainstream media were not necessarily reliable back then in the days of yellow journalism, and even though circus train wrecks did happen, they might have been exaggerated by the press. It’s difficult to get an exact handle on the details of such wrecks. The following are a few interesting excerpts originally published in The New York Times:
July 4, 1872 — Wreck of a Circus Train — Monkeys in Connecticut Woods
NEW-HAVEN, Conn., July 3 — John Robinson’s circus, while coming up on the New-York road, met with a serious accident at West Haven this morning, about 5 o’clock. While going under the bridge, the bridge settled, and the menagerie cages on the platform-cars struck it. Six cages were knocked off, and broken up. The lion and tapir escaped, but were soon secured. The zebra was fatally injured. A cage of birds was also broken up, but all were saved. A cage containing fifty monkeys was among those wrecked, and all the monkeys are now loose in the West Haven woods. The loss is estimated at $10,000.
July 1, 1885 — The Kangaroo Alone Killed
Owatonna, Minn., June 30 — Sells Brothers’ circus train was wrecked here this morning while on its way from Faribault to Austin. The train was running at a rate of 25 miles per hour, with an engine at each end, when three cars of cages left the rails… A half dozen cages were thrown from the cars. A kangaroo was the only animal killed.
November 4, 1887 — A Circus Train Wrecked. Wild Animals Escape, But Are Easily Captured. — One Man Killed.
St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 3 — JOHN ROBINSON’S circus train was wrecked at the Union Station this evening, and a pair of lions, a tiger, a leopard, and a hyena succeeded in escaping from the cages. The excitement was intense for a few minutes, but the animals, being of the circus kind, were more scared than the people and were easily captured…. The lion cage was shattered and the lion and his consort leaped out on the track and circled the wreck twice, and when the people fled, terror-stricken, the lions did likewise. They crawled under the wreck, leaving nothing to be seen but their tails. The tiger made a bee-line for the baggage room and took refuge behind some trunks. The hyena dodged under a freight car and howled. The leopard ran around for a few minutes and knocked a couple of men over and then jumped back into the wrecked cage….
I don’t know if the above accidents happened, but they certainly make wonderful reading. In any event, we don’t lack for verifiable accounts.
The 1903 train crash in Michigan (headline pictured above) killed two camels, an elephant, and at least twenty people. A wreck in Wisconsin in 1910 killed at least two elephants. A dozen members of the Con T. Kennedy circus were killed in a train collision near Columbus, GA in 1915. Eighty-six people were killed when an engineer fell asleep and slammed his train into a circus train near Chicago in 1918. But possibly the most notable circus train crash occurred in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, in 1893.
A train carrying performers and animals from the Walter L. Main Circus lost control going down a steep hill, picking up speed too fast. The train derailed going around a curve, its cars sailing out into the night, rolling down an embankment, and stacking up one on top of another. Five people lost their lives in the disaster. About 50 horses were killed outright, as they were riding in the forward cars which ended up at the bottom of the pile. The elephants survived and the gorilla, billed as a “Man-Slayer,” was quickly captured.
Other animals, however, bolted into the twilight. A tiger was later killed after attacking a cow on a nearby farm. Even more animals were, well, never seen again.
Following is from an (exaggerated?) account published in The Davenport (Iowa) Daily Leader, 1893-05-31:
A Terrible Time With The Animals.
But the novel features of the wreck were those supplied by the animals, of which there were a large number. They all got out of their cages and many were wounded. Two sacred oxen were killed to put them out of their misery. A tiger killed a cow of ALFRED THOMAS, a farmer. THOMAS killed the tiger with a rifle. Three lions escaped, but one was captured immediately. Another was lassoed and tied to a tree, biting the lassoer, JAMES CHAMBERS, severely on the hand. The other lion is at large, but is the quietest of the three.
A Tiger Somewhere In The Woods.
A tiger, water buffalo, hyena, bear, alligators, and a large collection of snakes got away, but were captured. The elephants and camels were uninjured. A black panther, silver tiger, a lot of monkeys and valuable birds are at large. Almost every ring horse was killed. The total number of horses killed is forty-nine, with all the others cut and bruised.
….The snake charmer caught one of his big anacondas in the bushes. The scene at the wreck is a doleful one. Cars, wagons and chariots are smashed into firewood. The circus people are now encamped at the scene of the wreck. The neighborhood is greatly alarmed about the wild animals at large but the show people say there is no need for fear.
It’s unclear what happened to the “wild animals at large,” but apparently, reports of exotic-animal sightings were common in those parts for many years afterward.
The town of Tyrone still lives with the legacy of the crash. Construction crews working near the site routinely find bits of circus train and animal remains. As recently as 2014, archaeologists have worked to uncover the now-forgotten site of the mass grave said to hold the animals. And — touchingly — the people of the town periodically hold memorial services for the deceased performers and animals.
So, yes, circus trains crashed with surprising regularity, making the excuse of “escaped circus animal” not as implausible as it may seem. When I get the ambition I’ll compare these train wrecks with the accounts in The Historical Bigfoot. Still, the exact number of gorillas who may have fled the broken ruins of a circus cage, only to be reported later as “wildmen,” is unknown.