Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Introducing the Mid-week Magpie

Yes, two slices of `Pie most weeks for the same price, ie nothing.

This will be an occasional Wednesday column, with The Magpie returning to his founding style aimed strictly at the world's trivia and strictly for (hopefully) laughs. Watch out for world shattering information such as some problems with place names, weird medical conditions, famous last words, how well hung is an elephant - the subject of this first mid-week column - and any other bright trinkets of oddness that catch The Magpie's eye.

The regular Saturday drivel will continue to infest your computers each week, giving The `Pie's jaundiced view of the week's happening.

But for now, have a nibble of your extra slice of `Pie here at www.townsvillemagpie.com.au
The Magpie has the admirable habit of leaving the Big Questions to others. Not for him the deep contemplation of Middle East dingbattery, American puff-chested sabre-rattling or the British Royal menagerie's latest pratfalls.

No, in the wee small hours, this bird sweats the small questions, like who first decided to grab a cow's udder ... and then drink what came out; who was first to observe the origin of an egg, and then ATE it. And who told Wendy Harmer she was funny and should try comedy.

But around now, noting the release of the the latest Hollywood movie, The Magpie's mind finally turned to a very big question.


The film Water For Elephants is the latest chapter in America's love-hate affair with captive dumbos.

Pets always raise questions for their owners, and perhaps none more tricky or moving that what to when your favourite critter carks it. And this goes double for owners of elephants. Unlike dogs, cats or (most suitably) pet rats, you can hardly leave your dead dumbo on your favourite politician's doorstep with a pink ribbon and thanks-for-nothing card tied around its trunk.

So just what could you do with a few tonnes of passed-on pachyderm, which would rapidly get on the honker big time.

As is so often the case, for answers we have to turn to the Yanks.

Elephants have played a big part in the history of the Land of the Free, and it hasn't always reflected well on the dodgy mental or humane aspects of it citizenary.

The world's first celebrity elephant was P T Barnum's Jumbo, the wonder of the Big Top and still believed to be one of the biggest examples ever captured.

And he ended up in a peanut butter jar.

In 1885, at the peak of his popularity, Jumbo was cut down by a freight train. A lesser animal would have been tumbled into the nearest pit and forgotten, but they did a Phar Lap on Jumbo, stuffing him and putting him on display at Tufts University. But in 1975, fire destroyed the college's favourite mascot. Some of his ashes were gathered up and put in a peanut butter jar, which - at last report - is where they are today.

Lightning seems to have accounted for quite a few of our baggy bummed friends, not unusual given their height. In 1972, the 3000kg Norma Jean copped her bolt out of the blue. She was buried where she fell - in the town square of the unfortunately named hamlet of Oquawka, Illinois.

While suffering the same fate, at least Old Pitt didn't suffer the indignity of being buried in a place that sounds like a throat clearance. In 1943, she was buried on the spot where she was zapped, in the middle of a fairground in Montana.

But lightning bolts were nowhere as lethal as rifle bolts. In 1826, popular performer Little Bett was cut down by a volley of musket fire from puritan townsmen shortly after a performance. No reason is recorded, a dire fate waited for two of the townsmen who confessed to the deed ... they were dropped from the local Masonic Order as punishment.

Sometimes rogue elephants had to, in the mordant US spook term, 'have their contracts terminated with extreme prejudice'. In other words, shot.

In 1901, Big Charley was mightily miffed when his trainer disappeared for three weeks - he was ill in bed - and no one took him down to the river for his daily bath. 

Big Charley didn't forget. Or forgive. When the trainer reappeared, his unhappy charge picked him up in his trunk and dashed his brains out against a wharf and then held him under water until sure he was lifeless. Charley followed soon afterwards, courtesy of a barrage of bullets.

There's definitely something in the idea that elephants never forget.

In 1929, in Corsicana, Texas, the well known mean streak came out in the big African Black Diamond, who went berserk during a street parade. He rammed a car across the street, flipped his handler over another car before reaching what was apparently the object of his wrath, a woman named Eva Donohoo. He hoisted her high then threw her down, killing her instantly.

But it seems the late lady was no innocent bystander, at least not in the eyes of Black Diamond.

A year and half prior to Black Diamond's deadly slam-dunk, Ms Donohoo had hired the elephants beloved handler away from the circus - and from Black Diamond - to oversee her ranch. The deal was made right in front of the big fella, and when the circus came back to town 18 months later, the trainer and Eva came to visit. Onlookers said the elephant seemed moved to see his old trainer of 28 years, and took his precisely targeted revenge minutes later.

As is still the case with animals that kill or maim humans - even here in Oz - rogue elephants were put down, usually by an ad-hoc firing squad.  

But it wasn't just the disturbingly titillated populace who came along for such gruesome events. 

One of the two most bizarre and shameful exploitations of doomed dumbos was not only recorded on film but was organised specifically for the new-fangled moving picture camera by famed inventor Thomas Edison. He was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park, but on closer examination of his life, perhaps the Weirdo of Menlo Park would be more apt.

Edison wasn't a nice man, to put it mildly. He pilfered patents and claimed as his own inventions of others, particularly in the area of cinema. He also went to great lengths to protect his enormously profitable patent on direct current (DC) electricty, claiming its rival alternating current (AC) too dangerous for general use. His favourite publicity blitz was a series of electrocution of animals using AC to supposedly demonstrate its greater danger to his own product. Stray dogs and cats were zapped with ruthless abandon, along with the occasional horse and head of cattle.

The venal Edison realised a great opportunity for publicity in January 1903, when Topsy, a Coney Island attraction, killed her handler - not an unreasonable or unpredictable end for the the handler who had fed Topsy a lighted cigarette up her trunk. 

Edison went to elaborate lengths to stage Topsy's electrocution, and then filmed it on equipment constructed from the  patent he had stolen from a French inventor.

The details of Topsy's termination (and the brief film clip of same, if you must) can be found here.

But perhaps the most bizarre pachyderm demise - animal lovers who don't want to hate their fellow man too much, stop reading now - was that of Big Mary.

While touring Tennessee, Big Mary put her foot down in the town of Erwin. Unfortunately for her, her sadistic trainer happened to be under that foot. The circus owner, facing the ruin of a no-elephant circus, came up with a grisly plan worthy of Vlad the Impaler.

Rather than have her shot, he decided to publicly hang Big Mary, if not for fun, certainly for profit. No small feat, but a crane was arranged, and 5000 baccy-chewin' local slackjaws turned out for the show. First time around, the chain broke, and the wildly thrashing animal was mercifully knocked out by the fall. The second hoist did the job.

Years later, a heritage museum curator confirmed the story but had the decency to suggest that ' the town's not real proud of it'.

The Magpie, unimpressed as he is by this event, hasn't missed the irony that it is a female recorded in history as the most spectacularly-hung elephant of all time.


  1. Conan the GrammarianJune 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    That's a long way to go for a pun!

  2. Yeah. Big drawback.

  3. Regarding Edison, I knew there was a reason I dislike those human creatures!