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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Elephant Thief

In the 19th century, Wisconsin was home to many of America's circuses. For example, between 1847 and 1894, 26 different circus companies wintered in the town of Delavan. One of these was the Mabie Brothers Circus, whose star was an elephant named Romeo. Though he was popular with the public, Romeo was known as a troublemaker to the staff. One of his memorable escapades began with pie.

The circus cook had baked a fresh batch of pies and set them on a windowsill to cool. Anyone who has watched cartoons can tell you what happened next -- Romeo lifted the latch on his stall and snuck out to get at the pies. He inhaled them quickly, either from greed or from guilt. He might have gotten away with his crime except that the pies were still piping hot.

Much to his surprise and dismay, Romeo immediately found his mouth burning from the illicit treats. He began to stampede, and when his trainer caught up with him, drove the poor man into a nearby tree. The circus staff was only able to capture Romeo by luring him across a drop trap -- a large hole in the ground covered by material that would support a person's weight but not that of an elephant. When Romeo crossed it, he fell in the hole and staff were able to calm him. They had to raise him from the hole by pulleys.

This story, from the W.P.A. folklore interviews, is just one of many that you can read at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Better yet, drive over to Baraboo this weekend and explore 19th-century circus life for yourself at Circus World Museum.

:: Posted in on September 8, 2011
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