The Philadelphia zebras … and six great animal escapes of the Victorian era

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Paul Meyerheim’s Victorian menagerie.

Nothing beats a good chase sequence, particularly when an animal is involved. Most recently, social media was captivated by two zebras that escaped from a Philadelphia circus. Rest assured, the two rogue performers are now safe, having been captured by local police.

Thankfully, exotic animal escapes are relatively rare today, and usually end reasonably happily. But in the 19th century, when travelling menageries and circuses traversed Britain and the US, such break-outs were far more common. Menageries toured widely from the late 18th century, bringing exotic animals within reach of even the poorest members of society. Health and safety was not a priority for exhibitors, and it wasn’t unheard of to find an orangutan in your bedroom or a tiger loose in the street.

Just like today, the newspapers of the time jumped on these stories with relish, revelling in the horror of a predator on the prowl. Drawing on these valuable (though not always entirely trustworthy) accounts, here are six of the most notorious animal escapes from the Victorian era.

The ghostly ape

Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1870.

In 1821 “a nocturnal apparition” caused the death of a man in the Rue de Monnaie in Paris. The “apparition” – in reality a “large ape” – had escaped from a neighbouring menagerie. It had “groped” its way along the rooftops and “descended through one of the chimney pots” into the victim’s bedroom, causing the man to die of fright. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), in which two women are brutally murdered by an escaped orangutan.

The highway tiger

One of the most notorious attacks by a loose wild animal occurred in 1857, when a tigress escaped from a van en route from London’s docks to Charles Jamrach’s exotic animal business on the Ratcliff Highway. As the animal skulked down the road, she was approached by a young boy who unwisely “began patting her”, thinking she was a big dog. The tigress responded by seizing the boy by the shoulders.

‘My struggle with a tiger’, Boy’s Own Paper, 1 February 1879.
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She would probably have killed the child had Mr Jamrach not come to his rescue, hitting the beast on the head with a crowbar. Though “frightfully mangled”, the boy eventually recovered from his physical injuries, but continued to show signs of psychological trauma. The Birmingham Daily Post reported that he subsequently conducted himself “in a strange manner” at school and bit his own brother in bed in the belief that he was the tiger.

The Grimsby bear

‘Performing Bear’, The Animal World, August 1890.

In 1883, an escaped bear terrorised the inhabitants of Grimsby in Lincolnshire. The animal had broken out of its den in Wombwell’s menagerie by tearing up some loose floor boards. It proceeded to roam the streets of the town, where it was spotted by a local fisherman and reported to the police. A local constable went to assess the situation, but on being confronted with a huge bear he took fright and ran to fetch the menagerie owner.

The bear, now chased by keepers and onlookers, wandered further into the centre of Grimsby, where he mauled a large dog, hopped into the back of a shop and scrambled through a window into the kitchen of a joiner named Mr Rubenstein, who was asleep with his wife upstairs. After a considerable tussle, the animal was driven out through the door and marched back to the menagerie.

The drunken elephant

You’d think it would be difficult to lose an elephant. But that is exactly what happened in Holyhead, Wales, when Batty’s menagerie was visiting the town. One Wednesday evening, after the performance, the menagerie’s elephant was “safely lodged” in a stable close to the George hotel and left for the night. When the keeper returned to the stable the following morning, however, he found “to his great astonishment”, that it had disappeared. A frantic search ensued, but there was no trace of the elephant. In the afternoon it was discovered “lying fast asleep in a wine cellar of the hotel”, surrounded by empty bottles of wine!

‘Christmas Eve in the Menagerie’, The Graphic, 25 December 1876.

The stampeding rhino

Things are always more dramatic in the US, and menagerie accidents were no exception. In 1872, a rhinoceros was being led into the ring at Warner and Co.’s menagerie in Red Bird, Illinois, when it “suddenly threw up its head … and broke loose from the men”. The animal rampaged through the show, trampling one keeper, then goring another “in the stomach, ripping out his bowels and killing him on the spot”.

Still surging with energy, the rhinoceros stampeded towards a row of seats on one side of the tent, breaking the arm of a spectator. It knocked down a pole in the centre of the menagerie, romped around a little museum, and burst into the street outside the show. The rhino finally came to a rest outside a vacant house, where it was apprehended. The damage caused to the circus was estimated at $3,000.

The sewer lion

The Graphic, October 5 1889.

In 1889 a large lion slipped out of its cage and took refuge in Birmingham’s sewers. As news of the escape spread, panic swept through the community, a fear intensified by the fact that “as the lion made his way through the sewers, he stopped at every manhole he came to, and there sent up a succession of roars”. To diffuse the alarm, lion tamer Frank Bostock staged a successful recapture of the lion, and informed the public that the drama was over.

But the following day, he confessed the truth to the authorities and requested 500 policemen to help him catch the loose beast. With policemen stationed at every manhole, Bostock and his men descended into the sewer and hunted down the lion, cornering the animal and securing him with ropes. The Graphic published a dramatic illustration of the escapade, showing a shifty-looking lion emerging from a tent.

‘The Escape of Lions from the Menagerie at Birmingham’ The Graphic, 5 October 1889.

The Conversation

Helen Cowie does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.