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Elephant of Murten − 150 years anniversary – a tragicomic lesson

“Executed” with an artillery cannon

Heini Hofmann*

The drama about the elephant of Murten that was killed by a cannonball in 1866 is now – 150 years later – being restaged by the media and at the same time criticized in a smart-alecky manner. If you look back objectively, you come to a different conclusion.

At the time of the first stationary and moving menageries (= later zoo and circus), the handling of caged and tamed wild animals was a learning process, which demanded its dues, sometimes including tragic events. Such an event happened on 28 June 1866 in Murten in the canton of Fribourg

The appeal of otherness

The market town of Murten then housed almost 2,300 inhabitants, industrious provincials whose lives evolved around family, home and crafts inside the town walls. There was not a lot of variety and entertainment, except for some travelling people such as jugglers, acrobats and comedians now and then, whom “the Council and Clergy allow to perform restrictively” so as to give the settled people a taste, but not too much of a taste, of “the charm of otherness, exotic and supposedly wicked”, as the annalist Hermann Creator tells us.
No wonder that artists belonging to such nomadic troops, among them the circuses Nock and Knie, attracted much sympathy among the inhabitants of that time. However, menageries were not yet taken along, except for occasional wild animals like dancing bears or a tamed wolf. It was therefore a sensation when huge placards announced a gala performance of the American equestrian society Bell rums Myers in 1866, because this Circus Bell & Myers had with it not only many horses but also two Asian elephants, one bull with huge tusks and cow. Such outlandish giant animals one previously knew only from hearsay or from books, as status symbols for crowned heads or as tragic heroes in Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, would now perform in the flesh in the small country town. The excitement rose noticeably!

Quarters at the White Cross

When the circus entered the town on 27 June 1866, the streets were lined with an audience of visitors of the weekly market registering astonished disbelief. The two colossi following their longtime caregiver (mahout) like sheep, hosed the road dust off their bodies at the town hall fountain to the amusement of their audience, which also got sprayed a bit by the shower. Quarters were taken up at the hotel “Weisses Kreuz” and in its spacious stables.
The unique, sold-out guest performance took place in a corral enclosed with tarpaulins near the shooting association’s clubhouse on 27 June and lasted till 11 pm. The audience marvelled at the feats of the gray giants, laughed heartily at them and gave them great applause. The two elephants obeyed their mahout’s every word. A capable trio reliant on each other − or so it seemed! Everyone went home delighted, and the summer night settled over the town.

The mahout is dead!

But then, on the next morning, followed the gruesome awakening. An eyewitness, the locksmith Johann Frey, was torn from sleep at dawn by a great commotion; the whole town was in an uproar. The bull elephant had broken loose. He had totally freaked out and smashed up everything that came in his way. It had taken the circus people some time to push the excited animal back into his stable.
Only now it became clear what had happened: The bull elephant had killed his mahout, who had cared for him during 14 years. With his powerful trunk he had twice thrown him into the air, then pressed him to the ground with his tusks and finally kicked him with his feet. It had taken the unfortunate man a whole agonizing hour to die. Murten was in shock and unexpectedly at the same time affected by a terrible problem that everyone felt to be weird and strange. Still action had to be taken immediately.

Six-Pounder Artillery Cannon

From the secure port of present knowledge it would be easy to retrospectively deride or criticise the Murtners’ dilemma in the face of such a sudden, totally unpredictable threat. But we should, on the contrary, attest to them that they acted, correctly, quickly and even successfully within the scope of their options and thus prevented further disaster.
The local council and the circus manager agreed that the no longer controllable animal had to be killed. But how? The methods of poisoning or a firing squad were discarded because of they would possibly not be fast enough. One wanted to play safe and so ordered a six-pounder artillery gun from Fribourg. This arrived at 11 o’clock a.m. The local artillery captain Daniel Stock took command.
The Rathausgasse was cordoned off and – to narrow the “elephant-perimeter” – barricaded with loaded hay wagons. Due to the expected pressure wave the windows of all the houses had to be opened. As a precaution, the fire brigade was called out. Children were “consigned” to the schoolhouse. Bait was deposited before the stable door and then this was opened. The bull approached the food carefully, but withdrew again right away. Only on stepping out for the second time he remained standing for a moment with his side turned to the cannon.

Thunder and lightning

The captain shouted “fire”, a thunderbolt shook the town and the gray giant toppled to one side on the spot and lay still while the blood flowed from the bullet hole. The bullet had entered by the shoulder blade and fully penetrated the massive body, as well as ruining the staircase of the inn “Adler”, before it got stuck in a hay wagon as a ricochet. Sharpshooters who had been positioned as a precaution fired a – completely unnecessary – carbine salvo into the bargain. The danger was over; but now other tasks were waiting.
Shortly after noon, the mahout’s assistant led the female animal towards Fribourg. Several times, the elephant cow stopped to watch out in vain for for her longtime companion.
In the afternoon the killed elephant keeper, an Englishman named Moffet, was interred with great sympathy of the population. His wife put two coins on his eyelids – as a tribute to the god of the dead. The Murten male choir sang a poignant grave song, and out of compassion for the widow and her infant, there was an impressive collection.

Elephant stew

After the elephant had lain in the sun (though covered with straw) till the following day, 29 June, he was only then skinned and cut in place by the butchers Riesenmey and Fasnacht and the meat was sold completely to the population at 20 Cts. the pound. Even apart from the delay this “home-slaughtering” did not quite correspond to today’s hygiene regulations, because the animal was also bled insufficiently. No wonder the Murten housewives managed the exotic goulash differently well. But it was praised everywhere. To be sure, an order of the Lords of Neuchâtel for several quintals of meat at a good price arrived too late …
One can understand that even such a suddenly accumulated meat mountain was at that time recycled to the last kilo instead of being destroyed, but probably it was also a matter of the exotic factor.

Appetite for different varieties of meat

In our part of the world meat consumption is now marked by extreme waste. Whereas previously virtually everything belonging to a carcase was used, today almost half is thrown into the bin. We are satisfied only with the best pieces. – Who would eat anything like lung or udder? Switzerland only imports fillet, sirloin and pointsteak anyway. And with respect to enclosure animals: It was previously common practice in Berne to prepare meals with the meat of surplus bears originally meant for the bear pit in the old town inns – despite their emblem status. This too is history. Only the Tierpark Lange Erlen in Basel still sends around an annual invition to a meal of venison; here a tradition of hunting in close touch with nature prevails.

Post-mortem odyssey

Back to Elephant of Murten: The death of the gray giant was also the beginning of a new challenge. After the unpredictable danger had been mastered and the colossus had been eaten, pity for the elephant that had been “executed”, veneration for its powerful stature and natural history interest became the focus. The authorities and the public agreed unanimously that The stuffed casing and the mounted skeleton should be preserved for posterity.
But because the bull elephant “reconstructed” by taxidermist Daniel Zahnd was too big for the Murten natural history collection and because the implementation of a specially planned, custom-made exhibition pavilion in the Swiss style would have been too expensive (for the city fathers cost reality took precedence over the waves of emotion overflooding the population), the elephant ultimately landed in the Natural History Museum Berne that had – seen retrospectively – manoevered more cleverly.
In the 1930s, however, on the occasion of the museum’s relocation in the new building on Berna street, the Murten Elephant preparation was disposed of quietly …
Things were different for the skeleton, which had at the time gone directly to the Institute of Anatomy of the University of Berne, but there eked out a miserable existence. Therefore, it was also later brought into the new Natural History Museum, where it has been exhibited since 2001 and where it even obtained a new, honoured place a few years ago. In 1866 probably no one would have dared to think of such an odyssey for the elephant of Murten.

The moral of the story

The ominous cannonball, in addition to some documents, still reminds visitors of the Murten Museum of the elephantine episode. Yet the fact remains: In the year 1866, the authorities and population of Murten mastered a calamity that had hit them like a bolt out of the blue and could not be assessed properly with the knowledge of the time with cool reason in the best possible manner. There was no punishment or even “execution” it was simply necessary to protect the population. Therefore from today’s perspective (see. box “The answer”) not malice but respect is appropriate.
A commemoration ceremony was staged quite to this effect in 1992 by the current operator of the small theatre Herzbaracke which floats on Lake Zurich, Federico Emanuel Pfaffen. With the production “The elephant comes” (in analogy to what is still highly relevant: “That what is strange and foreign coming”), he toured over the Alps to the Engadine, along with the elephant Dunja and a four-masted chapiteau depicting Murten.
And now, in 2016, we have the 150-year anniversary with events, media coverage and souvenirs. The Murten Elephant along with the “goulash cannon” has definitely become immortal, and this is happening now, because we have exiled the elephant from the circus in Switzerland. The dead live longer!     •

*    The author is a former zoo and circus veterinarian. For more information: www.nmbe.ch (Natural History Museum Bern) and www.museummurten.ch

(Translation Current Concerns)

The key to the mystery: The bull elephant was in the musth!

hh. Already before the tragic incident in Murten in 1866 freaked out bull elephants had been shot with cannons in London, Venice and Geneva, because a fact we know well today was unknown at that time: From the age of 15 bull elephants can come into musth, which is a state of heavy arousal in a rut phase, visible by the secretion of the temple gland between eye and ear. In the wild, this exceptional state turns them into a “dominant male” avoided by rivals and chosen by females as a partner for mating.
Because one still had no explanation, people protected themselves by sawing off bulls’ tusk tips and by connecting the ends with a metal bridge (also visible in the existing historical pictures of the dead elephant, while the museum preparation glosses it over). Because this same bull is said to have already overthrown a wagon and killed a horse on his journey. Today safety precautions can be taken when a rut phase with musth occurs. Nevertheless, the dramatic incident of Murten is still repeated from time to time today. For example, six deaths lately occurred in Thailand in connection with bull elephants experiencing a testosterone boost, the latest in February 2016.
Even in the technical institutes of today misinterpretations happen, e.g. when the public relation crew of the Natural History Museum of Bern makes the elephant of Murten(the skeleton of which it possesses) its main topic of advertising this year and calls it a “bolting”. Flight animals like horses react to a scary situation by trying to flee. The bull elephant of Murten, which snapped, was in the musth and therefore he did not run away but asserted himself on-site.
(Translation Current Concerns)