Wild Animals Loose on the Streets|
I am often asked when a current event, such as a terrorist bombing, major earthquake, or so forth, happens, if any similar incidents happened in American history. Many of us read about the recent escape of wild animals near Zanesville, Ohio. 48 exotic animals, including 12 lions, eight bears and 18 endangered Bengal tigers, were killed by policemen after their owner released them and apparently took his own life. No human was killed or injured.
Although the circumstances were different, on November 9, 1874, New York City residents read with horror the blaring headlines:
The Wild Animals Broken Loose from Central Park
TERRIBLE SCENES OF MUTILATION
A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death
SAVAGE BRUTES AT LARGE
Awful Combats Between the Beasts and the Citizens
THE KILLED AND WOUNDED
Another Sunday of horror has been added to those already memorable in our city annals. The sad and appalling catastrophe of yesterday is a further illustration of the unforeseen perils to which large communities are exposed. Writing even at a late hour, without full details of the terrors of the evening and night, and with a necessarily incomplete list of the killed and mutilated, we may pause for a moment in the widespread sorrow of the hour to cast a hasty glance over what will be felt as a great calamity for many years. Few of the millions who have visited Central Park, could by any possibility have foreseen the source of such terrible danger to a whole city in the caged beasts around him, as the trivial incident of yesterday afternoon developed.
(The above is a highly-condensed version of what the New York Herald printed. The entire coverage filled almost the entire front page as well as some inside pages.)
We have a list of forty-nine killed, of which only twenty-seven bodies have been identified, and it is much to be feared that this large total of fatalities will be much increased with the return of daylight. The list of mutilated, trampled and injured in various ways much reach nearly 200 persons of all ages, of which, so far as known, about sixty are very serious, and of these latter three can hardly outlast the night. Many of the slightly injured were taken to their homes, so that for at least another day the full extent of the calamity cannot be measured. We have to hope that no further fatalities will occur. Twelve of the wild, carnivorous, beasts are still at large, their lurking places not being known for certainty, but the citizens may rest assured that if they will only exercise ordinary prudence and leave the task of hunting down the animals to the authorities, who have, somewhat tardily, taken the matter in hand, there will be no further casualties to register as the outcome of the unfortunate act of a reckless keeper in Central Park.
The story went on to state that a zookeeper, near closing time of the zoo, was teasing a rhinoceros by poking it with a long stick. One of the jabs hit the rhinoceros in the eye. The animal, naturally, was mad and went charging the zookeeper. In leaping to the front of his cage several times it was finally broken down and the rhinoceros charged the zookeeper and killed him. The rhinoceros then proceeded to trample the cages of the rest of the animals and set them free. Soon, tigers, lions, elephants, wolves, bears, monkeys, bison, boa constrictor, and many other wild animals made their way around Central Park and out into the streets.
The mayor of New York City issued a proclamation:
All citizens, except members of the National Guard, are enjoined to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed. Notice of the release from this order will be spread by the firing of cannon in City Hall Park, Tompkins square, Madison square, The Round and at Macomb's Dam Bridge. Obedience to this order will secure a speedy end to the state of siege occasioned by the calamity of this evening.
Police and citizens were armed with rifles. Among those hunting down the wild animal was Teddy Roosevelt over 30 years prior to being elected president of the United States. One eyewitness gave the following narration of an event:
An account will be opened at the City Hall of the city of New York for contributions to the sufferers.
I had no weapon and so ran down the incline by the refreshment stand, toward Fifth Avenue; and almost on my heels, as it were, came the Numidian lion, with a series of bounds. So sudden, fierce and powerful was the leap he made into the midst of the storming party that he paralyzed the coolest calculations and scattered half a hundred armed and unarmed men like chaff before the wind. Springing in the air over the stooped form of policeman Murray, who ducked in time to save himself from possible death.
It wasnt until the last paragraph of the over 15,000-word coverage of the event, that readers learned that the entire wild animals loose on the street was revealed as a hoax. The last paragraph is as follows:
Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may choose to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park. Yet as each of its horrid but perfectly natural sequences impressed themselves upon his mind, the question presented itself, How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe? How easily could it occur any day of the week? How much, let the citizens ponder, depends upon the indiscretion of even one of the keepers? A little oversight, a trifling imprudence might lead to the actual happening of all, and even worse than has been pictured. From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung. Horror, devastation and widespread slaughter of human beings have had small mishaps for parent time and again.
History leaves no record to confirm or deny that this hoax improved conditions at the Central Park Menagerie.
As an odd twist, the Republican symbol of the elephant and the Democratic party symbol of the donkey were born from the hoax.
These symbols of the parties were born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper's Weekly on Nov. 7, 1874. Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald raised the cry of "Caesarism" in connection with the possibility of a third term try for President Ulysses S. Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant's second term and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect Republican voters.
While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, the hoax perpetrated by the New York Herald.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper's Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion's skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: "An ass having put on a lion's skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings."
One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote - not the party - which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. Other cartoonists picked up the symbols, and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became the party itself: the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant.