On May 15, 1922, Tusko the giant circus elephant rampages through the Skagit Valley town of Sedro-Woolley. No circus elephant in twentieth-century America engendered more outlandish and comical tales than he. Captured at age 6 in the wilds of Siam (now Thailand), the animal was a mere five feet high when he lumbered off a sailing ship at New York harbor in 1898. Yet by 1922 circus hawkers touted him as “the largest elephant ever in captivity.” Although, at 10-feet-2-inches tall, he was seven inches shorter than Phineas T. Barnum’s Jumbo of the 1880s, Tusko was a good ton heavier than that better-known pachyderm. Even before Washingtonians set eyes on Tusko, they’d read newspaper accounts of his antics, from the night he did a “moonlight dance on the newly laid asphaltic pavement” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to his unexpected defeat of six snorting killer bulls in an arena in Juarez, Mexico. But few stories rival the one about this tusker’s wild romp through the Skagit Valley logging town of Sedro-Woolley in 1922.
“Mad Elephant Comin’ Through”
Clouds of chicken feathers burst from the coop, followed closely by the squawking, flapping birds themselves. Splinters and straw scattered in all directions as the coop walls came crashing down. The Widow Dietz, stirred from slumber by the commotion in her backyard, rushed through her house, flinging open the rear door to see what was the matter. The last thing she expected to find was a seven-and-a-half-ton elephant standing where her chicken shed had been, its nine-foot tusks draped with twisted cage wire, feathers festooning its flapping Indian ears and the beast’s feet dancing a jig on her next morning’s supply of eggs. Seeing the stunned Mrs. Dietz, the wayward mammoth raised his great gray trunk and let loose a triumphant trumpet call guaranteed to rouse the entire population of Sedro-Woolley.
Nobody had expected quite such excitement when the nationally famed Al G. Barnes Circus wound into this small town on May 15, 1922. The Barnes troupe had played Sedro-Woolley during several previous summers -- always without incident. Residents eagerly looked forward to seeing juggling clowns, a variety of trained animal acts and, of course, the circus’ main attraction: Tusko, “The Mighty Monarch of the Jungle.” But this time, “the biggest thrill …,” as the local Courier-Times newspaper put it, “was not on the program.”
Even decades later, Maurice “Pappy” Splane remembered the events of that night well. And with an appreciative chuckle. Seems he’d dropped by Eddie Adams’ pool hall to play a few quick hands of rummy before the circus was to start at 8 p.m. “All of a sudden that whole goddamn building just shook,” the spry 90-year-old former machinist told Washington Magazine in 1985. “Somebody says, ‘There’s a mad elephant comin’ through,’ and he took off. We thought he was BSing, ya know. But, by God, the next time that thing shook we realized he wasn’t BSing.”
Causing Havoc Everywhere
Tusko had thrown his trainer and stormed from the animal tent half an hour before show time, while he and other Barnes elephants were being cleaned. His leg irons had been removed in the process. Rumors at the time suggested that the inspiration for his escape was either a severe beating or an aromatic heap of fermented moonshiner’s mash that the hungry Tusko had infiltrated. “At once,” the Courier-Times reported, “two other elephants were mounted and a score of keepers and attendants went after the big brute.”
The Mighty Monarch initially stumbled about the circus grounds on the east end of town, then pounded north, uprooting trees, mowing down telephone poles, ripping out fences and leaving huge footprints on delicately manicured lawns. All of this destruction left the beast hungry; at one point during his rampage, he broke in the end of a barn “and ate some hay before he resumed his wandering.” By the time Tusko detoured through the Dietz chicken coop, he wasn’t about to let anything stand in his way. As Pappy explained, even when Tusko lumbered into a Model T, “he just wrapped his trunk around that thing, and down Third Street he goes.”
No wonder some folks were shocked by this commotion. Tusko scared the daylights out of one family on Township Street by peering into their living-room window and pushing on the glass. (He was finally driven off by men “throwing the wood pile at him.”) Wearing only pajamas, a doctor ran from his Ball Street house to investigate the racket, when Tusko suddenly “loomed out of the dark, and the doctor hopped into a rosebush.”
Finally, an End to the Chase
Yet there were hundreds of men and boys who fearlessly pursued the truant, tipping back bottles of ripe “moon” to heighten the excitement. “We had more of a circus following that damned elephant than if we’d gone to the circus,” Pappy recalled. At what other time could they have seen an elephant toy with a couple of frightened railroad switchmen trapped inside a shanty, the frisky creature slamming the door in their faces every time the switchmen tried to escape?
“Many [people] acted as if they were chasing a stray horse or cow, instead of the wildest, largest animal outside of the jungles,” the Courier-Times remarked.
Needless to say, all of this wasn’t as much fun for the circus owners. To avoid later litigation, they dispatched a representative with a hefty satchel of greenbacks to reimburse owners of damaged property. By the illumination of bonfires and lights from the circus, they tried, unsuccessfully, to follow Tusko in the dark as the Goliath traversed more than 30 miles of countryside.
It wasn’t until about 9:00 the next morning that Tusko’s posse, some of them now so pickled that they could barely discern gray elephants from pink, succeeded in corralling the playful proboscidian between a pair of angled boxcars near a farming area north of town known as -- believe it or not -- the Garden of Eden.
Miraculously, no one was hurt during the night’s chaos. Although Al Barnes had to lay out $20,000 in damages, he chalked the Sedro-Woolley incident up to elephant hijinks.
Sorrier Times Ahead
Tusko’s demeanor, though, turned decidedly sour over the next few years. After the financially strapped Barnes show was bought by big-top impresario John Ringling in 1928, the temperamental bull was sold to Lotus Isle, an amusement park in Portland, Oregon, where he destroyed several pavilions after being spooked by a low-flying stunt plane.
Later he became something of a sideshow freak. Besotted to docility with whiskey and dubbed “The Great Unwanted,” Tusko was hustled between a variety of owners and Northwest fairgrounds. He was brought to Seattle in chains on a flatbed truck in fall 1932 and displayed at Westlake by his latest owner, a sideshow huckster named H.C. Barber. Appalled by the animal's condition, Mayor John Dore ordered the pachyderm confiscated on October 8, 1932, and transfered him to the Woodland Park Zoo. Children subscribed to a special fund to pay for his feed, and the zoo hired famed trainer G.W. "Slim" Lewis to tend to the animal personally in a specially enlarged elephant house.
Although housed at the Zoo, Tusko remained technically the property of Barber, who offered to bring the elephant to Kirkland as a publicity stunt. Before any agreement could be reached, Tusko, well treated and docile at last, died on June 10, 1933, from a massive blood clot in his heart. Barber promptly sued the city, claiming $25,000 for "lost income" due to Tusko's demise. Mayor Dore replied that Barber's negligence and cruelty was the real cause of the elephant's death.
Meanwhile, Barber had Tusko rendered with the idea of displaying both his mounted skeleton and his stuffed hide (complete with restraining chains and shackles). University of Washington students helped dissect Tusko and his bones were later moved to Kirkland before going on the road as a sideshow attraction. The rendering company filed a lien on the bones and hide to try to recover its unpaid bill. In the 1950s, Barber's son donated Tusko's bones to the University of Oregon Museum of Natural History, where they reside today.
By then, Tusko had been all but forgotten by most of the millions of Americans who’d once cheered his center-ring performances. But Sedro-Woolley remembered. After all, it isn’t every night a bull elephant gets loose in your chicken coops.