Skull and Bones of Hero the Elephant
Vermillion, South Dakota
The W.H. Over Museum is a nice museum. Or, at least, it's probably a nice museum. We didn't inspect the whole place. We came here to visit with the bones of Hero.
Maxine Johnson, president of the museum's board of directors, showed us around. She told us that the museum created a great exhibit on Lewis & Clark for their 2005 bicentennial, but that not a lot of people have seen it. They were probably too busy looking at the bullet-riddled skull of Hero.
Hero was one in a long line of circus elephants, moved from town to town to entertain the locals. Unlike today, most of the population expected giant captive animals to provide a good show, and to behave themselves.
Hero weighed almost five tons and was the main attraction of the Orton Circus. He was a well-behaved elephant. But on May 14, 1916, in Elkton, South Dakota, he went crazy. Some blamed a "bulling spell" (i.e., he was randy). Some thought that the cold and snowy weather made him mean. Or... it might have had something to do with his keeper, Henry Newton, who failed to dope Hero by feeding him rosin, which was a common practice at the time, and then tried to flog him after he bumped the water wagon.
Note to humans: Do not flog an elephant. Hero grabbed Newton and threw him 30 feet. Newton tried to crawl under another wagon, but Hero knocked it over and crushed it. He then gored two ponies to death with his teeth (he had no tusks) before stomping them flat. Hero tried to do the same to Newton, and only failed because it was muddy.
By this time, the circus folk had broken out the firearms and were blasting away. Townspeople joined in as well. Rifle bullets and shotgun rounds, however, only made Hero hurt and angrier. He stomped out of town and into the fields. Local farmers joined the shooting spree. Hero roamed the countryside for over 12 hours before a sheriff brought him down with a high-powered rifle. For all of the panic and the stomping and the flying lead, no people were killed. Only the ponies -- and Hero.
Elkton is 120 miles from the W.H. Over Museum, but its director quickly realized the value of Hero as an exhibit. The elephant was gutted and skinned, and William Henry Over grabbed Hero's bones and brought them here. According to Maxine, Mr. Over was very thorough in securing legal title to the bones. Elkton hasn't been able to get them back since, despite years of trying (The Community Museum in Elkton does display the gun used to kill Hero and a piece of luggage made from his skin.). "Hero is here to stay," Maxine told us. "They're not gonna get him."
Hero's bones are exhibited in a corner, flanked by stuffed dead animals and a stretched python skin. His skull is on a raised platform within a semicircle of tibiae and femurs. Photos along a back wall show men standing atop his carcass in a treeless field. The display has a 1950s feel to it, as we've seen in some other, timeless museums; Hero has obviously been here for many years. Children are encouraged to touch the leg bones.
We asked Maxine, who often acts as a guide for visiting school groups, what kids think about the story of Hero. "They get very sad," she told us. "They feel bad that he couldn't get away."