Two Heads of Black Diamond the Elephant
Carmack Watkins is an affable, ample man with a halo of white hair and a room full of dead animals. The room is even more capacious than its owner, and it's the first thing that you see when you step inside Watkins Construction Co.
It is startling because it is so unexpected. Clean and brightly lit -- unlike most of the other dead animal rooms that we've seen -- this place is, well, different -- especially because it's inside an undistinguished industrial building just off of a major interstate. No billboards announce its presence. If you didn't know that it was here, you'd never know to look.
Deer heads line the walls -- too many to count. Snarling tableau of grizzly bears, polar bears, tigers, lions, buffalo, a yak, and a menagerie of other mammals jam the floor, enough to pack a museum, frozen in mid-stride. It's not a museum, exactly. A tiger seems angered by the joke horse saddle on its back. And way, way back in a corner, wedged between a gazelle and a hyena, is the pride of Carmack Watkins' collection. It is the head -- actually BOTH heads -- of Black Diamond, the most famous killer elephant in Texas history.
Black Diamond was a pachyderm with a temper. Weighing almost six tons, reportedly the tallest elephant in captivity, he was also reportedly a killer -- with three human corpses to his credit -- when he went insane in the Al Barnes Circus parade in Corsicana on October 12, 1929.
The reason behind his murderous rampage is obscure, but the most colorful account has it that Black Diamond was passionately jealous, and that when he saw his trainer, H.D. "Curley" Pritchett, talking with a woman, he went berserk and killed her.
It did not help his chances for later public sympathy that the woman was Eva Speed Donohoo, former Society Editor of the Houston Post, and that he killed her by deliberately knocking her to the pavement and repeatedly butting cars over her body. Three times she was pulled away, three times the enraged elephant dragged her back.
Black Diamond, passion spent, was finally subdued. Everyone in Texas agreed that he had to die for his crime, but how do you kill something as big as Black Diamond? Corpus Christi offered to drown him in the Gulf of Mexico. Circus officials thought of putting a circle of chains around his neck and having six elephants, three on each side, choke him to death.
For unknown reasons the officials abandoned this plan and instead salted a crate of oranges and peanuts -- Black Diamond's favorite food -- with 1,200 grains of cyanide. He refused to eat it. The authorities finally threw up their hands and dispatched Black Diamond artlessly, with 155 rifle bullets. The flesh was pulled off of his skull and then mounted, at the height that he had stood, in the basement of the Houston Museum of Science. The accompanying sign read, "Black Diamond, circus elephant killer of a woman in Corsicana."
Carmack Watkins playfully dons a pith helmet and safari jacket to tell us the rest of the story. He was in the circus crowd that day in Corsicana, brought there by his father, only 60 feet away when Black Diamond went nuts. He remembers scores of people running for the supposed safety of a row of Model Ts, and the elephant hammering everything in sight. Carmack never forgot the awful spectacle, and kept his eye on the head in Houston, year after year.
Around 1970 it was retired as an exhibit and stuffed into a box. That's where Carmack found it in the early 1990s. "Dust was on him, four inches deep," he recalls. "You couldn't tell it was an elephant, hardly." Through the help of a local college, Carmack had the head restored and added to the collection in his big room, apparently closing the deal by giving the college a few of his dead animals in exchange.
"We're just tickled to death to have Black Diamond back here in Corsicana," Carmack tells us. "If you come over here you can see some of the bullet holes, right above his eye."
This, by the way, is only the story of the head that's hanging on the wall. Actually, "head" is a misnomer -- what's hanging on the wall is the facial hide of Black Diamond, professionally mounted by a taxidermist. Carmack Watkins has the skull, too. It's on the floor next to the mounted head. Carmack paid someone to track down the site where Black Diamond had been shot and buried, and dug it up.
Does Carmack Watkins believe the story -- that Black Diamond was moved to murder in a blind rage of jealousy? Carmack hefts the sharpened Model-T truck axle that was used to stake Black Diamond to the ground, and offers his own theory. "He had problems with about everything."