Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Elephants of Wirth's Circus - A living timeline

This is a living timeline of the Wirth's Circus elephants. I'll update this post as I go.

The Elephants of Wirth Circus

An Approximate Time Line


Wirth’s purchase their first elephant Ghunah Sah or Ghuni Sah (Female) from a Scottish Timber Merchant in Rangoon[1]

….Old Gunni Sar used to be the pride of the elephant herd, for which Wirth's Circus is noted. Mr. Philip Wirth bought her at Rangoon many years ago from a hard-headed Scotsman called Mackenzie….


December 1900 -  March 1901

Wirth’s tour New Zealand with one elephant Ghunah Sah billed as the ‘Only Bucking Elephant’

…“A good deal of merriment was caused by the futile efforts of a few of the, audience to ride a bucking elephant, whose peculiar and ungainly movements invariably resulted in the riders being helplessly thrown from his back, despite the fact that they resorted to every conceivable method of trying to retain their seats”.[2]

…“Ghumi Sah (Ghunah Sah), the elephant, performed several clever feats, and then proceeded to give an exhibition of bucking. Any man or boy was offered £1 if he could stay on Ghumi's back for three minutes, but though several tried, none succeeded.”[3]


Tour New Zealand with one elephant


Wirth’s Tour New Zealand with two elephants

Ghunah Sah and Toby

Toby purchased from Moore Park Zoo in Sydney who obtained the animal from W. H. Hartley reported as arriving in Wellington[4]

Toby made her debut[5] in Wellington 18 March 1904[6]


Tour of New Zealand with three elephants

Toby, Ghunah Sah and a young bull calf at foot Wirth’s claimed to be the first elephant born in Australia[7]

“…While we were shaking the trunk of Miss Toby and Gunah Sah, the wildebeast waltzed up and introduced herself as the second cousin to the wild sheep from Barbary. The elephant Gunah Sah is the largest in the show. She it is who claims, for her son the first and only baby elephant born in Australia. He is a cute little cuss, not yet 12 months old.”

April 1905

Four elephants were to be shipped from India (location unknown) by the steamer Ashbridge by George Brickhill[8]

“…Mr. George B. Brickhill, who is at present in India for the purpose of securing elephants, has written to Messrs. Wirth Bros., giving a description of his experiences inland and the troubles encountered in bringing a herd of elephants to the coast. He states that he expected to he able to ship four elephants for Wirth's Circus by the steamer Ashbridge...”

August 1905

Elephants from India[9] are reported being added to the collection

“…The animals which were recently imported from India including the tapirs, 30ft python, new elephants, and others as yet unknown to Australians, will be exhibited for the first time on Saturday night and as far as possible explanations will be given of interesting facts pertaining to their habitat…”

September 1905

5 elephants are reported as working animals in the Wirth’s contingent[10]

“…To convey this great organisation through the country three special trains are used. When they will arrive here on Monday morning, the 25 waggons, the five elephants, 50 horses, the camels, etc., will be unloaded ready for the morning parade to the ground..”

An elephant named Jess escapes from Wirth’s Circus[11]

“…At Forbes last night during the performance of Wirth’s Circus, the elephant Jess got loose and escaped. On the alarm being raised Jess was found peering into the bar door of a hotel to the great consternation of those inside…”

December 1905

Two more elephants arrive from either Singapore or Calcutta on the Gracchus[12]

“…December 27. Sydney, ….Gracchus, from Calcutta and Singapore— 1,600 chests tea, 3,000 bdls rattans, 300 bales gunnies, 500 bags general produce, and two elephants for Wirth's Circus..”



Wirth Circus Tour New Zealand December 1906 – March 1907

A report from January 1906 in an Australian Newspaper[13] mentions Wirth’s as having 8 elephants including the young baby Jumbo from Ghunah Sah

“….The menagerie, too, is the largest and best Wirths have possessed, and includes no fewer than eight elephants, which is claimed to be the largest performing herd in the Southern Hemisphere. The baby Jumbo is the only elephant born in Australia, its birthplace being Sydney.”


Elephants of Wirth’s Circus Otago Witness 5 February 1908

Left to right: Jumbo (the first), Lizzie, Unidenitfied, Molly, Toby, Alice and Cardy (Cardigan) Six elephants are in the image


Death of ‘Annie’ from poisoning at Mt Gambier[14]

Elephants List in year order

1898 Ghunah Sah (Female) from Rangoon
1904 Toby (Female) from Moore Park Zoological Gardens in Sydney
1905 Jumbo (The First) (Male) born to Ghunah Sah in Australia bred by Wirths and born at Moore Park Zoo (aka Sydney Zoo)
1905 ‘Jess’ (one reference found this name could have been changed or it was misreported)
1905 Cardigan (Cardy) (Male) from India some reports say he was 5 years old when he arrived
1905 Molly (Female) from India
1906 Lizzie (Female) from Fitzgerald Brothers Circus
1907 Alice (Princess Alice) (Female)From William Anderson of Wonderland City Bondi NSW
1923 Annie (Female)[15]

[1] The Advertiser 13 June 1929
[2] Otago Daily Times 24 December 1900
[3] Auckland Star 4 March 1901
[4] Otago Witness 23 March 1904
[5] Evening Post 14 March 1904
[6] Evening Post 19 March 1904
[7] Otago Witness 22 February 1905
[8] Sydney Morning Herald 26 April 1905
[9] The Brisbane Courier 2 August 1905
[10] Yea Chronicle 28 September 1905
[11] Barrier Miner 5 September 1905
[12] The Register 28 December 1905
[13] Barrier Miner 5 March 1906
[14] Barrier Miner 19 October 1929
[15] Barrier Miner 19 October 1929

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Elephants at Goldwyn Brothers Circus

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia Commons

I came across this fascinating image of school children gathering around the horses owned by Goldwyn Brothers Circus and Zoo when they visited the rural town of Drouin, Victoria in 1944. What caught my eye were the two elephants in the background, and possibly although hard to identify is a third.

Some brief research came up with some of the elephant's names. Around this time period Goldwyn Brothers had at least two elephants.

The first name I found was a female elephant named 'Annie'. She was reported in the Horsham Times (26 September 1941) when she had entered a caravan to shelter from a storm. Annie was the first elephant obtained by Goldwyns. She had been sent from London as 'a refugee elephant'  Horsham Times (26 September 1941) What happened to Annie after 1950 is unknown. A second elephant with the same name was imported along with a third in August of 1950 (see next paragraph for further details).

The next is Peggy who arrived sometime between 1942 and 1944 (she was 23 years old in 1951) another female who was reported and photographed in the Sunday Herald (23 December 1951) after a fire had broken out in a railway carriage near Milson's Point. An overhead power line had snapped and had fallen across the train. In this particular report three elephants were mentioned as being present and owned by Goldwyn Brothers. This corresponds to an earlier report from The Courier-Mail (5 August 1950) of the importation of two elephants from what is now Thailand that were two sisters named 'Fanny" and "Annie" at a cost of Cost £3000. 

I can only assume that possibly the first two elephants Goldwyn's possessed were 'Annie' and 'Peggy' at some point prior to 1950 Annie may have been sold or passed away. I can't find any reports at this stage of her fate. After 1950 Goldwyn's possessed three elephants Peggy, Annie (the second) and her sister Fanny, since the report from the Sunday Herald (23 December 1951) mentions three elephants, Peggy being one of them. Annie and Fanny had their names changed to 'Topsy" and 'Jennie'. They were reported performing in September of 1950 in the Morning Bulletin (15 September 1950) with Peggy, who played a mouth organ at Rockhampton in Queensland only a month after their arrival from Siam (now Thailand).

Goldwyns also possessed lions, monkeys and horses. One of the horses was named 'Prince the Talking Horse' and it appears for some years this animal was one of the featured acts in Goldwyn Brothers Circus and Zoo.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Lion's Bride

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19140115-52-4

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 15 JANUARY 1914 p052

Above: Image of famous Czech Soprano Emmy Destinn with Hercules the lion and an unnamed lady lion trainer from Hagenbeck’s Zoo. Destinn sang the Aria Kennst du das Land (Score by Beethoven) from ‘Mignon’ Composed by Ambroise Thomas. For the Selig Production (USA) “The Lion’s Bride”. The image was taken in November of 1913 with the film released in 1914.

In 1913 famous soprano Emmy Destinn[1] stepped into a cage of 10 lions[2] which was reduced to just four being one male and four females)[3] for the Selig Polyscope Company’s film production “The Lion’s Bride”[4]. Destinn sang the aria “Kennst du das land?”[5] from Act 1 of the Ambroise Thomas’[6] opera “Mignon”[7]. It was reported Destinn was paid over £2,500, and was insured for £25,000 against death or injury while in the cage with a lion.[8]

"The Lion's Bride" Oil on Canvas 1908 by Gabriel Cornelius Ritter Von Max

Destinn played the leading role of the main character “Mignon”[9] in the film which was inspired by the 1908 painting “The Lion’s Bride”[10] by Czech painter Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max (August 23, 1840 – November 24, 1915).

A sypnosis of the film is as follows:

“The Lion’s Bride” Film
 Release Date: 1914
 “This Selig production was inspired by a famous painting of the era, also titled ~The Lion's Bride. Although she loves another, the daughter of an evil baron has been promised in marriage to an ancient count. With the help of the count's jester, the girl and her lover are able to elope. Interrupting the wedding, the count grabs the heroine and tosses her into a den of lions, where she presumably ends up as the "blue plate special." Her vengeful lover then kills the count, as the extras react in horror, and the canvas scenery flaps in the wind. The original The Lion's Bride was also the source for a key scene in Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1919).”
 ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi [11]

The scene was shot on location at the Potsdam suburb of Neu Babelsberg [12]  in Germany around circa November of 1913. Destinn was required to enter an enclosure containing ten lions, which had been supplied by Carl Hagenbeck’s Zoo for the purpose. Also in attendance was an un-named ‘lady lion tamer’ and a man described as ‘small and wirey’ who were also both from Hagenbeck’s. According to one report an audience of 100 people were in attendance to witness the scene that unfolded.

According to Destinn in an interview after the event the lions in the enclosure had become unsettled when she had begun to sing, accompanied by the music of Beethoven’s[13] score[14] to the aria[15]Kennst du das land(?)”:

At any rate, Hagenbeck's lions, lent for the purposes of a film recording Madame Destinn's acting, declined to-day to be soothed by the world-famous voice. A great crowd gathered to see Madame Destinn in the lions' den, but the beautiful aria which the film supposes her to sing, Beethovens "Kennst du das Land," was performed at a very respectful distance by the gramophone, and Madam, Destinn was promptly reminded of many inaccurate quotations of Congreve's verse when, as soon as she began to sing, the lions began to growl I noticed," said Madame Destinn, "that as soon as I began to emphasise the notes my lion started to growl. You can guess that I cut it out quickly."[16]

It was required by the producers of the film[17], that one of the lions should be induced to lie on top of the grand piano, that had been placed in the enclosure for that purpose. In due course, one of the male lions named ‘Hercules’, was induced to climb on top of the instrument where he lay down, with forepaws hanging over the keyboard. The lady lion trainer,, had then sat down at the piano, in order to ensure the lion did not attack Destinn.

 A lady tamer sat down on the piano stool, obviously for the first time in her life, to act the role of accompanist, and incidently to keep an eye on the sleeping monarch, while a wiry little man from Hagenbeck's, who treated the lions just as if they had been so many rabbits or guinea-pigs, was very much on the alert, just out of the line of fire of the battery of cameras that were turned on the centre of the cage. These preparations completed, Madame Destinn stepped into the cage quite unconcernedly, and, hardly casting a glance at the animals, took up her station within two or three feet of the lion on the top of the piano. Then the signal was given, the films began to rattle, and the great singer opened her lips.[18]

After the performance Destinn was then induced (somewhat unwillingly), to place an arm around Hercules’ neck, and pose for the photographers. Destinn walked away from her difficult scene without any incident.

“..The song at an end, the prima donna bowed her acknowledgments to the imaginary audience for its imaginary plaudits, and now came the one feature in the performance, (says The Daily Telegraph) which appeared to arouse in her a certain amount of misgiving, for she was asked to lay her arm around Hercules's neck. Whether it was difference at the idea of taking such liberties with the king of beasts, or the thought that the maxim about sleeping dogs might apply with at least equal force to other and larger animals, at any rate, she executed the prescribed embrace with obvious signs of reluctance, and her land rested only  with the gentlest possible pressure on the tawny mane. It was probably concern for the good fame of his pets which made the man from Hagenbeck's step forward and take hold of the singer's arm and, at the same time assuring her that she had no ground for uneasiness, lay it firmly right round the lion's neck…”[19]

 Disclaimer: Readers should check their sources, and not rely solely upon the information provided as being completely accurate. There may be errors or omissions in this article. To the best of my knowledge the information provided is accurate, however any further information may be revealed in the near future.

[1] Emmy Destinn was born at Prague in 1878, the daughter of Emanuel Kittel. She studied under Madame Loewe Destinn, whose name she took. She made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Berlin, in 1898. Her best-known parts were Senta, Mignon, and Carmen. Destinn during the height of her years had sung with Enrico Caruso and other famous opera greats. Destinn died on 29 January 1930 aged 52 years from a stroke. (sourced Wikipedia)

[2] Hawera & Normanby Star 3 January 1914 reported six males and four females as being in the group of lions supplied by Hagenbeck.

[3]The Register 2 December 1913

 “In order not to overcrowd the scene six of the animals were temporarily banished into their travelling van, whence they surveyed the proceedings with indulgent patience.”

[4] The Register 2 December 1913

[5]Kennst du das land? (English translation: Do you know the country?) Was a poem written by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  (28 August 1749  22 March 1832) (sourced Wikipeda)

[6] Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (5 August 1811, Metz12 February 1896, Paris) was a French composer, best known for his operas Mignon (1866) and Hamlet (1868, after Shakespeare) and as Director of the Conservatoire de Paris from 1871 till his death. (sourced Wikipedia)

[7] Mignon: An Opera by Ambroise Thomas.
The story of "Mignon" is derived from Goethe’s "Wilhelm Meister." It is founded on that favourite operatic subject (used in "The Bohemian Girl" and elsewhere) of the abduction of a high-born young lady and her sojourn with the gipsy tribe.
 (Sourced Music with Ease website

[8] The Register 17 November 1913

[9] ‘Mignon’ was originally a character in the book  Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (German: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre)  the second novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1795-96.

[10]  The painting the Lion’s Bride (1908) by Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max,  depicts a woman lying on her stomach dressed in a white gown with a male lion over her with the forepaws on her dead form. The painting also inspired a Cecil B. de Mille silent 1919 film “Male and Female” starring Gloria Swanson. Swanson posed with an adult male lion in costume in a similar pose as depicted in the original composition.

[12] Babelsberg is the largest district of the Brandenburg capital Potsdam in Germany. The affluent neighbourhood named after a small hill on the Havel river is famous for Babelsberg Palace and Park, part of the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as for Studio Babelsberg, a historical centre of the German film industry.

 (Sourced Wikipedia)

[13] Ludwig van Beethoven baptized 17 December 177026 March 1827) was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers.

(Sourced Wikipedia)

[14] Score is a common alternative (and more generic) term for sheet music, and there are several types of scores, as discussed below. (Note: the term score can also refer to incidental music written for a play, television programme, or film.)

Sourced Wikipedia ‘ Score (music)’

[15]  An aria (Italian for air; plural: arie or arias in common usage) in music was originally any expressive melody, usually, but not always, performed by a singer. The term is now used almost exclusively to describe a self-contained piece for one voice usually with orchestral accompaniment. Perhaps the most common context for arias is opera, although there are many arias that form movements of oratorios and cantatas. Composers also wrote concert arias, which are not part of any larger work, such as "Ah perfido" by Beethoven, and a number of concert arias by Mozart, such as "Conservati fedele".

(Sourced Wikipedia: ‘Aria’

[16] The West Australian 29 November 1913

[17]  Selig Polyscope Company (defunct) was based in California USA

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'A Daring Feat' The Tiger Chariot Act of Wirth's Circus

Image Credit: J.R. Mann Photographer Auckland Weekly News 19 May 1902
Reproduced with the kind courtesy of
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19020529-10-3

These days with the advent of growing opposition against the use of animals performing in circuses an image like this would be frowned upon. Below is a brief summary I wrote up about the animals in this act.

Prince and Pasha[1] are harnessed to the chariot, with Kitty the Tigress playing the part of ‘Jehu’[2] The trainer was known by the name Monsieur Ragoul[3] or Rogalle in some publications.

The act debuted as a finale on 28 August 1901, where Wirth Brother’s Circus and Menagerie were conducting performances at Rockhampton in Queensland Australia.[4] The trainer at the time was referred to as ‘Monsieur Soueki’. The Bengal tigers Prince, Pasha and Kitty performed with the two male tigers harnessed to the chariot and Kitty riding in the vehicle.

“…A new act is to be put on to-night as a finale to the programme M. Soueki who has entered the tigers' cage nightly, will show his animals in a sensational act in the centre of the ring. A large wire cage has been erected around the ring and M. Soueki will enter it with the three tigers. After repeating their various tricks, two of the tigers will be attached to a chariot and draw it round the ring, and the third will jump on to the box seat and act as driver…” wrote The Morning Bulletin (28 August 1901).

Philip Wirth later wrote from Queensland, to his brother George advising him that the act had been successfully performed at Rockhampton and had gone off ‘with a hitch’.[5]

During the latter part of 1901 the circus traveled extensively through Australia to showcase this spectacular act.

“…Royal Bengal tigers, Prince, Pasha, and Kitty, ferocious forest-bred animals that perform on awe-inspiring act. The entire circus arena is enclosed with a steel cage, the tigers are let loose, Mons. Ragoul, their trainer, enters the cage and makes them seesaw, play leapfrog, jump hoops, roll barrels and globes, and finally harnesses two tigers like horses to a chariot, and a third drives them rapidly around the arena..”[6].

In 1902 during the New Zealand tour, the trainer had some trouble with one of the male tigers, when the animal refused to stand up during a performance in Auckland.[7]
The act was performed in New Zealand tours in the years 1902 and 1904 respectively. No further performances using the tigers in this manner were seen in this country after 1904.

The Act was discontinued around 1906 when the last advertisement of Wirth Circus mentioning the performance appeared in January of that same year.[8] After 1906, no further references are made.

[1]  ‘Pasha’ who was reported in May 1901(Taranaki Herald 16 May 1901) attacking Carl Wirth. Wirth had sat on the tiger during a performance in Queensland. The tiger inflicted serious injuries to the trainer’s leg. The animal was apparently to be held for exhibition purposes only. Pasha had 5 previous incidences of attacking his trainer.
[2] Jehu was a 9th century b.c. biblical king of Israel
[3] When, the act was first reported by the Morning Bulletin (28 August 1901) the trainer was referred to as Mons.  Soueki
[4] Morning Bulletin 28 August 1901
[5] Brisbane Courier 31 August 1901
[6] The Register 14 December 1901
[7] Hawera and Normanby Star 20 June 1902
[8] Advertisements The West Australian 20 January 1906

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Living Fossil - The first Okapi at the London Zoo

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19350925-52-1

Tales of a strange donkey like creature with zebra stripes had long been told in the Congo. Explorers tried to seek out the strange creature the local people called 'Okapi'. By 1901 samples of the animal's skin and bones had been bought back to England by Sir Harry Johnston who presented his findings to the Zoological Society of London

 There was a very full attendance of the members of the Zoological Society at the meeting on Tuesday last, in anticipation of seeing the skin and skull of the okapi, forwarded to England by Sir Harry Johnston, who was present, and gave a most interesting account of all that was known respecting this remarkable mammal, a previous notice of which appeared in our issue of May 11. The details which were given in that account were fully borne out by the examination of the entire skin and skull, which were exhibited for the first time.

The skull was obviously not that of an equine animal, which the okapi was first supposed to be, but a ruminant.- There were no incisor teeth in the upper jaw, but they were replaced. as in all ruminants, by a fleshy pad, the remains of which still existed on the bones. Mr Oldfield Thomas, of the British Museum, who exhibited the skin and skull, maintained that the characters shown were those of a giraffe-like animal, differing essentially from the lopes or the bovine ruminants. It was, however, destitute of the long neck of the giraffe, and obviously would form the type of a new genus, to which it was proposed to give the name Okapia, with the addition johnstoni

 Sir Harry Johnston stated that the first person to draw attention to this newly-discovered mammal, although he had never seen a specimen, was Stanley, who heard of it from the dwarfs inhabiting the Semliki district. This animal the natives regarded as an equine animal, comparing it with the young zebra that Sir Harry Johnston had with him. Anxious to secure a specimen, he. spent several days in the unhealthy district of the Semliki Forest searching for the okapi, but was never successful in securing one of them.

His efforts to purchase a skin only resulted in procuring the striped pieces from the hind quarters, the natives neglecting all the self coloured parts, which constitute the covering of the greater part of the animal. His ultimate success in obtaining an entire skin was due to the exertions of Mr Karl Ericsson, of the Congo Free State, who furnished him with the specimen exhibited. Sir Harry ascertained from the dwarfs that the okapi usually went in pairs, and were only to be found in the deepest recesses of this forest, which lies to the south-west of the Albert Nyanza Lake.

The preservation of this remarkable form from extermination was dependent on the total absence of large carnivora, and on the forest being exceedingly unhealthy, owing to which it is little visited by man. The dwarfs have no firearms, and secure the specimens that they obtain by digging large pitfalls, and killing the captured animal with spears. The forest region was apparently uninhabited until the more powerful negroes, by their persecution, necessitated its occupation, by the dwarfs.

Otago Witness 21 August 1901

In 1935 an Okapi was presented by the King of Belgian to the Prince of Wales. The animal was given by the Prince to the London Zoo. A living Okapi seen for the first time outside of its natural habitat in England caused a world wide sensation. News soon reached the New Zealand print media. The Evening Post reported:-

 An okapi, a rare animal from Belgian Congo, described as a cross between a giraffe, a deer, and a zebra, has arrived at the London Zoological Gardens. It is said to be the only living example of the species that has reached England.

  It has been given to the gardens by the Prince of Wales, who received it as a gift from the King of the Belgians.

 Officials of the gardens went to Antwerp to supervise transport.
Evening Post 2 August 1935  

By November 1935 unfortunate news of the Okapi's sudden death due to an unknown cause was soon over the wireless and reported in the news of the day

 The okapi which was given in July to the London Zoo by the Prince of Wales, who received it as a gift from the King of the Belgians, died suddenly today.

 The cause is at present unknown, but the loss is much regretted as there are only two other specimens in captivity in Europe.

Evening Post 6 November 1935


"Okapi at London Zoo" The Weekly News 25 September 1935 ( Courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collection - Auckland Libraries)
Evening Post 2 August 1935
Evening Post 6 November 1935
Otago Witness 21 August 1901
"Okapi" authored by Brent Huffman August 2004