Celebrity Beasts

I’ve just got back from an interesting seminar at the University of Oxford on the subject of celebrity animals! The seminar forms part of a wider project of cultures of celebrity in the eighteenth century and beyond (http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/celebrity-beasts-1738-1826). My paper focused on the tragic case of Chunee, who was arguably Britain’s first ‘celebrity’ elephant. Here’s a taster…

Chunee was an Asian elephant. Caught near Bombay when around five years old, he was shipped to London in July 1810 and purchased for nine hundred guineas by Henry Harris, manager of Covent Garden Theatre. Installed in the theatre, Chunee was trained to perform in melodramas, adding exotic zest to a range of theatrical productions. His first appearance before the British public was in the pantomime, Harlequin Padmenaba, a lavish oriental spectacle in which he donned a howdah and carried the actress Mrs Henry Johnston around the stage.

In 1814 Chunee was bought by showman Edward Cross, and transferred to his menagerie at Exeter ’Change. A popular tourist attraction in Georgian London, the menagerie was housed in the upper apartments of a building in the Strand, above a lower floor of shops. The exhibition consisted of a series of cramped dens positioned around the edge of a large room, the walls of which were ‘painted with exotic scenery’ to conjure images of the tropics. Chunee was installed at one end of the display space in a cage barely large enough to allow him to turn around. He soon became one of the prime attractions in the exhibition, picking up buns and coins thrown to him by visitors and ringing a bell every evening to announce the start of feeding time.

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Rudolph Ackermann‘Royal Menagerie, Exeter ’Change, Strand’, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, vol.8, (1812)

In the 1820s, Chunee began to suffer from ‘musth’, a condition that affects all male elephants over the age of about twenty and recurs annually during the mating season For several years Cross attempted to control his temper with a cocktail of powerful, including sulphur, treacle, calomel, Epsom salts, tartar emetic and Croton oil. In 1826, however, when these pharmaceutical remedies ceased to work, the showman reluctantly decided to have the elephant destroyed, concerned that he would break out of his den and wreak havoc. Cross first tried to poison Chunee with arsenic, which he mixed with ‘oats and a quantity of sugar’. When Chunee refused to take the potion, however, the showman opted instead to have him shot, calling on the services of his brother-in-law, Mr Herring, and two guards from Somerset House. There followed a scene of carnage, as the elephant reportedly ‘flew round the den with the speed of a race-horse, uttering frightful yells and screams’ while a total of 152 bullets were fired into his body. The image below, painted by the artist George Cruikshank and sold to the public as a souvenir, captures the brutality of the scene, showing Chunee receiving a barrage of fire from keepers while a lion and several other animals watch in alarm.

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George Cruikshank, ‘Destruction of the Furious Elephant at Exeter ’Change’ (London: J. Harrison, 1826)

After his death, Chunee’s body was dissected by surgeons. His skeleton was reconstructed and exhibited in his former den, where many people came to see it. It was later toured around the country before finding its final resting place in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. By 1910, it formed one of the foremost curiosities in the Museum’s ‘Historical Cabinet’, alongside ‘a segment of Napoleon’s intestine’, the horse ‘Orlando, winner of the Derby in 1844’ and ‘the skull of [John] Thurtell’, a notorious criminal executed for murder in 1824. Chunee’s story remained vivid in the memories of many Londoners, and was often cited in relation to other incidents involving elephants – most notably the sale of Jumbo to P.T. Barnum in 1882, when one Jumbo supporter complained that ‘elephants are no better understood…in England than they were 50 years ago, when poor Chunee was so cruelly murdered’. A rumour also circulated that several people had consumed some steaks cut from Chunee’s rump and ‘expressed no disrelish for this novel taste’, though this turned out to be incorrect! The image below comes from a 1910 article on ‘The Fauna of London’ and imagines Chunee’s ghost ‘the courts and alleys ring again with her [sic] last dreadful trumpetings’.

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W.W. Brightwell, ‘The Fauna of London’, The Idler, December 1910

Helen Cowie

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