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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Large and at-large in 1926: the year more than a dozen elephants were on the loose in B.C.

The “Great Elephant Hunt” in Cranbrook, B.C. happened in 1926. When the Sells-Floto circus came to town by train, about a dozen elephants escaped. Most were rounded up quickly but three remained at large for many days. The young male trick elephant known as Charlie Ed was renamed Cranbrook Ed at a christening event overseen by the mayor. (Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives / CBK 1996.002.006)

Chained to a fence, with his large limbs entangled in ropes and pulled in different directions, Charlie Ed faced a firing squad, his sentence for killing a man two days before.

Three sharpshooters from the San Francisco Police Department took aim at the elephant, a moment in time captured by a photographer who stood behind the gunmen.

The final moments of Charlie Ed’s life were a long way from the wild-born Asian elephant’s first brush with outlaw fame, when he and about a dozen other circus elephants escaped their bonds in the Canadian wilderness near Cranbrook, British Columbia, in late summer 1926. But the surly elephant’s death at the hands of men was only a matter of time.

Charlie Ed, who would later be called simply Cranbrook for the location of his famous escape, was on the lam for nearly six weeks before a team of circus officials and Native American locals tracked the large animal and recaptured him. But not before he and two female elephants, Myrtle and Tillie, excited the Inland Northwest with their escape.

The Sells-Floto circus rolled into Edmonton on Aug. 2, 1926, its 17th week of touring throughout North America with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For whatever reason, the “peaceful mien” of the elephants shifted in the far-flung Canadian city by the simple barking of a dog, according to an account in The Spokesman-Review. The elephants were only “coaxed … back to docility again” by “tugging at the big hooks held in their ears by bull men” and the soothing words of the “well-known clown circus rider, Poodles Hanneford.”

Four days later and 400 miles south, the elephants would not be so easily contained.

On Aug. 6, as the circus pulled into Cranbrook and the elephants were being unloaded, “their leader, suddenly sniffing the mountain air, trumpeted and set off cross country with 13 other members of the herd streaming in her wake.”

A telegraph went out to “all trains west.”

“Keep look out for elephants on track,” the message read, surely surprising any conductor who read it. “Advise if sighted.”

Eleven of the elephants were quickly recaptured, according to The Spokesman-Review, but three remained at large: Charlie Ed, Myrtle and Tillie.

Nearly three weeks after the escape, on Aug. 25, the first of the three was snared. Named Tillie, the 15-year-old was captured 3 miles from Cranbrook but had traveled more than 50 miles in all. She was reportedly lured from the woods with bread.

“You’ve got to treat ’em kindly, and that’s all there is to it,” her keeper Jim Dooley said.

Tillie was loaded onto a train and sent to Eugene, where the circus was then camped. The “truant animal, nervous, but playful” arrived in Spokane, where she was transferred from the Spokane International Railroad to the Union Pacific in her “special baggage car” at the Great Northern depot, the only remains of which are the Clocktower in Riverfront Park. A crowd gathered to witness the now-famous outlaw.

Charlie Ed and Myrtle remained on the loose, large and at-large.

On Sept. 8, Myrtle was traced to a “heavily timbered mountainside … in a weakened condition” about 5 miles southwest of Cranbrook. She had “become a wild beast. She charged through British Columbia forests with uprooted saplings in her trunk and ferociously attacked hunters.”

Two days after her discovery, Myrtle was dead. Accounts vary, saying she either died from pneumonia, or had to be destroyed due to her condition. Her remains were buried in the brush near where she was found except for her head, which was paraded through Cranbrook and shipped to the University of Alberta.

“The whereabouts of Charlie Ed, the other elephant at liberty, are unknown,” The Spokesman-Review said.

Not for long.

On Sept. 15, a crew of circus workers and local Native Americans tracked Charlie Ed to his “lair near Smith lake.” Forty days had passed since his escape, but he remained strong and willing to fight, no small feat for a creature that can eat up to 330 pounds of plant matter and drink up to 50 gallons of water a day.

Described as “fat and sleek,” and the “fighting young elephant of the Sells-Floto circus,” Charlie Ed was the smallest of three but when cornered in the wilderness put up the fiercest fight.

After locating him, the trackers set up a trap to ensnare the elephant by fastening a “stout cord” between “two tough tamarack saplings.”

“The elephant was trumpeting shrilly, his eyes were blazing with the fire of battle,” reads a newspaper article titled “Charlie Ed Puts Up Fierce Fight.” With the trap set, one of the men walked toward the young bull, who charged. His head went into the noose, tightening it, strangling him and setting “him back on his haunches. Again he lunged forward only to set the encircling rope tighter about his neck,” the article says. “He was strangling and he seemed to know it.”

Charlie Ed backed off “to ease his distressed windpipe.” Two of the circus men “staggered to their feet to fix the elephant hooks into his tender ears.” Charlie Ed had lost his newfound freedom, a taste of wildness that he experienced only at the beginning of his life.

Back in Cranbrook and “fettered in heavy chains,” he was paraded through town.

“The fire died in two little pig-like eyes,” the article says. “Charlie Ed was once again a circus elephant, the clown animal of the big Sells-Floto tent.”

On Sept. 19, Charlie Ed passed through Spokane on a train on his way to San Francisco to meet up with the traveling circus. According to an article in The Spokesman-Review, the elephant had “developed many traits of the wild animal” during his escape, making circus officials nervous. They built a special steel baggage car to transport him.

Like Tillie before him, he attracted a crowd at the depot to watch the elephant’s car as it was transferred from the Spokane International line to the Union Pacific.

“Charlie Ed swayed from side to side in the huge steel express car,” the article says. “Chains fastened his feet together and heavy irons kept him from moving around.”

Circus officials estimated that $18,000 had been spent capturing and transporting the elephant, equivalent to more than $230,000 today.

With the new name of Cranbrook, the elephant stayed with the Sells-Floto circus until 1930, when he was sold to the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. In 1934, he was in a film called “Clive of India,” and in 1936 he found a home at the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco.

Three months after arriving, Charlie Ed again showed his ferocity, killing his keeper on June 16, 1936. Two days later he was “executed by gunshot” by three police officers. He was 27 years old. This time, there was no parade.