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Elephant on the Loose Provides Inspiration for Hailey’s Fourth of July Parade
“Samson, the biggest elephant in the world, thought he had to do something grand for Hailey,” wrote Daily Wood River Times publisher T.E. Picotte of Samson’s escapade.
Wednesday, July 3, 2024


Anticipation ran high as Idaho frontier people crowded into the fledgling town of Hailey in early August 1884 to see what P.T. Barnum would later call “the greatest show on earth.”

The Daily Wood River Times noted that at least 6,000 people were in town for W.W. Cole’s Colossal Circus, having come in all manner of conveyances including farm wagons. Livery stables and corrals were crowded to their fullest capacity. And the crowd might have been even greater had it been advertised that the entire circus show was coming, lamented the Wood River Times:

“People could not be made to believe that the real Simon-pure colossal W.W. Cole’s circus was coming so several thousand persons who would have come remained at home.”

The Blaine County Historical Museum has the rifle Hank Lufkin used during Samson’s chase. The barrel was bent in the struggle but later straightened. “The gun is certainly a relic and has had rather rough treatment but somehow we have always managed to keep it,” says an entry in the Lufkin Bible.

The circus arrived by special train at 4:30 in the morning, its 300 circus workers and performers and animals filling 21 cars. Those who were in Hailey that morning were soon treated to a circus spectacle they hadn’t planned on: That of Samson, a five-ton elephant, running roughshod through the streets of Hailey.

What ensued prompted editor T.E. Picotte to publish a special edition of the newspaper, giving an entire page to the story. And Hailey’s Days of the Old West Fourth of July Parade will pay homage to it 140 years later with a blow-up of Samson towering over the parade.

The parade is also expected to feature various circus-related floats and other entries as it makes its way down Main Street at noon Thursday, July 4.

Samson wasn’t just any elephant, said Museum Trustee Bob MacLeod. He was at the time the largest elephant in captivity.

Samson was unloaded from the train car without incident. But as some 300 circus workers set up tent, he decided to take umbrage at an empty flat car, passed his trunk underneath and lifted it off the tracks throwing it 20 feet away where it smashed into kindling.

The head elephant keeper promptly hobbled Samson with a thick chain. And at 10 a.m. the procession of circus animals worked its way a mile up Main Street to a corral. The procession took 20 minutes to pass a given point, noted Picotte. It included five elephants, including Samson; a drove of camels, two band wagons, a steam calliope, a $10,000 organ and “magnificent black stallions and cute little ponies.”

Samson, who was in the lead, entered the tent willingly. But angered at a barking dog on his heels, he knocked down one of his keepers with a sweep of his trunk and would have trampled him to death but for a huge mastiff who jumped at him, biting his trunk, wrote Picotte.

“This seemed to anger the brute beyond all control, and he turned to and began a general destruction of everything in reach,” he added.

Samson first tackled the cage containing the lions, rolling it over three times as the lions roared and Samson bellowed. On the third roll, one of the lions managed to bury his teeth in Samson’s flesh, even while in the cage. Samson bellowed again and with a roar that terrified all within hearing, he drew back, breaking two of the iron bars from the cage.

While no lions escaped, Samson continued his rampage, upsetting the heavy tool wagon nearby and, breaking its axle and pole and smashing in one side, leaving tools scattered on the ground.

Circus workers rushed in, grabbing sledge hammers and crowbars and began hammering Samson on his hind legs and sides as Samson lashed the air with his trunk. Two men even rushed over to the nearby Hailey Iron Works to heat the crowbars until they were white, thinking the application of heat might bring the elephant to a standstill.

Meanwhile, two runners on horseback headed for town, yelling “Samson is loose--smashing things. Get some guns to shoot him!”

Samson continued his rampage, upsetting a machinery wagon containing derricks and tackles as if it were a mere toy. He broke the backs of two horses and jammed another with a swoop of his trunk. He then turned his attention to a canvas wagon and likely would have wrecked the whole procession had circus hands not managed to turn him back just as he made a beeline for the U.S. Land Office.

He ran against an ore-wagon “of the heaviest make” outside the Iron Works, upset it and caved in one of its sides, then threw down two horses that were hitched to the wagon. Just then a circus hand came out with a red-hot poker, applying it to Samson’s leg.

But the elephant refused to stop. He just howled in pain and started back towards town.

By now, Picotte wrote, there were 3,000 people watching the elephant “with the most intense interest,” including members of the procession, which had stood in line watching the mayhem unfold. Every time Samson made a movement, men, women and children would run towards tents, houses and into town.

“The most intense excitement prevailed,” Picotte said.

Samson, for his part, seemed to enjoy the fun, getting more and more excited. Given his shackles, he walked at a steady, measured tread in circles, walking perhaps one to two miles nearly to the foothills, to a nearby ranch and the racetrack.

“As he walked, it seemed as if the very ground shook beneath him, and as if nothing could stay his onward march,” Picotte related.

Fifteen to 20 gunmen showed up, bearing guns of all description, from small bird shotguns to the heaviest two-ounce Winchester.

“An elephant hunt was just what the sports of Hailey had longed for for a long time,” Picotte related.

Hank Lufkins jumped on his horse with a double-barreled shotgun and rifle. F.O. Harding came bearing his Winchester rifle and others followed suit.

Within a couple minutes they were pumping led into the brute, Picotte recounted, but the bullets from the shotguns made no impression on him as they just graced his hide. But every time a Winchester ball struck him, he would pause a moment and flop his trunk about before resuming his walk.

“The gunmen were all around him and so excited that they shot at him whenever they could,” Picotte wrote. “The bullets could be heard whistling all over the crowd, and it is a great wonder that no one was killed or wounded. Twice was Samson turned towards town by the shooters, and scatter the crowd would until hardly a soul remained out of cover—but each time other shots turned him back in the direction whence he came.”

Finally, Samson made a beeline for the railroad tracks where a car loaded with railroad ties stood in his way. Samon rammed his head against the car, knocking off the ties. Then he put his trunk beneath the car and turned it over. He passed over the wreck to the second track where he forced passage between two more tie-cars, jarring the ties and cars off the track.

He then attempted to climb onto a pile of ties but, unable to get a firm footing, he was momentarily stopped. This gave the riflemen more opportunity to shoot lead into him while circus hands threw ropes over and downed him.

After resting a few minutes, they led Samson back to his tent. He followed gentle as a lamb where Picotte was permitted to stroke his trunk. Picotte wrote that several rifle balls had left wounds one to two inches deep—the most serious behind his left ear

Mr. Conklin, who managed the menagerie, told Picotte that once a year Samson gets vicious, then once the spat is over he’s alright for the rest of the year. Conklin blamed the Hailey skirmish on Samson’s jealousy at seeing a smaller elephant caressing one of the females.

“Samson,” he added, “Will be as well as ever today, but tomorrow and the day after he will be sore all over from his wounds.”

W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows eventually became known as The Cole Bros. Circus. A program from 1886 spoke of such acts as acrobatics, aerialists, bicyclists, broncos, camels, chariot races, clowns, cowboy, dogs, donkeys, elephants, equestrian drama and horse sports, Native Americans, jugglers, menageries, Mexicans, monkeys, sharpshooters, sideshows and Wild West shows, as well as an orchestra providing music. It set up the big top that year in places from Arkansas to Minnesota and Manitoba, from Iowa to Oregon, and into the Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Indian territories.

By 2014 The Cole Bros. Circus was one of the few circuses in the United States still performing under a Big Top tent. It closed in 2016, however, due to the influence of animal rights activists protesting the use of animals in live performances.

As for Samson?

Some say he died in a fire in his winter quarters in Connecticut, according to an excerpt in the Blaine County Historical Museum. Others say he was hung. Still another report say that Samon killed 132 people at a parade in Michigan, prompting W.W. Cole to put him up for auction. When he only got a bid of $1.25, Cole gave Samson seven pounds of strychnine followed by five pounds of arsenic when that did not faze him. Finally, it’s said that an Army lieutenant and two sergeants shot him with a Gatling gun—a forerunner of a rotary cannon--behind a theater in New Orleans until he dropped.

The only thing we know for sure, said the museum excerpt, is that his remains were donated by W.W. Cole to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where he lives on in legacy as an impressive elephant specimen.

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