The Orange Leader
In the late 19th Century and throughout the early 20th Century, the biggest event to happen to a town was to have a circus visit. Townspeople would first be aware that the circus was coming when the advertising car would be pulled in and parked on a siding on the edge of town. The advance people would then begin to hang posters on barns, buildings, fences, and any other place they could find to hang advertising information. The circus would come into the town by train and the unloading of the tents and all the other equipment would begin. The citizenry would come out to watch all the work and especially to see the animals. There would be “tame” animals like horses, but also “wild” animals like lions, tigers, and elephants. The elephants were the star attractions. They were huge and they could do anything that was required of them to set the circus up. It was amazing to see them pull loaded wagons, carry heavy loads in their trunks, and then see them pull the ropes that raised the large canvas tents and then become agile performers in one of the rings. They seemed to always be huge, powerful, yet gentile beasts. Most of the time they were, but that could change in a moment.
In November, 1921, the Sells-Floto Circus came to Orange. The circus had started in 1902 as the Otto Floto Dog and Pony Show. Otto Floto was the noted sportswriter for the Denver Post. The Post was a part owner in the show and honored their famed writer by naming the circus after him. He loved the circus.
In 1906 the show combined with the Sells Brothers Circus and became the Sells-Floto Circus. One of the attractions was their herd of five Asian elephants.
The circus was in Riverside California in 1908 on the edge of town near a Standard Oil tank field when an oil tank suddenly ruptured and exploded. The elephants were only about two blocks from the explosion and resultant fire. They stampeded. Charging through the east side of town, the herd caused some property damage before they were stopped. One elephant managed to escape and continue the rampage. Several people were injured and one lady died as a result of being trampled by the elephant. Finally the elephant was brought under control.
In 1920 the circus was in Salinas, Kansas when a barking dog caused the elephants to stampede. This time the elephant named Snyder went out of control, injured three people and killed two before he was killed by gunfire.
The Sells-Floto Circus had set up in Orange in the area near Division and Eighth Streets. The circus was set up and one performance had been held when on November 18, Floto, a large male Asian elephant went berserk. The real reason is not known; possibly he was angered when the smaller elephant Billy Sunday, named for the famed evangelist, tried to get into Floto’s feed bucket. Maybe Floto was in “must”, the time when a male elephant’s hormones rage. There was even one theory that a boy had slipped Floto a large plug of chewing tobacco. No one knows for sure what happened to cause Floto, a normally well behaved elephant to go so out of control. He broke loose from the corral where he was tied and began a one elephant stampede through Orange.
Floto was a mature elephant of unknown age. He was bought from the German zoo, Hagenbeck, in 1904. He had been part of the stampedes at Riverside and Salinas. Floto was large, and strong. It was terrifying to see him storming down the streets with his keepers and handlers unable to stop him. A panic of sorts gripped Orange. It was natural in that time for those with firearms to form a posse and try to stop Floto. People rushed home and got whatever rifle or shotgun they had and then joined the chase.
Floto crossed the Brunner Bridge across Adams Bayou and went into West Orange. He was chased through the remainder of the day. He holed up in a wooded area through the night with the posse surrounding the woods until daylight. The next day, he was finally cornered, shot and killed. It is at this point that fact and fuzzy memories collide.
There have been several excellent articles written about Floto and his demise. There have been oral recitations of the great chase and execution of Floto. There are differences in the shooting of Floto. None of the differences matter, differences in remembering is human nature. One account has Edgar Brown, Jr. loaning a “high powered rifle” to Sheriff J. W. Helton. Helton is then reputed to have fired the fatal shot.
An account related by circus historian Harry Kingston of Beaumont was written on the circus blog, “Buckles Blog.” Kingston writes: “I can take the story a bit further as the man that shot the elephant retired to Jasper, Texas and was a relative of my mother-in-law, Mary Alice Dabney. She set up an appointment for me to meet him, as she knew I loved the circus. The man was Dewey Godfrey. He had been there and worked at Orange Supply. Floto escaped the circus and the locals were shooting him with .22 rifles and just making him mad. Dewey was the only one in town with a 30-30 rifle and knew what to do. Dewey went out with the sheriff and found a real mad Floto. He shot him behind the ear and that was all it took. Floto went down. Dewey got a saw and cut off Floto’s tusks and put them in the First National Bank of Orange.
I got the see the left end of Floto’s tusk. Dewey gave me another piece for my circus collection and a letter signed by him that it belonged to Floto.
A lot of the tusk was cut up to make gun handles, as later on Dewey worked for Remington Arms, in Bridgeport Conn.
I thought your bloggers would like to hear a little more about some circus history as this came from a man who was there.”
Another report by Frank Braden in Illustrated World magazine relates: “The whole city took up arms in a jiffy. A local hardware store threw open its doors and issued arms and ammunition. Armed men descended on the lot, riddling Floto’s body with bullets. The news was on the wires within the hour. Armed Texans had bagged the mightiest specimen of man-killing game ever known within the borders of the Lone Star State.”
There are also various reports of the remains of Floto. After his death there were pictures taken of various citizens standing by and atop the body. Reportedly the carcass was skinned by a local trapper named Pavell. Pavell then took possession of the hide. Over the years it has disappeared.
Reportedly some took large chunks of meat and then cooked and canned it. (Elephant gumbo?) There have been no definite recordings of the disposal of the skeleton. One report on Buckles Blog said that it was buried near “the old water tower.” Another contributor wrote that he had a small ivory ball numbered “41” that was made from a tusk.
In addition to postings on Buckles Blog there have also been articles in “The White Top”, the magazine of the Circus History Society, and Bandwagon, another circus history publication. Circus people are passionate about preserving their history. They also love elephants, seemingly above all the other circus animals.
There was no loss of life in Orange. There was some property damage and various degrees of panic from people seeing a large elephant loose in the streets. Some reports stated that Floto had been shot as many as 60 times.
Sells-Floto elephants would stampede again. In 1926, 14 elephants stampeded in Cranbrook, British Columbia. As they were being unloaded from their train car, a barking dog frightened them and the stampeded to the woods. They were eventually recaptured with no loss of life. Trainers said the high altitude may have also affected them.
The Sells-Floto Circus was eventually sold and absorbed into the Ringling Brothers Circus, as were many other small circus properties. The story of Floto and his rampage through Orange is a part of recorded circus history, as it is in Orange.
When Otto Floto heard about his namesake elephant being shot and killed, he was in his office, still a sports writer, he put his head on his desk and cried; circus people love their elephants.