The first circus to appear in Idaho Territory put on a show August 6, 1864 in Boise. It was Don Rice’s circus, which the Idaho Statesman at the time noted “everyone has seen…in one part of the world or another.”
World renown was apparently the norm for circuses. The ad below is from the Idaho Statesman, June 8, 1865. Note that it is billed as the “most attractive performance ever presented to the world.” And only a buck!
Hyperbole aside, those circuses couldn’t match the spectacle that took place in Hailey as reported in the Daily Wood River Times on August 4, 1884. If you tend to get queasy about animal injury, skip this.
The headline about Cole’s Circus said, “Samson, the Huge Elephant, on the Rampage—Two Horses Killed, Four Wagons, and Three Railway Cars Derailed—Forty or Fifty Shots Fired at Him Without Effect.” The story took up the entire front page.
Samson the elephant escaped its handlers perhaps when a dog barked and another bit him on the trunk. This angered Samson so much that he attacked the lion cage, rolling it over three times and breaking two of the bars, but not freeing the lions. Circus men came with sledge hammers and crowbars trying to guide the elephant. Local men ran to Hailey Iron Works with the idea that bars heated white hot might serve to control the him. Meanwhile, two men on horseback—perhaps descended from Paul Revere—loped down Main Street yelling, “Samson is loose—smashing things. Get some guns to shoot him!”
Samson was crushing wagons and horses on his way toward town where he met up with a circus hand brandishing a white-hot poker, which he applied to Samson’s leg. The elephant howled and proceeded into town.
“At this time,” the Times reported, “there were fully 3,000 persons on the ground, looking on and following the movements of the mammoth with the…most intense excitement.”
And what about all that shouting for guns? “The cavaliers who ran to Main street to look for gun-men did not search in vain. Instantly 15 or 20 guns of all description, from the small bird shotgun to the heaviest two-ounce Winchester, were produced, and started for the scene of the rampage. An elephant hunt was just what the sports of Hailey had longed for for a long time.”
The men with rifles blasted away at the elephant with seemingly little effect, other than to turn him toward the railroad tracks. There he encountered a rail car loaded with ties, butting it with his head, then turning it over, knocking two more tie cars off the tracks. The ties, scattered around like matchsticks, made it difficult for Sampson to stand. This gave the circus men a chance to get ropes around him. After all that he was reportedly lead back to his tent “gentle as a lamb.”
At least six or seven shots the animal suffered seemed serious, but his trainer, Mr. Conklin, assured that he would “heal in a week or two.” The man said that, “about once a year… Samson gets vicious and is apt to give lots of trouble. But after the spell is over he is all right for another year.”
The paper speculated that the incident may have started when Samson saw “one of the smaller elephants caressing one of the females and possibly making an appointment with her.”