was the year a nine ton male Indian elephant named Black Diamond
came to Corsicana.
Advertised as being the largest and tallest Indian elephant in captivity,
the 31 year old pachyderm was part of the Al G. Barnes Circus. Black
Diamond was later described as “moody” and unpredictable. He was
also an elephant who had been labeled a “runaway.” So, the circus
usually kept him chained between two calm female elephants.**
Diamond had been owned by a man named H. D. “Curley” Prickett who
had gotten him from his brother-in-law. After 7 years together Curley
and Diamond had formed a bond, whether based on kindness or cruelty
is not known, but a bond nevertheless. In a 1929 newspaper interview,
Prickett said, “He was awfully jealous of me.” However, in 1927,
Curley sold his elephant to the Barnes Circus for $3,000 (a low
price due to the elephant’s intractability), essentially abandoning
him. Then Curley moved to Kerens,
in the Corsicana
area, to work as a ranch hand for a woman named Eva Speed Donohoo.
Diamond having been the largest thing in his life prior to Kerens,
Curley had often talked about him to his employer. When he learned
that the Barnes Circus would be coming to town, he invited Mrs.
Donohoo to see his old friend, and to perhaps demonstrate his mastery
of such a magnificent creature. So on October 12, 1929 see him she
did…and Black Diamond saw her.
At the train yard, the equipment and animals were being unloaded.
After Diamond came out of his steel-bottom train car, Curley moved
forward to take his familiar “control” of the elephant. Then Diamond
spied Curley and also saw Mrs. Donohoo, whom it was later speculated
the elephant might have blamed for the loss of his trainer.
Indeed, elephants are famous for their long memories.
Eighteen thousand pounds charged forward, fixed an angry eye on
Curley, then grabbed him with his trunk and tossed him over an automobile.
Then he was on to what appeared to be his main target and enemy
Mrs. Donohoo. He pushed a vehicle onto the 52-year-old woman, then
seeing her being rescued by a spectator, finished the job with another
large object. Curley survived. His employer did not.
tragic as the fate of Mrs. Donohoo and Curley was, there was a further
tragedy to come.
What to do about Black Diamond.
Diamond had apparently been blamed for at least two previous deaths
of circus employees described as “show people, one a negro and an
old man 82 years old,” as though the two didn’t matter because one
was a “negro” and the other “old.” This episode, however, was far
too public to ignore. The Barnes Circus people telegraphed for guidance
to famed circus owner John Ringling, who was at the time in negotiations
to buy the Barnes Circus. He instructed that the elephant had to
be put down.
That decided, there was the question of the surest and most convenient
method. (I seriously doubt humane euthanasia methods were ever considered.)
And of course there was also the question of what to do afterwards
with eighteen thousand pounds of elephant.
It was finally decided he would be shot in a place that offered
easy removal. Apparently it took between 50 and 150 shots to stop
his great heart. Then Diamond’s remains were divided: his head to
a Houston Natural History Museum, his feet that had served man for
so many years were made into stools. An ignominious end for a glorious
creature who hadn’t asked for any of it.
The Black Diamond story was told to me by my parents and grandparents
over the years. I always cried…for the elephant.
took a further incident years later to prompt a call to ban elephants
openly parading through Corsicana’s
public streets. This time the episode, gratefully, had no actual
fatalities, only near-fatal blows to social standing and pride.
The Clyde Beatty Circus came somewhat regularly to Corsicana
in the 1950s of my childhood. Born in 1903, Clyde Beatty was nothing
if not a showman. Joining the circus as a lad to clean cages, he
rose to be a circus impresario. He anointed himself THE “world famous
lion tamer,” as though there were only one.
A tireless self promoter, he would flamboyantly stride into a cage
in center ring in full great-white-hunter regalia, wearing a safari
shirt, sleeves rolled up, riding pants and tall shiny boots, a pith
helmet, a pistol strapped to his side, a whirling whip in one hand
and the ubiquitous lion-tamer chair in the other. There, he would
bravely “tame” his dangerous animals. Beatty was quite entertaining,
if perhaps foolhardy and overconfident.
Every few years, the Beatty Circus would come to Corsicana,
set up tents outside town and hit Corsicana’s
two main streets for a parade to draw the crowds.
On this year, half the county turned out to watch the stream of
performers. The clowns were somersaulting, honking bulb horns, and
driving tiny cars. The horses were gorgeous. The trick dogs amazing.
I think there may even have been a camel decked in braid and velvet.
Then came a line of elephants, each holding with its trunk the tail
of the one in front of it.
Surprisingly, behind them, moving slowly, was a plain family sedan,
its windows open in the summer heat, driven by a local man with
his wife beside him in the passenger seat.
Hollis Talley wore a fedora and a bewildered expression. Ardell
Talley wore an unflattering cloche hat and was ducking lower and
lower, her vision locked straight ahead as though traveling on a
barren country road instead of having hundreds of pairs of eyes
trained on them. The Talleys had inadvertently turned their car
into the parade and because the cross streets were filled with spectators,
had been trapped and forced to inch along behind the elephants until
they could exit. We all recognized them: they sat behind us at church
every Sunday. An odd turn of fate to happen to such a pious, straight-laced
couple who almost never spoke to others.
The parade halted, its forward progress temporarily delayed by some
difficulty up ahead. The elephants relaxed and the last one in the
line decided to relax by backing up to sit against the passenger
door of the Talley sedan.
Resting, however, was not the only thing on the elephant’s mind.
As soon as Mr. Talley realized that the elephant was beginning to
leave a rather large deposit inside their car, in Mrs. Talley’s
lap no less, he frantically stretched across his screaming wife
and began struggling with the roll-up window to close it. Useless
effort as it turned out, because the elephant was sitting on the
edge of the glass.
Then, the elephant, apparently finished with its job at the Talley
sedan, stood back up and calmly reclaimed its place in line, moving
forward. The sedan, however, did not move….but the Talleys did,
and rather quickly. As both front doors sprung open, onlookers were
treated to the sight of two of their very own, shell-shocked and
filthy elephant war survivors.
Our family and, I suppose, the rest of our church parish never looked
at the Talleys in quite the same way. For my own part, I can’t imagine
that their sense of dignity ever recovered. One noticeable change
was they moved from their usual seat on the pew behind ours to the
semi-anonymity of the back of the church.
© Dianne West
March 2 , 2014 Guest Column
The names of the Talleys are changed. The rest is as factual as
my memory allows.)
*The “queen” in the photos was U.S.
Representative Luther Johnson’s daughter Mary Frances. Senator Johnson
was a hometown boy.
**(All this behavior was likely due
to the poorly understood state of “must” in male elephants.)