The Great Cranbrook Elephant Hunt


CPR Baggage Car #4481 : CPR Baggage Car #4481 - an exterior view at the Cranbrook Railway Museum prior to restoration - 197
CPR Baggage Car #4481

Tillie was one of the older elephants in the herd. She was first owned by W.P. Hall of Lancaster, Missouri in 1916 and then to the Wortham Carnival. It seems like she was quickly sold again, to Mugivan and Bowers, and then arrived with the Sells-Floto show in February, 1922. Tillie was about 32 years of age when she made her break for freedom in Cranbrook.

Tillie was the first of the three "wild" elephants to be re-captured. And her capture was surrounded by claims, counter-claims and mystery. There is no question but that there were professional reputations at stake in the Cranbrook elephant hunt. Several of the elephant men with many years of experience had been brought in from other shows to capture the Sells-Floto wilderness lovers.

And there was pressure, to be sure. Sells-Floto estimated the value of each of the free elephants at $15,000 to $20,000 (depending on the source) and it was costing around $1,000 a week to sustain the hunt. A.J. Ironside later calculated that the Cranbrook elephant hunt cost the circus at least $10,000, not counting the loss of Myrtle. There were holes left in the performances that were being given in new venues and the circus was missing some of its long serving staff such as Zack Terrell and senior elephant man Jim Dooley.

When the Edmonton Bulletin reported that the escape had been broken with the capture of "Mad Mary" (erroneously mistaking Tillie for Mary) they went on to state that:

"the elephant was sighted by a party of Indians who kept watch and held her in a patch of brush while one rode into town for the circus men, and apparently she was taken without trouble."

Then the article went on to recount a story wherein three of the elephants were captured by Ktunaxa scouts. The story has it that the only female member of the party was a very capable tracker and led the Ktunaxa to the elephants. She had a bag of apples over the pommel of her saddle and offered one to the nearest elephant. She continued to feed apples while one of her cohorts hobbled the feet with ropes while another went in search of the circus men. When the circus workers arrived they found the supposedly wild elephants happily eating apples and bonded to the Ktunaxa captors. The circus men had to pay the female tracker $10 to lead the elephants back to the railway cars, where one again bolted when spooked by spectators.

Bringing Home Two Captured Elephants : Ktunaxa trackers and Sells-Floto elephant handlers bringing two of the escaped elephants back to the
Bringing Home Two Captured Elephants
Decoy Elephants : Two elephants, presumed to be Frieda and Trilby, from the Sells-Floto Circus herd staked out as deco
Decoy Elephants

A later story from the same Edmonton Bulletin has Tillie herded into a natural rock corral by a party of Ktunaxa trackers. There was an immediate response in the Cranbrook Herald of August 19, 1926 that downplayed all Ktunaxa involvement:

"Certain reports would indicate that the Indians caught 'Tillie' the elephant that was brought into the city on Sunday. The fact is that J. Dooley, head keeper for the Sells-Floto company, was the person responsible for the capture. All that others than the elephant men have done so far, has been to obtain the location of the lost animals and direct the elephant men thereto, none of them, however, getting within a considerable distance of any one of them so far."

The story went on to clarify that Tillie had been watched by Ktunaxa trackers for three or four days in the Wycliffe area. It was stipulated that Dooley's men hobbled the elephant and led it in, coaxing her with bread with the Ktunaxa only urging from behind. It would seem that professional pride was at stake here.

The end to this story was that the Ktunaxa trackers were paid two hundred dollars for their part in the hunt for Tillie. The people listed as sharing in the reward were Terry Timothy, Seymour Williams, Michael Michel, Chris Joseph, Abe Sebastian, Gus Williams and an unidentified woman related to Gus Williams.

Tillie was held in the C.P.R. stockyard corral and was, at one point, reported to have been taken out to Jap Lake to act as a decoy for Myrtle and Charlie Ed who were thought to be in that area. Finally, on August 25th, Zack Terrell left to rejoin the circus, taking with him Tillie. She continued with the Sells-Floto circus through 1930, working in the centre ring with her co-conspirator in freedom, Charlie Ed.

A final news release in Spokane described Tillie as fifteen years old and weighing a ton-and-a-half. Her ticket from Spokane, Washington to Eugene, Oregon in the special baggage car on the Union Pacific railway cost $329.27. Jim Dooley reported her in good health with a wound on her right leg, either from a snag or a bullet, healing rapidly. Tillie finally died of poisoning in 1941 while working for the Ringling Bros.