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Circus Train Wreck Myth

Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 31st, 2007

The easy explanation that a “strange cryptid” being sighted is nothing more than an escaped mundane animal usually ends in a fantastic story that has become a myth itself.

Circus train wrecks have been a classic “wipe”—the ending for mystery animal stories for years. The pattern is typical. A strange beast is seen around, sightings are recorded, search parties are dispatched, tracks or dead livestock are discovered, but no animals like the ones being seen can be caught or killed. A news reporter or local sheriff then comes forth with the rumor that a “wrecked circus train” is responsible for an escaped black leopard or African lion. Quickly the story dies away, the sighting cease, the ridicule factor quiets all, and the wave is dead.

Hollywood even captured and promoted this mythical answer to mystery animal reports with Cecile B. DeMille’s 1952 movie, The Greatest Show On Earth, with a dramatic circus train wreck and the escape of many wild cats.

I sense that the escapee theory for these cases, which is favored by my colleague Karl Shuker, is a case of deus ex machina la Felidae. Shuker believes it’s an example of Occam’s Razor, which I understand, but disagree with. Sadly, the escapee explanation is too frequently used by people (rural law enforcement and local news media) not open to any “unknown animal” hypotheses.

While we know that many more felid releases and escapes are occurring than reported, we are also conscious of the fact that many unchronicled sightings of large mystery cats are happening in locations where few escapees have ever even left a pawprint.

Ridicule keeps an even higher number of these cats from being reported.Mysterious America

Speaking of the reported origins of early 20th century reports of “gorillas,” I continued:

Conveniently, crashed circus and carnival trains must have dotted the horizon in early America to explain all the “escaped animals” being reported. However, the fact is that upon double-checking such debunking, the truth is that very few train wrecks resulted in wild animals roaming the countryside.Mysterious America

Almost all of the myth-making about circus wrecks points back to the psychological and media impact of only one such event. On June 22, 1918, the now infamous Hammond circus train wreck, near Hammond, Indiana, occurred. The engineer of the troop train had been taking “kidney pills” which had a narcotic effect and he was asleep at the throttle.

An empty Michigan Central Railroad troop train crashed into the rear end of the stopped Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train, resulting in 86 people killed and 127 injured. A few animals escaped, but all were quickly hunted down, a few were captured and most killed. This accident was the source of the motion picture produced, Hollywood-style, in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, released in 1952. The film then influenced many explanations of Midwestern “varmint” (cryptid) sightings in the 1950s.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


13 Responses to “Circus Train Wreck Myth”

  1. shumway10973 responds:

    People can call me a conspiracy theorist or paranoid when it comes to government, but I do know this: Local law enforcement across America usually take 2 roads when something big is going on. 1) Something like escaped convicts and the such, let’s keep it hush–hush. No sense in causing mass panic. 2) “We are holding this press conference to explain what has been going on. The sighted critter that we have been hunting this whole time is nothing more than….(add known animal here).” I think they know that if the average people in this country caught wind of what is really going on (doesn’t matter what we are debating/discussing) that people would get emotional and get involved.

  2. greywolf responds:

    I have never bought the train wreck/escape stories. There are just not enough train wreck (circus trains) to cover the stories over many years .

    There are many private owners of exotic animals and they in most cases are licensed by the state or federal govt. If one of there critters comes up AWOL then a report must be done or they can loose there license. So the question is What did a person see and where did it come from? The story should be looked at with out the BS and be treated as if it is real and then test it for what it is. TRUE OR FALSE

  3. AtomicMrEMonster responds:

    And let’s not forget the people who have exotic animals without having the nescessary permit, like that nutcase in New York who had an African lion in his apartment.

    I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a a panda escaping from a zoo in Holland in 1978. Apparently, there were numerous panda sighting reports from all over the country but it was later discovered that the panda had only gotten a few yards away from the zoo before getting accidentally killed on a railroad track. So the most likely explanation for the sightings is a combination of peoples’ eyes playing tricks on them and hoaxes (I suspect they were of the “false report” variety instead of the “person in a suit” variety).

  4. MattBille responds:

    The guy in NY had a full-grown tiger in his apartment. David Letterman explained that it was the only cat the guy could find that New York City rats were afraid of.

    I wonder if any circus historian has ever created a log of known circus/carnival wrecks or escapes?

    While the explanation does not work now, animals in the 20s and 30s in the United States might have ended up running loose because circuses were constantly starting up, merging, going broke, and buying (or sabotaging) each other. When a circus was bought by a rival or simply disbanded, animals not valued might be shot, sold to some local to be exhibited (creating a better chance for escape or release) or simply abandoned. Read the wonderful dramatization of the era in the novel “Water for Elephants” to learn what things were like.

  5. AtomicMrEMonster responds:

    MattBille:

    Ah, thanks for the correction.

  6. poodpood responds:

    Escaped animals are never ‘mundane’.

    I grew up next to Edinburgh Zoo, Scotland, and, when I was a kid in the 60’s/70’s there were lots of escapee animals.

    The zoo backs onto large woods and we had wallabies running wild for a while.

    My youngest vague memory of an escapee was a chimp/monkey that got loose and wa found in a neighbours garage, but that could have been the older kids trying to scare us young ‘uns.

    It was a very surreal experience living next to a zoo, waking up to the roar of lions and the sounds of exotica.

  7. sasquatch responds:

    Oh, so that’s why a Rhinoceros has been eating my asparagus, then waiting for a bus…back to the circus!

  8. Shelley responds:

    In an eerie switch on this myth, our rural county had been seeing bobcats for many years, although they are officially extinct in this area since the late 19th century. Three years ago a dead bobcat was found *run over by a train.* The local authorities are still trying to get out of this one, although they insist it was not a native and was the only one of its kind. [Necropsy showed that it had been feeding here for some time.]

  9. bill green responds:

    hey loren good evening, wow very interesting new article about a circus train wreck. thanks bill green.

  10. Nachzehrer responds:

    Jimmy Stewart’s role as Buttons the Clown, a man wanted for murder, might have also contributed to belief in evil phantom clowns.

  11. ithilien responds:

    i think little golden books series had a bonzo the bear story…he escaped the train wreck and went on to live happily with the wild bears…after teaching them some of his tricks. way to go bonzo.

  12. Imaginary Friend responds:

    In the book “Summer of the Monkeys” by Wilson Rawls, the whole plot concerns a group of chimpanzees that escape from a circus train in Oklahoma. That’s the same writer who wrote “Where the Red Fern Grows,” so generations of people have grown up reading his books, and there is a movie of “Summer of the Monkeys.” I had read that book years ago, so imagine my surprise to discover that there are Bigfoot and “ape” sightings in Oklahoma even today – in fact, it is a hot spot. So was the Circus Train myth true? Or is that what Wilson Rawls heard while growing up to explain away every odd animal sighting?

    Having said that, I am in Tennessee and I recall a man who had a pet wolf that escaped when I was a young teenager, and another person who kept buffalo and other exotic animals. So that was much more common at one time before laws restricted exotic pets. But the whole “circus train” aspect just seems like an urban (or rural) legend to me.

  13. Fazdraw responds:

    Actually there is more factual (sort of) information on this story than you might imagine. There were indeed ‘some’ circus train wrecks closer to the beginning of the century. You have to understand Train wrecks were the common wreck of the day; they have been replaced by car wrecks and train wrecks occurred on a regular and predictable basis. The wreck itself was a big event. Toss in some wild tigers and lions escaping and what do you have…well you have one of the best promotion stunts of the ages. The 1952 movies didn’t start the cycle of Circus Animal escapes but ripped the story off of the headlines of early day Americana. My uncle told me about such a ‘train wreck’ and I researched the subject many years ago and found that this was a trick of the circus to drum up business. Days before the circus would come to town promoters would plant the story in the local papers and raise the hype. In those days the biggest buck got the biggest bang (not too different from today) Look at early papers from 1900 to 1935 and you should see some of these stories.



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