August 31, 2007

Circus Train Wreck Myth

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.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. 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. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

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