Mystery Of Burial Site For Berkshires 19th-Century Circus Elephant Just Might Be Solved

Mar 6, 2019

The final resting place of an elephant named Columbus has baffled and fascinated residents of the Berkshires for more than 100 years. 

But now one man is pretty sure he has solved the mystery. I called Leo Mahoney and asked him to explain his relationship with the 19th-century elephant.

Leo Mahoney: I've been looking into this story now for maybe 10 years. As kids, we grew up on Campbell Street, and we used to camp in the woods — and somebody would always tease somebody else, saying, "Did you hear that? That's Columbus screaming."

Sure enough, after I started my research, Columbus very much was right next to where we camped as kids. Had we known we were practically sleeping on an elephant, it probably would have really changed the story for us.

It's a sad story, really, because Columbus was a performing elephant for a traveling menagerie from Long Island. And he did about 3,000 miles a year touring. The majority of that touring was walking.

He was doing a show in North Adams, and two days later, he was scheduled to be in Stockbridge. And Columbus fell through the bridge on Center Street in Adams, and he probably took about a 12-foot fall. He weighed a little over six tons. He totally ruined the bridge. He had a number of injuries, and I'm sure that his keepers didn't realize how severe those injuries were. But they did get him out of the Hoosic River, and they made him walk to Stockbridge from that point.

It was a 27-mile walk, but he only made it 23 miles. He got into Lenox, and as he was leaving Lenox, down near the Stockbridge line, he fell on Old Stockbridge Road. And they finally did get him up off the road, and into a nearby barn. He stayed at that barn for 10 days, and eventually, he died.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: This happened a long, long time ago. How do you go about recreating and discovering some of this information?

Well, it's very surprising how much was written about him. He was involved in three really tragic rampages in which four people died. And it really did cost his owners quite a bit of money, because at one point, he killed a slave. The owner of the elephant was ordered by the court to pay damages to the slave owner of $1,800.

But there is a lot written about Columbus because of his rampages, because he was only the second male elephant in the country at the time, and he was an oddity. So when he came marching down the street with his menagerie — I mean, he was quite the spectacle.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus in 2011.
Credit anjanettew / Creative Commons

How often do kids nowadays talk about the legend or the lore around this elephant? Does it still exist as a piece of myth?

It does still exist. I'm not sure it's as popular as it was when I was a kid in Lenox. But yeah, kids still know the story of Columbus. It's very much like when I was a kid, that everybody has a different version of the story, and a lot of people have different versions of where Columbus is.

With my research, I was lucky that Catherine Sedgwick, the novelist, had written a letter to her niece, saying that she had seen the elephant die — and that it was a painful death, and that he was going to be buried entire, because some of the stories said that Columbus was cremated. We found out through Catherine's letters that that's indeed not the case.

So how did you come across the letter from Catherine Sedgwick?

Well, the historical societies and the libraries in my area — they’re a treasure trove of information, especially the historical societies. Sure enough, it was clear as day on this map that I found at the Lenox Historical Society, where the barn that Catherine mentions is on this property map of Lenox. So finding the actual location was really quite easy once I had heard about the letter.

Of any of the information that you found and used as landmarks, do they exist today?

They do. I try to keep the exact location just a little bit quiet, because the sad part to my story is that where I believe Columbus to be is on private property. And the homeowner won't let us in to search for the elephant.

When I say "us," I've done the research for a number of years, but I'm working with some other folks to hopefully do a full-length documentary on the search for Columbus, and then hopefully actually find him. And the way I'm going to find him is with the ground-penetrating radar.

The story gets even a little more involved, because when Columbus died, his owner made arrangements for Williams College to take the body.

How important is it to the Berkshires to have this kind of legend and lore?

Well, we have so many terrific legends in the Berkshires already. To add one more, this story of Columbus, I think is just a terrific legend.

And what you had asked earlier was a really good question, and I get it often, is: "Even if I do find the elephant, what of it?"

Probably a little Pandora's box would open, because one, I would locate him with radar. There'd be no actual physical proof unless somebody did dig. Two is, does he still belong to Williams College? I don't know. I've never seen any of the paperwork, but if I find the elephant, I think Williams College would probably try to claim what rightfully is theirs.

Whether I find Columbus or not, we know for sure where he died, at least the vicinity. And I would love to see a state sign put on this road that says: "On this road in 1851, the elephant Columbus..." — you know, just a small, historical paragraph on a sign, just to recognize Columbus, that he's there, he has an incredible history.

He was part of our history, as far as circuses and menageries go. The menageries at the time, they were precursors to the circus that we know today.