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The case of the missing elephant
Ailish Lalor
22 November 2023
published in Issue Four

On animal charisma and animal vengeance. What happens when an elephant goes missing a year after her death.

Transport of Circus Sarrasani’s elephant Jenny, after she collapsed at Scheveningen train station. Courtesy of Haags Gemeentearchief.

An elephant is captivating just by being an elephant. An elephant who goes missing a year after her death, can have a city wrapped around her trunk for almost a century.

In 1937, on a hot afternoon in late August, a 108-year-old elephant named Jenny tripped and fell while trying to board a train in Scheveningen, a district of The Hague. She was one of several elephants owned by Circus Sarrasani, a Dresden-based circus that was touring the Netherlands that summer. As the animal handlers were loading the beastly star performers onto a train that would take them to Rotterdam, Jenny, the final animal to board, stumbled on the gap between the train and the platform, and could not raise herself to her feet again. The fire brigade was called. They encircled Jenny’s belly with chains, and tried and failed to hoist her to her feet with a crane. A suggestion was made to shoot her there and then.

The circus’s owner, Hans Stosch-Sarrasani Jr., was in Czechoslovakia with the other half of the troupe; reached by telegram, he begged for a reprieve for Jenny. The director of the Haagse Dierentuin, a zoo in the centre of the city, took her in for the night. The two Belgian horses that pulled the transport wagon were, according to an eyewitness, terrified by the olifantenlucht, the scent of the elephant behind them.

At the zoo, away from the crowds that had surrounded her in Scheveningen, Jenny died with Hans’ wife, Trude Stosch-Sarrasani, beside her.

Now there was a body, and something had to be done with it. Stosch-Sarrasani scrambled to find a buyer for the skeleton. Eventually the Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) of The Hague bought it for fifty gulden (about €600 today) for their education museum. « De-boning » and « de-fleshing » the body at the slaughterhouse cost another 45 gulden, but they were able to make back 25 gulden by selling Jenny’s skin to « the management of a big company ».

How do you find an elephant, and how do you write about one?

The Haagsche Courant either could not or would not reveal who had bought it, but they did speculate on what it might have become: « Maybe they have made an exotic carpet of it, maybe waterproof boots to go fishing in, or, just maybe, women’s bags made of elephant skin will come into fashion soon. »

Her bones, still covered in gristle and tendons, were attached to a float which was then sunk into the depths of a pond in Zuiderpark, a newly-developed « people’s park » in the southwest of The Hague. There, her skeleton would be picked clean by the fish. When the bones were retrieved a year later, in September 1938, « a fat bass would not let go of the ‘tasty snack’ », Het Volk reported. The bones, now covered in weeds and algae, were transported across The Hague by car to the courtyard of the education museum to be buried in a layer of white sand for eight months or so, until « the rotting process was complete ». Afterwards, the bones were supposed to be bleached and assembled again to form a displayable skeleton.

But Jenny never adorned the entrance hall of the education museum. No one knows for sure where she is.

After I heard about Jenny’s disappearance on a tour of Zuiderpark, telling her story became my party trick (it even made its way into my grad school applications; I like to think it was the sole reason I was accepted anywhere). But if you tell a story like this often enough, people expect you to solve it. (I got asked pretty frequently if I would try digging to find her myself. Reader, I cannot operate a digger.) There is such visceral detail available on the decomposition of Jenny’s body that it seems incredible that she could just disappear. After her death, newspapers didn’t just report on her body, but also wrote extensively about her character. The fullness of the archive makes her disappearance feel like a solvable mystery, and it makes Jenny feel like a knowable entity. There are two puzzles here: how do you find an elephant, and how do you write about one?

After Jenny’s death, local press emphasised her angelic nature. She had been a calming presence for her fellow beasts and a pliant performer in the ring. Elephants at Sarrasani typically performed balancing tricks, standing with one or two feet on a sturdy pail, doing handstands, walking across a wooden beam. They sometimes swayed in time to music. Circus elephants were beasts of burden as well as performers, pulling along circus carriages or helping raise the masts that held up big circus tents. Jenny was not just well-trained; she went out of her way to care for humans. A 1992 documentary about her called Jenny — Het verhaal van een olifant (the story of an elephant) told the story of her rescuing a Japanese performer at the circus, who’d fallen into the elephant pen after slightly too much to drink. It was the middle of winter; Jenny covered him with hay and straw, and put her trunk on top of him the whole night to keep him warm.

It can just mean that for a moment, the elephants were in control.

A tamed wild animal is always a go-between; Jenny, it seems, was more suited to this role than most.

The focus on Jenny’s goodnaturedness in the press coverage that documented her death is hard to reconcile — or perhaps, all too easy to reconcile — with the ways that elephants were usually managed by circuses in the early twentieth century. Circuses favoured female elephants; male elephants, although visually more impressive due to their larger size and tusks, were far more difficult to train. Pitchforks and long poles with sharpened ends were common tools for control. For the final two years of Jenny’s life, her trainers did not allow her to lie down, because they feared she would not be able to stand up again. She was always chained up at night. To be left with a historical record that describes only her compliance, feels unsatisfying to me.

And so, when I read that the day after Jenny’s death, five Sarrasani elephants broke free of their trainers and went on a rampage around Rotterdam, I wanted their actions to have been deliberate, to have been vengeful. Three were caught quickly; the other two headed to the centre of the city. They wounded several people, and sent their trainer to hospital with a fractured leg. The elephants’ impromptu sightseeing tour of Rotterdam was, according to the press, entirely due to Jenny’s absence. She had been « the trusted middleman between the people, the strange environment, and the elephants » because « she knew that humans wanted the best for the elephants, so she was always calm ». She had been a medium through which the elephant trainers could communicate with the rest of the herd. « Now [their trainer] would have to gain their trust himself, » the Haagsche Courant noted.

It is possible that the elephants might have gone on a rampage out of grief or anger: it’s also possible that their behaviour was entirely coincidental. In Animal Revolution (2022), Ron Broglio writes about the riskiness of hoping that beastly actions have rebellious motives. For him, that risk is worth taking to describe moments where animals disrupt human plans. These incidents, where animal bodies put « a friction to the tenderising gears », are the focus of the book. The question of whether these animal uprisings are deliberate or not is almost irrelevant. They just matter: they remind us that the world does not entirely bend to our will. An escaped chimpanzee called Sami in Belgrade in 1988, sitting on a roof of a garage, surrounded by people holding signs encouraging him not to give up his freedom; Santino (another chimp, this time in Sweden), who liked throwing rocks at zoo-goers; a bull who escaped from a market in Lancaster in 2003 and entered a literal china shop.

The centre of the action remains the human in Animal Revolution, because we are, of course, what the animals are revolting against. Broglio knows that applying a human category — like revolution — to an animal action is an exercise in epistemic failure.

The central question of the book, really, is how to narrate animal action when it is fundamentally opaque, alien, unknowable, without flattening it into passivity and accident. For Broglio, there is more space for that tension within the concept of revolution than anywhere else. Calling an elephant rampage in Rotterdam a revolution doesn’t have to mean that elephants sat down and planned out their route. It can just mean that for a moment, the elephants were in control.

An exhibition in the city hall of The Hague to celebrate one hundred years of Zuiderpark, in spring 2023, told the story of Jenny’s disappearance with newspaper clippings and a photo of the pond in which her bones had been sunk. Why is her story still being told, almost a century later? The type of animal she is matters. In her book Fathoms: The World Inside the Whale (2020), Rebecca Giggs writes about the uniquely powerful intersection of animal charisma and animal captivity. Megafauna — like whales, like elephants — « naturally distort the attention of the psyche », she writes, but if we have the opportunity to form an even closer connection (or maybe a more proximate projection) to an animal through their captivity, we end up with « a creature that is, at once, personified and objectified ». An essay might be another form of captivity: long after her death, Jenny is still entertainment, prancing on a page rather than in a ring.

Does charisma decompose? Is it in the marrow of the bones or in the construction of the story? What makes an animal charismatic, Giggs says, is their ability to « sustain a riveting narrative ». Jenny — the circus performer, the middleman and eventually the pile of slimy bones — can sustain many. Part of what fascinates Rebecca Giggs about our obsession with whales (though it applies just as well to elephants) is that they are not particularly cuddly or cute. Instead, what seems to create their charisma is distance and alienness; how well they could survive without human involvement. A captive whale is all the more charismatic because its very size makes a parody of the idea of reliance on something so small as a human. But by capturing it, we have made it need us, and we find ourselves captivated by an animal that we both can and cannot control. A tamed elephant is always making a bargain with her keeper; this time she will carry the child or balance on the pail, but there is always the possibility that next time, she won’t.

If the question of how to write about an elephant ends in a whale, the question of how to find an elephant ends in a different charismatic megafauna. In the late 1980s, the education museum moved to a new location. At the same time, across the city, plans for renovation of the Zuiderpark were in the works. This caused a renewed public interest in finding Jenny, and provided an opportunity to dig for her bones in the courtyard of the museum.

Circus Sarrasani’s lioness Lea passing onlookers on the street in The Hague.

In November 1991, as the old museum was demolished, a band of contractors, accompanied by museum workers and civil servants, dug a few holes in the mud. One of the men in attendance was Mr. van der Zwaan, a former employee of the museum, who had worked there from the late 1940s onwards, and was confident that he could remember the location of the elephant. Locals looked on, as did the film crew of the documentary about Jenny. A few metres down, there was still no elephant to be seen. « The ground has been disturbed, » one man said, « we’re three meters down and lemonade bottles are still coming up. »

A dead elephant hardly moves by herself. The first question the documentary tried to answer was why Jenny was not dug up as scheduled in the spring of 1939. One option is that the museum might have run out of money in the late 1930s, and keeping track of a dead elephant would not have been the highest priority during the war in the years that followed. But after? The documentary noted that in the 1940s, the education museum had commented that they regularly checked on Jenny’s bones to see if they were « ready ». At some point, this practice must have stopped. The documentary concludes that the likeliest explanation for Jenny’s disappearance was that some of her bones were stolen — perhaps the big ones — and some of them still lay somewhere underneath the courtyard. The locals who observed the dig thought the team had simply dug in the wrong spot.

There is another possibility, which wasn’t featured in the documentary — namely that Jenny’s bones were dug up by the museum. On 12 January 1957, two small Dutch daily papers published an article rehashing Jenny’s story, following her from slaughterhouse to pond to courtyard — and then into the museum. Both papers stated that the education museum had run out of space, and so had decided not to assemble Jenny’s skeleton. « The skeleton went to the education museum, where — because there is not enough room to reassemble the bones — one can now only see Jenny’s head in a glass case. »

Jenny’s head is nowhere to be found in the education museum catalogue today. It seems unlikely a documentary featuring interviewed workers at the museum would have missed that fact. And yet: it would explain the disturbed soil in the courtyard, and why Jenny was not found during the dig. It would also fit with the museum’s practice of checking on the body’s decomposition during the 1940s. In some ways, it doesn’t matter: Jenny is still missing, whether her head was in a glass case at one point or not.

In 1994, the municipality decided to rename the courtyard of the former education museum « Jenny Plantsoen » (Jenny Park). They stumped up for a sign detailing Jenny’s life, and for a « statue » of Jenny, which looks roughly like a thicker cardboard cut-out of a cartoon elephant. Then, in 1998, an unlikely exhumation occurred. The residents of the Jenny Plantsoen uncovered some elephant bones in the ground. A conclusion at last! After all, how many elephants could be buried in the centre of The Hague? But no. These bones turned out to be ten thousand years old, and a mammoth’s.

Circus Sarrasani’s lioness Lea passing onlookers on the street in The Hague

Circus Sarrasani’s lioness Lea passing onlookers on the street in The Hague. Courtesy of Haags Gemeentearchief.

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Reported by the Haagsche courant on 24 August 1937.

In the 1992 documentary, Jenny: Het Verhaal van een Olifant, the documentary makers interview Ms. Kautz van der Ven, who witnessed Jenny’s accident in Scheveningen in 1937. She comments on the horses’ fear of the olifantenlucht at 00:04:30.

Reported by the Haagsche Courant on 25 August 1937.

Reported by Het Volk on 13 September 1938.

Reported by the Haagsche courant on 13 September 1938.

The best sources on elephant tricks at Sarrasani are promotional materials. See for example the photo section of Ernst Günther’s 1991 book, Sarrasani: Wie er wirklich war. The « Outdoors » section of the American magazine, Variety, also reported on 12 March 1930, on the tricks Sarrasani elephants performed in Berlin.

Reported by the Haagsche courant on 24 August 1937.

The same article appears in both Provinciale Noord-Brabatsche Courant Het Huisgezin and in Het Binnenhof, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of a devastating fire that struck Circus Sarrasani in Antwerp in 1932.