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Wallace the Untamable Lion

Wallace, “the fiercest lion in America,” was billed as the “Untamable monster of the Libyan Desert” and “Man-eating Monster of the Carnivora.” According to Francis Metcalfe, author of Side Show Studies (1906), several hundred “Wallace the Untamables” were touring the country in the early 20th century.

On October 27, 1893, thousands of people gathered on East 18th Street near Gramercy Park for what may – or may not – have been a well-orchestrated publicity stunt for a traveling menagerie. Apparently, a giant circus lion named Wallace had escaped his cage inside the small, 12×20 stable at 129 East 18th Street and was eating a prized trotter horse that he had killed.

Pete's Tavern New York

Today, 129 East 18th Street is the site of Pete’s Tavern, the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City. The circa 1829 building was originally called the Portman Hotel, which featured rooms for the night and stables in the back for horses.
Tom and John Healy bought the building in 1899 and called it Healy’s Café. Healy’s was a favorite hangout of O. Henry, who reportedly wrote “The Gift of the Magi” there in 1905.

According to news reports, crowds packed the street from Third Avenue to Irving Place all day long, hoping to get a glimpse of the beast that could be heard roaring behind the stable walls. Police Captain Gallagher and his large squad of men from the Metropolitan police force were kept busy trying to keep people from closing in on the stable.

During the morning hours, several attempts were made to lure Wallace back into his cage. Broncho Bocaccio, the Great Lion Tamer from Latin America, appeared on the scene and was an instant hit with the crowd, wearing patent-leather boots and riding breeches and donning wild black hair which fell down to his shoulders.

Bocaccio and the menagerie proprietor climbed a ladder into the stable loft, only to exit a half hour to report “bloodcurdling stories of their narrow escape.”

Pete's Tavern stable converted to restaurant

The stable in the back of Pete’s Tavern, where Wallace the lion once stayed, has been converted into a restaurant.

Sometime around 10 a.m., Felix McDonald and George Conklin, who were under the command of R.F. “Tody” Hamilton of Barnum & Bailey Circus, arrived on the scene with pulley blocks, ropes, and hooks. They used these tools to haul out the remains of the trotter horse, which had indeed been killed and mauled by Wallace. Police Inspector Alex Williams then ordered the men to return the lion to his den, and suggested Wallace would be shot if not back in his cage by midday.

New York Police Inspector Alexander S. Williams

Inspector Alexander S. Williams was one of the more colorful yet controversial figures of New York’s police force. Popularly known as “Clubber Williams” or “Czar of the Tenderloin,” he oversaw the Tenderloin and Gas House districts (now Stuyvesant Town – Peter Cooper Village and Gramercy Park).

Armed with pitchforks and revolvers with blank cartridges, McDonald, Conklin, Bocaccio, and the proprietor went back into the stable to trap the man-eater. As Wallace continued to roar, a child in the crowd was reported to be overheard saying, “Hully gee! Mike! I wonder if he’s a eatin’ of der bloke wid der boots and der hair.”

By 4 p.m., the escape, or should I say escapade, had ended, and Wallace was sound asleep on a wagon bound for public display at Central Park.

Was the Escape a Hoax – or Not?

Some newspaper accounts of the incident claimed that Wallace weighed over 900 pounds and had previously killed three men in England. However, reporters from The New York Times and The Sun did not fall prey to what they claimed was a publicity stunt staged by the proprietor and his friend Tody Hamilton, who was not only a long-time Barnum associate, but one of the best press agents in the business.

The reporters refused to publish the proprietor’s real name – they called him Mr. Stokob, the proprietor of a dime museum — and wrote that the rheumatic lion could use a few false teeth to enhance his value as a man-eater.

But the proprietor, who was in fact Frank Charles Bostock, a renowned animal trainer and showman in England, claims the escape was not a hoax. “I suppose that ninety percent of the people who remember it think that it was all a fake,” Bostock told Francis Metcalfe, author of Side Show Studies (The Outing Publishing Company, 1906). “But I can assure you that I put in the most strenuous forty-eight hours of my career while he was loose, and it pretty nearly decided me to give up the show business.”

Frank Bostock, the Animal King

Frank C. Bostock

Frank Charles Bostock, the Animal King

Frank Bostock was born in Darlington, England, in 1866. His parents, James Bostock and Emma Wombwell Bostock, were part of the Bostock and Wombwell dynasty, famed for travelling menageries throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. Frank joined his family’s menagerie when he was 12 years old and immediately stepped in to replace an injured trainer. Frank married Susannah Ethel Bailey, the daughter of England circus man Francis Bailey, and launched Bostock, Wombwell, and Bailey Circus in 1887. Six years later he sold out to his brother and went to America.

In the summer of 1893, at the age of 27, Bostock and a portion of his menagerie – including some boxing kangaroos and three lions — came to New York via Liverpool aboard the steamship Bovic. The Bovic was one of several twin screw steamers of the White Star Line that specialized in the shipment of livestock.

Frank and Broncho arrived in New York about six weeks earlier than the rest of the troupe in order to find living quarters for the humans and animals. As Bostock describes the stables on 18th Street in Side Show Studies:

“The stable was arranged in this way: here in the front was the carriage house with these narrow stairs at the side leading up to the loft. On each side of the door was a window facing on the street, and back of the carriage room was the stable proper–two stalls and a loose-box. On one side of the stable was a saloon and on the other a carpenter shop, so I didn’t expect much complaint from my neighbors, as my men patronized one, while I ordered the carpenter to build a traveling cage for Wallace which would slide on wheels, as our English cages were too heavy to handle in a country where labor is as high as it is here. I moved the lions up to the stable to let them rest a bit after the voyage and started to look for an engagement.”

Bostock set up his first exhibition stand near 5th and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn. A showman who had seen Bostock’s show described it this way: “The Bostock family lived in one wagon and the other two wagons housed four monkeys, five parrots, three lions, a sheep, and a boxing kangaroo.”

Flatbush and 5th avenues Brooklun

Bostock set up his first exhibition stand near 5th and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, shown here in this circa 1896 photo. Source: Brooklyn Museum.

In the spring of 1894, Bostock’s Animal Show moved to Balmer’s Bathing Pavilion near the New Iron Pier at Coney Island. About a year later, Bostock and his new partners, Francis and James Ferari, set up Ye Olde English Faire, a touring American carnival which featured animal acts, sideshow curiosities, concession games, and early amusement rides such as an English gondola and a carousel.

New Iron Pier Coney Island

In 1894, Bostock moved his animal show to Balmer’s Bathing Pavilion near the New Iron Pier. The pier was built in 1880 to serve paddle-wheel steam boats that brought tourists from Manhattan. ca. 1895

Bostock Arena at Dreamland, Coney Island

In 1904, Bostock opened the Bostock Arena at the brand-new Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Seven years later, he sold his entire Dreamland animal acts to Francis “Colonel” Ferari. Unfortunately, Ferari’s investment was short lived.

On May 27, the night before opening day for the 1911 season, a concession called Hell Gate, in which visitors took a boat ride on rushing waters through dim caverns, was undergoing last-minute repairs to a leak by a roofing company. During these repairs, the light bulbs that illuminated the operations began to explode. In the darkness, a worker kicked over a bucket of hot pitch, setting Hell Gate and all of Dreamland in flames. About 60 of the 150 animals – including a lion that actually did escape through barriers and into the street — perished in the inferno.

Bostock Arena tag 1904

A circa 1904 tag for the 25-cent show at the Bostock Arena. The back touts the show as “Positively the Most Wonderful Wild Animal Exhibition in the World” and notes that “All Bostock’s Patrons Enter Dreamland Free.”

Bostock Arena Dreamland

Bostock Arena at the Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Note all the carved animals on the building.

Bostock died of the flu in England in 1912, about a year after the fire. For many years the site of the old Dreamland served as a municipal parking lot. On June 6, 1957, the New York Aquarium opened its doors on the site.

Below is a great video about Dreamland and the Hell Gate fire:

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