Day E

Whence came the elephant? Who knows
The world is dark,
“Dropped from the moon,” some folks suppose
You laugh, but there’s a spark
Of evidence that partly shows
He came not from the Ark;
For, on his flank – the mystery grows—
Is branded “Luna Park.”
— J.A. Tralee, Ireland (published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 6, 1904)

On Friday morning, June 2, 1904, the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park reported that three of their elephants were missing. The two male elephants were found shortly thereafter, but the female elephant, Alice — or Fanny (reports vary) — was nowhere to be found. Alice had gone AWOL.

Elephant swims to Staten Island

Did Alice the elephant really swim to Staten Island, or was she part of a giant publicity stunt?

The proprietors, Frederick Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, posted a notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle offering $100 for any information or for the return of the female elephant. An alarm was also sent out to local police stations when the park employees discovered that she was lost.

According to published reports, the three elephants were part of the park’s Great Durbar of India attraction, in which hundreds of natives of India and Sri Lanka dressed in colorful costumes and rode through the streets on elephants, horses, and camels. Due to bad weather, the show had been cancelled the night before, and the handlers were careless in securing the three elephants.

The great durbar of India in the streets of the Delhi-Luna Park, New York. (1904)

Luna Park at Coney Island was a precursor to Epcot at Disney World, with numerous multicultural attractions including the streets of Cairo, an Eskimo village, an island in the Philippines, a Japanese garden, and the canals of Venice. The Great Durbar of India was part of the Streets of Delhi attraction. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Sometime during the night, the elephants escaped through the rear door of the barn that led to Neptune Avenue and ambled down to Coney Island Creek. Once in the Lower Bay, the two males turned left and swam toward Long Island (Queens); Alice headed for Staten Island. The males didn’t get very far and were captured early Friday morning. Alice kept going.

If we are to believe the fishermen who watched Alice swim ashore at New Dorp Beach in Staten Island, then Alice swam about 5 miles across the Narrows from Coney Island.

New Dorp Beach Map, 1907

In the early 1900s, New Dorp Beach on Staten Island was a mecca for fishermen and other pleasure seekers who visited the island to enjoy the sun and surf. The beach had several picnic areas and hotels, including Ed Hett’s New Dorp Beach Hotel.

One of the fishermen, Frank Krissler, of 124 Ogden Avenue, Jersey City, reported that he and his friend had been fishing from their small rowboat about a mile off shore when they heard an unearthly sound and their boat began to roll. It was quite foggy, so they couldn’t see well, but they could tell something very large was headed their way. Soon a huge form appeared off the portside – it appeared to have a giant funnel from which water was spraying up into the air.

“Rhinoceros!” Krissler screamed. “Whale!” his friend cried. The men quickly turned the boat around and started to row as fast as possible toward shore. The elephant followed in hot pursuit.

When they arrived back on shore near Ed Hett’s New Dorp Beach Hotel, the elephant lumbered out of the water and followed them up the beach.

New Dorp Beach Hotel

The New Dorp Beach Hotel property was owned by Edward Hett, inventor of the multicolor printing press. The original three-story hotel, built around 1897, was destroyed in a fire in 1902. Hett built a new concrete hotel, which was sold to A. Munger in 1913, just two years before Hett’s death. The property also included a steamboat pier, an acre of dancing pavilions, field dining rooms, bowling alleys, and another large frame hotel on Cedar Grove Avenue. NYPL Collections.

Soon two more fishermen and Patrolman O’Rourke from the New Dorp police force arrived, and the men used ropes to create a lasso. They swung the lasso around the elephant’s tusks and led her toward the carriage shed behind Adolf Eberle’s Speedway Inn in Grant City, where Patrolman O’Rourke knew he could keep her until the police decided what to do with the elephant.

During the long walk to Grant City, Alice reportedly stopped in front of a grocery store to eat a wagon-load of vegetables and take a few gulps from a horse trough. When the group reached the Speedway Inn at Southfield Boulevard and Franklin Avenue (today’s Hyland Boulevard and Bedford Avenue), Alice reportedly pulled up a couple of trees in the yard and yanked a few planks from the porch before entering the carriage shed.

Speedway Inn Staten Island

The Speedway Inn (top right in this 1907 map) was a hangout for those who enjoyed the new sport of automobile racing. Today, the site is occupied by a gas station and an oil change business.

Later that day, more police arrived and Alice was taken to the horse stables of the mounted police on New Dorp Lane and 8th Street. There, she was “charged” with vagrancy.

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the green-terraced station to see the very large prisoner. It was the biggest catch the police of New Dorp had ever made, and as one officer said, “Press agent or no press agent, we got him, and we are going to keep him till a bondsman shows up.”

The officer was making reference to the popular belief that Alice was part of a publicity stunt orchestrated by an over-imaginative press agent for Luna Park. (In fact, two years later, a reporter for Success Magazine claimed that Fred Thompson hired a furniture van to cart the elephant through Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge, through downtown Manhattan, and then on the ferry to Staten Island. Once near shore, Alice was released into the water.)

A Brief History of the New Dorp Mounted Police

1590 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island

In 1887, the Richmond County Police Squad headquarters (Station 1) was on Bay Street in Edgewater. The city also leased a building at 1590 Richmond Terrace (Station 2, later the 65th Precinct), shown here in this Google street view. This 1871 building was also used for the YMCA from 1871 to 1886, and today is home to Lennie Construction Corp.

When Alice made her grand appearance on Staten Island, the borough’s mounted police force was fairly young – seven years young, to be exact. It’s no wonder Alice the elephant was the biggest and most exciting event the police had ever experienced.

In 1867, legislation placed Staten Island within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police Department of New York City. Three years later, another law was enacted that made Staten Island a separate police district under the control of three commissioners. William C. Denyse of Middletown, Abram C. Wood of Castleton, and Garret P. Wright of Northfield were appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, with Wood elected president.

Staten Island Police

In 1867, a small force of men was enlisted and detailed for patrolling Staten Island (Borough of Richmond).

The incorporated villages put in their requests for police officers as follows: Port Richmond, 7; New Brighton, 7; Edgewater, 14; Tottenville, 2. A police station was established opposite Veterans Park in Port Richmond, in one of the many buildings on Staten Island owned by former Chief Engineer John Decker of the old volunteer fire department of New York City.

In 1883, the department attempted to establish a mounted unit. Much to the public’s dismay, the men were not accustomed to the saddle and the experiment failed. Two years later, however, the Richmond County Board of Supervisors approved the Board of Police Commissioners’ request for an appropriation of $6,000 to supply horses for a mounted squad to patrol the country districts.

80th Precinct Mounted Police

The mounted police squad of Staten Island was originally housed in a farmhouse at Rockland Avenue and Forest Hill Road in a sparsely settled portion of New Springville. It later became a substation of the 80th Precinct and moved to New Dorp Lane and 8th Street.

The squad had 10 men, including patrolmen John Moore and George Wilson and eight other men who had just been appointed to the force. The men were fitted in a cavalry uniform and drilled by Sergeant Thomas Higgins of the Sixth United States Calvary. Twelve horses were purchased and named after the governors of New York: Morton, Flower, Hill, Cleveland, Cornell, Robinson, Tilden, Dix, Hoffman, Fenton, Seymour, and Morgan.

Alice Goes Home

Many hours after Alice arrived at the police stables, Pete Barlow (aka the Coney Island Elephant Man) and two men from the India attraction at Luna Park showed up and convinced the police that Alice was one of six elephants from Luna Park. They paid a large fine and lead the elephant away down the Boulevard toward the St. George Ferry landing.

After walking about six miles, the group met up with a large horse-drawn wagon that had been summoned from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Using hay and apples to lure her, Barlow led Alice into the wagon, which then proceeded to the ferry. Upon arrival in Manhattan, the wagon took Alice down South Street and to the Brooklyn-bound ferry. Once in Brooklyn, the group made of the rest of trip by foot and hoof back to Coney Island.

Gunda Indian elephant

Alice was brought to the Zoological Park in the Bronx (Bronx Zoo) in 1908 to be a mate for Gunda, shown here on the left. Years later, Gunda went mad from his captivity, tried to kill his keeper, Walter Thuman, and had to be executed.

With Alice safely back at Luna Park, Frenk Kissler the fisherman told the press he was going to collect the $100 reward that was due him.

Incidentally, four years later Alice made the news again, this time when she went on a rampage at the Bronx Park Zoo and “locked” herself in the Reptile House. She had been given to the zoo in 1908 to be a mate for Gunda, the zoo’s first Indian elephant, and it was hoped that some baby elephants would keep her busy and distract her from trying to escape.

  1. Rhodia says:

    ..if only there had been somewhere for her, (them), to escape to..

  2. Alice had gumption. I like her already. Most interesting post. Good luck to A to Z!

  3. Wonderful Hope to see more of STATEN ISLAND.