There is no doubt that humankind is capable of great evil and cruelty. Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "Man is the cruelest animal," and perhaps this may be right in many cases. Humans are well versed in killing for pleasure. However, what of other intelligent animals that share our world with us? Are they not just as capable of harboring hatred, malevolence, and malicious will to embody evil, do harm, and act out their dark wills? And what more terrifying a beast to lunge out with this calculating, murderous spirit than the largest land animals on earth? Although elephants are often seen as gentle giants, there are many cases throughout history that suggest that they are just as capable of acquiring an apparent lust for death, and in many cases these incidents are just as bizarre as they are frightening, sometimes even tinged with a hint of the paranormal.
One of the most prolific serial killer elephants on record is the aptly named Osama Bin Laden, a large Indian bull elephant who would go on a 2-year killing spree in the Sonitpur district of the Indian state of Assam, which would earn him his ominous name. Osama, who was 40-50 years old at the time and was distinguishable by his lack of tusks, began his deadly rampage in 2004, when he began stalking and maiming or killing people in the heavily forested Assam region, often in seemingly willfully painful ways, as well as destroying houses with vicious abandon. He quickly earned a notorious reputation as he terrorized villages of the area, after which villagers named him after the infamous terrorist and resorted to desperate measures to keep him away, such as rubbing tiger excrement around village perimeters in an effort to scare him away. In the meantime, as Osama’s death toll began to mount into the double digits he was officially classified as a rogue elephant and authorities were determined to try and do something about it.
Although Forestry officials thought that the enormous deadly animal would be quickly hunted down and killed, this would not be the case. Osama proved to be extremely elusive and adept at evading pursuit. The elephant would quietly hide in tea plantations or thick jungle to avoid hunters, was always on the move, and also left deftly left behind untouched dodged poison and traps. It was also claimed by authorities that the elephant was not scared of or intimidated by firecrackers or fire, nor was he kept away by tiger scent, all things which usually are quite effective in deterring elephant attacks. Even as he was being hunted Osama continued his deadly work, killing villagers one by one at a steady pace, and authorities implemented a shoot-to-kill directive in December of 2006.
Elephants on occasion do go rogue and rampage, but it is usually a single, violent occurrence carried out by an animal that is scared, stressed, frustrated, in pain, or making a break for freedom. What was worrying to authorities with Osama was that this was not just some mindless rampage by an animal gone mad and raging out of control. These attacks were carefully carried out, were seemingly premeditated and planned, and the animal was obviously maliciously and deliberately targeting human beings while skillfully avoiding capture. He was attacking, withdrawing, biding his time, then searching for a new victim and striking again. There was a sinister intent on display here as well as a methodical approach to the attacks which was unusual for an angry elephant. Osama ended up racking up a death toll of 27, with 14 of these deaths in a single month at the end of his reign of terror. That end would come on December 18, 2006, when the animal was spotted in a tea plantation near the town of Behali, about 90 miles north of Guwahati, Assam’s main city, and identified through its lack of tusks.
As soon as the elusive rogue Osama was sighted, measures were taken to try to corner and kill him. Villagers amassed and used drums to drive the animal towards a licensed hunter by the name of Dipen Phukan, who lied in wait with a powerful, .400 bore rifle. At first Osama leisurely walked away from the drums, not particularly scared or panicked and not in any apparent hurry, perhaps thinking that the whole thing was rather amusing and that he would just get away to kill another day. However, as he approached Phukan, he seemed to have realized what was going on and immediately charged the hunter in a fury. Phukan would later say of the encounter:
It was charging towards me and I kept firing. Another few yards and it would have run over me.
The elephant was successfully killed, but the whole ordeal was not finished yet. Immediately after the death, some experts expressed doubt that the dead elephant was even Osama at all, as it was pointed out that the animal was in a different habitat over 50 miles away from where Osama was active. This created the rumor that the elephant that had been shot was in reality not Osama, but rather merely a look-alike. It was hard to tell, because forestry officials wasted no time in disposing of the remains, meaning that there was no way to check the animal’s footprint dimension or other identifying features that could have more concretely proved its identity. Elephant expert Kushal Sharma, of the College of Veterinary Science in Gauhati said at the time, “Probably this is not the same elephant they wanted to kill,” and one wildlife conservationist named Soumyadeep Dutta lamented: “They have killed an innocent elephant. It is an eye wash and shame on the part of the forest officials in Assam.”
In the meantime, villagers were fearful of revenge attacks by Osama’s herd, and indeed shortly after there was a series of attacks on villages by a group of elephants in the same region where Osama had been active. It is not known if the real Osama was among them or if he had really died at that plantation. Assam state is home to around 5,300 Asian elephants, which are a protected species in India, but which nevertheless have seen more and more violent incidents with humans as their habitat is ever more encroached upon, creating a veritable war between humans and elephants. In the past 6 years it is said that around 400 people have been killed by elephant attacks, although not seemingly as insidious and planned as those demonstrated by Osama, and over 200 elephants have been killed either in retaliation or by poachers.
The unique aspect of the saga of Osama Bin Laden the elephant is that he was not just a maniacal raging animal, but rather was a methodical, calculating, clever killer who carried out a careful series of precise attacks on humans while effectively dodging pursuit. It was clearly thinking about what it was doing and planning its actions. Interestingly, yet another rogue killer elephant operated in north-eastern Assam state, in Jharkhand, in 2008, killing 11 and injuring dozens of others. This elephant was, eerily, also named Osama Bin Laden.
Not all rampaging killer elephants are so callous to the plight of human beings. One rampaging elephant who tore through a West Bengal village in the Purulia district, claiming 3 people and destroying numerous homes was seen to show a bit of compassion when it heard the crying of a baby. The elephant had been rampaging and crashing through the area and was about to demolish yet another home when it was stopped by the sound of a 10-month baby girl, crying after she had been covered with debris. The ferocious elephant, which had just smashed through a wall, is reported as having suddenly stopped its massacre to gently remove the debris and pluck out the baby to leave it unharmed before skulking off back into the forest. The baby had received some minor injuries due to falling debris but was pronounced in good health. The child’s parents gushed:
We ran over and were shocked to see the wall in pieces and a tusker standing over our baby. She was crying and there were huge chunks of the wall lying all around and on the cot. The tusker started moving away but when our child started crying again, it returned and used its trunk to remove the debris. We worship Lord Ganesh [the elephant god] in our village. Still, I can't believe that the tusker saved my daughter after breaking down the door and smashing a wall. We watched amazed as it gently removed the debris that had fallen on her. It's a miracle.
Although the reign of terror caused by the elephant Osama Bin Laden is frightening and not a little spooky, it is not the most bizarre case of serial killer elephants. That distinction would have to go to the elephant known as Romeo, whose story is not only sad and strange, but also steeped in elements of the paranormal. The time was the the late 1800s, at a time when circuses were all the rage and one of the most iconic animals associated with them was the elephant. One circus at the time was run by Adam John Forepaugh, which was variously called the Forepaugh's Circus, The Great Forepaugh Show, and The Adam Forepaugh Circus. One of the animals in Forepaugh’s menagerie was the elephant Romeo, a hulking brute that was at the time the largest Indian elephant that had ever been exhibited in the United States. He was purchased in Calcutta, where he had been put to work in a life of hard labor grinding clay, and taken to America with 9 other elephants for a new life in the circus, where he would become famous for his impressive size. He was also rather ominously nicknamed “The Killer Elephant,” a name which was well earned, as he quickly accrued a reputation for being a vindictive, ferocious force of nature.
The quite famous Romeo was notoriously mean spirited and ill-tempered, to the point that handlers were afraid to go near him. The sight of horses threw him into a rage, and he is said to have maimed and killed over 25 horses over the course of his career. It wasn’t only horses he had it in for either, as Romeo was a cold, calculating killer who targeted people as well and he would end up killing a total of 5 handlers over the years, all of them implaed on his tusks or crushed under his massive feet. Indeed, Romeo’s thick hide was scarred and carved with the marks of the hot irons, elephant spears, and blasts of bird-shot which had been used to subdue him during his ruthless assaults and numerous tantrums. He was also prone to flying into rages that could go on for hours or days, during which time the powerful beast was unapproachable and practically uncontainable.
In one typical such incident, Romeo attacked Forepaugh’s son, who was an elephant trainer, and held the whole circus under siege. The whole harrowing situation was set off when a female elephant was brought in named Lalla Rookh. The female elephant was housed in the same building as Romeo but separated from him for her own safety, as it was not sure what Romeo would do and he was known to not be particularly fond of other elephants. However, Lalla Rookh managed to slip out of her bonds during the night and was found the next morning snuggled up to Romeo as if the two were best of friends. Perhaps if they had just left the two alone what happened next would not have happened, but Forepaugh instead went about trying to return the female to her own quarters. To say Romeo did not like this at all would be a dire understatement.
Romeo responded to the taking away of his new friend by casually grabbing Forepaugh with his trunk and flinging the man into a wall. Although he was mostly uninjured, the shaken Forepaugh fled the scene and brought back with him help in the form of other circus workers, as well as villagers from the area they were in. Romeo then began an epic tantrum. A January, 1870 article in Cincinnati Enquirer described the scene thus:
They found him in a state of the greatest fury, and their first reception was a large piece of timber which Romeo had torn from the rafters above him, and which he hurled at them with tolerable aim and direction, but which fortunately, struck, nobody. He next seized a coach-dog, which for two years had been his constant companion, and for which he had always evinced the warmest attachment, and dashed him, lifeless, against the roof. Finding his rage so terrible and his mood so revengeful, it was determined to subject him by hunger, if possible, and up to Friday last he had not received a particle of food or water, but which treatment had not the slightest effect in appeasing his fury.
There were other such violent incidents as well. Once when Romeo was on display in Chicago he managed to get free and ended up trashing the theater which he was being shown in, although he thankfully did not kill anyone at that time. On another occasion in rural Wisconsin he escaped the circus grounds and ran amok in town for 3 days, during which time he destroyed homes attacked people, and sent the local populace to cower in their homes. Romeo was finally reigned in and returned to his enclosure, but not before he had caused a large amount of property damage and sown terror into the hearts of people all over the countryside.
It is not known why Romeo wasn’t simply put down. After all, he had proven himself to be a formidable menace time and time again, yet he continued to be put on display. Perhaps it was his fame, or even his notoriety, that saved him, as people would flock from far and wide to see the infamous “Killer Elephant.” Romeo would eventually get the female company he seemed to crave in the form of the elephant fittingly called Juliet, who had a gentler disposition and seemed to calm her mate to a significant degree. When Juliet was around, Romeo was nicer, and less prone to his surly uprisings. Sadly, Romeo would finally succumb not to being put down due to his violent tendencies, but rather due to complications arising from surgery on a foot infection. It was reported in the news at the time that the other animals in the menagerie had somehow sensed his passing, and it was reported in one article:
Every animal in the menagerie seemed to know what was the matter for they set up a combined howl so dismal and prolonged that the oldest showman confessed he had never before heard the like.
Romeo’s mounted skeleton was subsequently put on display at the Chicago Medical College Museum. However, this would apparently not be the last anyone would see of the killer elephant Romeo, and here is where the story takes on a decidedly Fortean tone. One night in 1874 after a show, after the crowds had dispersed and gone off to their lives, a rather curious incident occurred at around midnight. It was at this time that the keepers on watch observed a terrible commotion among the animals of the circus, including Juliet herself, who seemed suddenly extremely agitated and was described as squirming and wiggling about in her bonds. That was when the night watchmen saw something they could not explain. They claimed to have witnessed the apparition of an elephant standing right in the spot where Romeo had used to spend most of his time, and that this apparition was trying to caress and comfort Juliet, who after her initial fear had seemed to respond in kind even as other animals frantically tried to get as far away as possible. The 1 June 1874 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer described the scene thus:
Juliet, after the first scare, so to speak, took kindly to the ghost, and gave every indication of intense satisfaction. The watchmen, meanwhile, were astonished out of their wits. There could be no mistaking what they saw. Did they not know every hair on old Romeo’s body, and there he stood between the two live elephants, just as natural as life, his grand proportions as of old set off to the best advantage by the diminutive size of his former playmates. The apparition lasted several minutes.
The ghost of Romeo would allegedly be seen again as well, when Ed Rosenthal, the former mayor of Delavan, WI, where Romeo had spent most of his time, claimed to have seen the apparition of a large elephant as well. He said that he had been staying at the Lake Lawn Resort when he had seen a “giant translucent elephant” lumbering about outside, which he described as looking sad. Delavan, which was once the base of operations of 25 circuses and often called “The Circus Capital of the World,” would eventually have erected a rather imposing fiberglass statue of Romeo to commemorate him, which is life-sized and not a little menacing. The slightly creepy statue depicts Romeo rearing up on on his hind legs, eyes seemingly glazed over and a strap around his head, as a jolly clown stands at his feet and happily waves. Apparently, Romeo’s ghost still makes appearances here, and the mayor has said:
Our statue of Romeo is a popular tourist attraction. One of the reasons its so popular is because Romeo will appear at night. Sure he usually looks like a blob in a digital photo, but still, people want to see his blob!
Romeo’s tale is not the only bizarre story of killer elephants to come from the golden age of circuses in America. Indeed, perhaps even sadder, although with not as high a body count as the others here, is the tale of Topsy the elephant. Topsy was a female Indian elephant who had been kidnapped from her homeland when she was just a baby and sold into servitude at the Forepaugh circus, where she proved to be a hit with crowds. However, although she was a fan favorite, she was subjected to the harsh training methods and discipline of the times, which included blasts of buckshot, and being prodded with hot irons, pitchforks, spears, and hooks. Perhaps it was years of this constant cruel treatment that caused her to kill, and she was blamed on the deaths of three handlers over the years, one of them allegedly after he had drunkenly fed the elephant a lit cigar after it had refused a drink of whiskey.
These deaths were highly publicized at the time, and the circus ended up passing Topsy on to the Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island. Here she was subjected to hard labor in completing construction of the zoo, and continued to display occasional bouts of violent behavior. In one such incident, a trainer named Whitey Ault had a few too many drinks and decided to ride Topsy down the avenue, after which he was arrested and Topsy proceeded to follow police and try to break into the station. After bad press continued to build up around their killer elephant, the zoo tried to get rid of Topsy, but no one would have her. It was finally decided that she would be euthanized for the protection of everyone around her.
The problem was how to go about doing it. After all, it was no easy thing to execute a 10-foot-tall, several ton elephant in a quick and humane way. This is where the famous inventor Thomas Edison would come in. Edison had been having a rough stretch at the time, as his DC current (Direct Current) was being beat out by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla’s AC current (Alternating Current) in the so-called “battle of the currents,” which was to decide the standard current to be used in the United States. To offset the ground he was losing, Edison had engaged in a long campaign of propaganda, lobbying Congress, and just straight up going around electrocuting to death stray dogs and cats, as well as horses, cows, gorillas, and even an orangutan in various public demonstrations of the dangers of AC current. It is likely this ongoing crusade against AC current that prompted Edison to agree to be the first one to put to death an elephant by electrocution.
The media leading up to Topsy’s execution was sensationalized to the max, and she was made out to be a public menace and a calculating, cold-blooded killer who had been rightfully condemned to death. On the day of the execution, January 4, 1903, around 1,500 people came to see the event with morbid curiosity. By all accounts the whole event was a veritable freak show, with swarms of people jostling and scrambling for a front row seat to witness a glimpse of the macabre. In order to expedite the whole grim affair, Topsy was given carrots laced with cyanide, and a noose was applied to her neck, but she wasn’t cooperative at all. She at first refused to approach the execution area, then she wouldn't eat the carrots, and resisted attempts of keepers to put on her feet the electrodes that would spell out her demise. With some coaxing, topsy finally ate the carrots, and at one point was described as almost playfully curling her trunk as she gobbled down the poison.
In the end, 6,600 volts of electricity were sent coursing through Topsy’s massive frame, and smoke curled up from her feet that was variously described as smelling like baking flesh or burnt hoof. After 10 second of being subjected to this onslaught, all the while her body jigging and convulsing although she is reported to have not made a sound during the ordeal, she finally toppled to the ground. After the noose had been pulled tight for a time to make sure she was really dead, veterinarians warily moved in and pronounced it as official. Edison would go on to release footage of the whole, gruesome scene in his short film, imaginatively titled Electrocuting An Elephant, which can still be viewed in portions online.
Similar to Romeo, there were numerous sightings of a ghost elephant on the grounds of Luna Park Zoo in the years after Topsy’s death. Later on, a memorial would be erected in her memory, which currently sits at the Coney Island Museum. Topsy’s death remains one of the most frightful acts of animal cruelty ever caught on film, and it has been long been debated over whether she really deserved it or not. Was this a cold, calculating killer, or a misunderstood, mistreated animal that had just been pushed too far? The answer remains elusive.
Although elephants are often seen as gentle giants, it seems that they have the intelligence and the willpower to act out in dramatically violent, calculated ways if they so choose. Are they capable of harboring true malevolence, as human beings are? Or are these just misunderstood animals that were simply lashing out to protect their territory or out of their defiance towards being subjugated and mistreated? Does evil exist outside of the heart of man, or is it a lurking shadow cast around all living creatures, who need only the mind, intelligence, and the intent to give themselves over to it and carry it out? When most animals attack it is out of defense against a perceived threat or a desire to feed, but do they sometimes do so out of pure spite, disdain, and desire to kill? We have long contemplated animal emotions and intelligence, but it seems that something worth considering is their potential capacity for darkness and evil as well. These cases here show a frightening, terrible, and often bizarre side to some of the most magnificent creatures to share this planet with us.