Years ago, across America, it was a grand occasion when a circus train arrived in town. Almost as soon as the huge tents were set up, a parade began downtown.
The parade might feature caged animals, costumed riders on horseback, a brass band, and a calliope playing carnival music.
One day in October 1922, the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus, one of the largest in the South, arrived in Wilmington, across the river from Brunswick County. It was also the start of a four-day sideshow that alternately terrified, charmed, and amused the town.
On October 9 the circus played to two nearly sold-out crowds under the big tents. That night, following the eight o’clock show, the circus workers, using the elephants for help, struck the tents in a driving rain.
Topsy, a mischievous four-ton Indian elephant, escaped, using the rain and darkness for cover.
A Wilmington police dispatcher received some startling news from an excited caller. “You won’t believe this, but there’s a varmint in my vegetable garden pulling up my collards with his tail and stuffing them up his rear end and I hope you will come get it,” the caller said.
But Topsy didn’t tarry in the garden. A boarder down the street heard a gate crash and reported “a large gray mule running down the alley between the houses.” Another man, feeling his house shake as Topsy tore a pillar from his home, ran into the street, screaming “Earthquake!”
Someone in the eastern part of town saw Topsy in the backyard “wearing a chicken coop and a fence for a yoke.” He peppered the elephant with buckshot, and Topsy’s wild romp hit high gear.
“It would be impossible to recount every place visited by the elephant,” stated a local newspaper, “for the beast went north, south, east and west, followed part of the way by people and police afoot and in automobiles.”
Topsy found her way to the Eureka Pressing Club, and may have mistaken her reflected image on a storefront plate glass window for another elephant. Once inside she discovered that it was not so. Topsy made her way to a tub of dye and filled her trunk. She then coolly squirted the compound over suits and garments hanging in the pressing room.
Topsy next crashed through a wall on the side of the building and headed for the mud near the Cape Fear River. She became mired in the muck up to her stomach as she trumpeted with sheer joy and happiness.
Wilmington’s finest arrived at this point, and with the use of some endearing words the police persuaded Topsy to move out of the muck.
She extracted herself from the river mud by wrapping her trunk around trees and pulling herself out. Bowing to the temptation of apples, peanuts, and hay, Topsy was led away toward a waiting railroad flatcar.
But Topsy had other ideas. She bolted again, this time diving headfirst into the Cape Fear River and swimming all the way across to the Brunswick County side. There she was again captured, shackled, and loaded onto a train car. Topsy went on to further adventures—but none quite like her visit to southeastern North Carolina.
The excerpt you are reading is from the book “Tales of the Silver Coast” by author and illustrator Miller Pope and author Jacqueline DeGroot.