Thursday, July 06, 2017

When Lions Were in Sewers & Men Were Terriers

Lion-tamer Frank C. Bostock 

"Animal King' Frank C. Bostock was one of the great circus men and lion-tamers of the 19th Century, touring the world with a menagerie of big cats and other animals: zebras, black bears, elephants, deer, horses, polar bears, kangaroos, camels, pumas, jaguars, hyenas, giraffes, monkeys, snakes, and ostriches.

Bostock came to the business honestly; he was born into the Bostock and Wombwell circus dynasty that had once baited lions with pit bulls supplied by Ben White and Bill George.


It was Frank Bostock that made the "hold 'em back with a chair" trick a circus lion-taming icon.

Animal handling in the traveling circuses and menageries of the 19th Century was not up to modern standards. The often wild-caught animals were loaded and re-loaded from trains into horse-drawn wagons, and then transferred to quickly erected collapsible ground pens, and back again. Help was underpaid, incompetent, and often hired locally for a single show. The result: a fair number of escapes occurred, and maulings and avoidable animal deaths were not uncommon.

Frank Bostock's lions were a particular hazard. They had already killed one man and mauled another. On this day in Birmingham in 1889, things were particularly chaotic, as a fight had broken out between an ostrich and a deer, and an elephant had removed some fastenings from one panel of the lion cage.

Seizing the moment, a four-year old black-maned lion slipped out past  a sliding panel, and went trotting across the circus grounds, propelled by the bewildering noise of screaming and running people, and calliope steam trumpets. Men working for Wombwell’s Menagerie rushed in with ropes, planks, and iron bars, but the lion dashed down an open stream culvert and entered the underground Birmingham sewer system.

The lion ran through the sewer, stopping only to roar at the faces peering down from him from the manhole above.

With the city in panic, Bostock had an idea. He had several of his keepers take a caged lion, unseen, out the back way and, with a flourish of trumpets and a proclamation of bravado, he claimed that the escaped lion had just been recaptured thanks to the quick work of lion tamer Marcus Orenozo and a boar hound that had been used to drive it back into a cage!

Of course it had not, but there was a show to put on that night, and panic in the streets to obviate. The story of the boar hound and Orenzo's brave work with the boar hound was put in the paper, fake news that it was.  The publicity about the escaped man-eating lion that had been recaptured made that night's performance a sell-out.

But the next morning the problem remained:  What to do about the lion in the sewer? The lion would not stay down there forever, and it was true man killer. The good news was that with the crowds of people pulled away from the manhole covers, and no one chasing him, the lion had stopped roaring, and seemed content to stay in the cool and quiet of the sewer -- at least for now.

On the afternoon of the next day, the Birmingham Police Chief visited Bostock to congratulate him for recapturing of the lion. Bostock came clean -- the lion was still loose, and could he borrow the police force to help catch it? Bostock later recounted the conversation:

I shall never forget that man's face when he realized that the lion was still in the sewer, it was a wonderful study for any mind-reader. At first he was inclined to blame me but when I showed him I had probably stopped a panic, and that my own liabilities in the matter were pretty grave possibilities to face, he sympathized with me, and added that any help he could give me, I might have.

I at once asked for 500 men of the police force, and also asked that he would instruct the superintendent of sewers to send me the bravest men he could spare, with their top-boots, ladders, ropes, and revolvers with them, so that should the lion appear, any man could do his best to shoot him at sight. We arranged that we should set out at five minutes to midnight, so that we might avoid any crowd following us, and so spreading the report.

At the appointed time, the police and sewer-men turned out, and I have never seen so many murderous weapons at one time in my life. Each man looked like a walking arsenal, but every one of them had been sworn to secrecy.

Frank Bostock entered the sewer with a steel coal scuttle on his head to protect if from a lion bite, and boots on his hands should the lion decide to grab him there.


It was a crazy affair, but at last Bostock saw two gleaming greenish-red eyes in front of him. He stepped forward to swat the lion on the nose, and as he did so, the cooking pot fell off his head, clattering to the stones and terrifying the lion into running once again.

Bostock and his followers made a huge racket and chased the lion down the sewer with shouts and fireworks.



Once the lion came to a stop end, they placed rope nooses around him.  As he tried to bolt once again, the nooses were pulled tight, and the lion was caught. From there it was a matter of hauling the the lion towards an exit where a large crate had been placed.  The Birmingham sewer lion had finally been caught!


Frank Bostock died in 1912, at the age of 46, felled not by a lion, tiger or elephant, but by the flu. A stone statue of a lion adorns his grave.

The Bostock grave in winter, Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

1 comment:

Kristen Merrell said...

Fantastic story! Thank you for sharing it.