Lore and Legends
Mysteries of the Wood River Valley
ILLUSTRATIONS Michael Wertz
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The Wood River Valley, a place where the sagebrush subtlety of the Great Basin reaches toward the magisterial peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, has seen its fair share of the unusual over the years. And among the detritus of history, bizarre stories, legends, myths and madness have emerged. Some stories were created by splashy journalists. Others by community apprehensions. And still others by mad behavior or just plain silliness. Most are now relegated to musty archives. But here are a few engaging stories from our past that run the spectrum from legitimate history to old-fashioned delusion.
SAMSON—THE GREAT ELEPHANT ATTACKS HAILEY!
I know a little about elephants, as I was once assigned by the Detroit Free Press to ride the lead elephant at the head of the annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus parade through the Motor City.
That elephant, dusty, bored and thoroughly disinterested, began the parade with me clinging to the no-doubt-homicidal beast like some parasitic barnacle on the back of an immense gray whale. Meanwhile, my photographer yelled up, “Relax!” with the serene composure of someone safely standing at street level.
Undoubtedly, he’d never been on an elephant before. Nor had he ever heard of Samson, the great Indian elephant that once attacked an innocent and placid Hailey, Idaho, wreaking havoc upon the quiet citizenry and prosaic animal life of Blaine County.
Samson was probably, in 1884 at least, the largest Indian elephant ever seen in America. Five tons. At least 12 feet fall. He first came to public attention while taking children and tourists for rides at Coney Island in New York. His stay there was uneventful, but his handler had a sense that Samson had a dark side. It was just a hunch, but he sold Samson to the circus.
It was a routine albeit very warm August day in Hailey when the Cole Brothers Circus arrived. And while the original reports of Samson’s rampage through the Wood River Valley were fairly reserved, the version the pachyderm’s trainer, George Conklin, penned years later for his autobiography was downright sensational.
Conklin, wearing tights with a leopard skin wrapped around his waist, reported that shortly after Samson had dropped off the last of the local kids that had ridden upon his back as the circus paraded from the train station to the Big Top, the elephant, as usual, followed the cages full of other animals into the main tent.
But then, inexplicably, Samson put his trunk under a small cart of animals and casually flipped it on its side. Samson then turned on four nearby work horses, knocking them all to the ground. He then followed this up by flipping over 11 more carts, letting loose a menagerie of lions, tigers and bears to the “Oh, my!” shock of the crowd of spectators.
Conklin got a pitchfork and jabbed the elephant a few times to divert its attention. As Samson turned to attack Conklin, he jumped on a bronco and hightailed it out of the tent. Samson gave chase. Outside the tent was a blacksmith shop with a huge ore wagon in front, waiting for repairs. Samson blithely shoved it through the shop front and continued his pursuit. As Conklin wrote in his memoirs, “An elephant never goes around anything.”
Conklin was pounding across the field toward a water tower where many people were perched to watch the circus festivities. To them, Conklin looked like a crazed phantasmal on horseback…until they noticed he was being chased by an enraged elephant—and they were heading right for them! “They climbed down and ran faster than I ever saw anyone run in my life,” Conklin recalled.
Chaos spread quickly. In a momentary pause, Conklin was handed a shotgun which he fired a couple of times at the elephant. “I hit him squarely in the trunk five or six times, but he paid no more attention to it than he would to so many raindrops,” he wrote.
Four cowboys with small-caliber rifles joined the chase and fired at Samson. It didn’t slow him down, though. Finally, the elephant was trapped in a freight yard and set upon by a score of circus workers, who were able to topple the beast and tie up his legs.
Conklin soothed and healed the bound elephant, whose worse problem was a sore trunk. He had to be handfed for a week.
Samson went on to continue his circus career without further disruptions. But years later, he was caught in a fire that swept through the circus’s winter quarters. Samson wouldn’t allow anyone close enough to set him free. He died in the blaze.
It was a tragic, senseless death, but the legend of Samson has lived on. His bones were collected and mounted for an elephant display in the Museum of Natural History in New York City where Samson had a second life entertaining and informing children—far away from screeching train engines and the occasional foul moods that once threatened the well-being of Hailey, Idaho.