She was Fort Worth’s first royalty. Granted, her reign of forty-one years fell short of the reign of queens Victoria and Elizabeth.
Ah, but could Victoria and Elizabeth eat four bales of hay, five loaves of bread, four gallons of molasses, and forty gallons of water in a single day? Could Victoria and Elizabeth stomp and wallow in a leaky pond until it held water again? Could Victoria and Elizabeth march around a ring on three legs?
Yes, our queen was an elephant.
Fort Worth’s zoo opened in 1909 with a lion, a coyote, a peacock, an alligator, two bear cubs, and a sampler pack of rabbits.
By 1923 the zoo was ready to think big.
And by “big” I mean “small.”
The zoo would buy the most majestic of all zoo animals: an elephant. But it would buy a starter elephant, if you will: a baby elephant.
So, Parks Department Superintendent George C. Clarke located a three-year-old female elephant in a zoo in Missouri. She was a mere slip of a girl: four feet seven and 1,100 pounds. Asking price: $3,500 (that’s $3.18 a pound).
In May the Parks Department, led by Clarke, and the Star-Telegram, led by Amon Carter, promoted the “stock” Elephant Preferred to grownups, selling shares to buy the baby elephant. And children formed “elephant clubs.” Membership dues of a dime were donated to the baby elephant fund.
The Parks Department and Star-Telegram also teamed up to sponsor a contest to name the elephant.
Clarke chose “Queen Tut” as the winning name. A $5 gold piece was awarded to the Memphis (Texas) man who submitted the winning name.
The winning name no doubt was inspired by American Egyptologist Howard Carter’s recent discovery of the tomb of king Tutankhamun.
Among other names submitted were “Eve,” “Wrinkles,” “Zooella,” and “Ella Phant.”
By September the money had been raised. Clarke accompanied Queen Tut on her train trip to Fort Worth. She arrived on September 17, 1923.
The zoo hired a stone mason to build a shelter for Queen Tut. It was, the Star-Telegram wrote, the zoo’s first permanent building.
And Queen Tut was the zoo’s first superstar. Yes, before husband-and-wife chimpanzees Jerry and Patsy, before Topper the giraffe, before the peripatetic Pete the python, every day patrons, especially children, lined the railing in front of Queen Tut’s pen to marvel at the gentle giant and to feed peanuts to her outstretched trunk.
But Queen Tut really got the royal treatment on her birthday in August each year. It was the biggest day on the zoo’s calendar.
As many as twenty thousand people attended the celebrations.
Getting Queen Tut gussied up for her big day required the services of two zookeepers working seven hours. For her pedicure the men used a small ax, a blacksmith’s eighteen-inch file, and a heavy knife. A brick wrapped in a chamois cloth was a nail buffer; axle grease was the nail polish. She was shaved (with a blow torch!) and dusted off (with a broom!). A gallon of neats-foot oil was applied to her hide, a beauty treatment she got twice a year for health’s sake.
Queen Tut’s birthday party always featured a cake big enough to feed her and her thousands of guests, enough party hats for every head, music performed by the likes of Milton Brown and the Chuck Wagon Gang.
At each party Queen Tut performed some of her tricks: She balanced on two feet on a drum, placed one foot—lightly—on the stomach of a prostrate handler, curtsied to guests, walked on three feet around a ring.
When three flags were placed around the ring, Queen Tut picked up the first two with her trunk and tossed them dismissively over her shoulder. But the third flag—the Stars and Stripes—she held above her head with her trunk and waved as she marched round the ring.
She also performed her terpsichorean interpretation of the Black Bottom dance.
Her party in 1926 was typical. The Hotel Texas provided an 1,162-pound cake to fed the thousands of guests. A crate of apples, courtesy of the elephants of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, arrived by airmail at Meacham Field. (Postcard from Barbara Love Logan.)
In 1934 twelve thousand people attended her birthday party. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies performed. Universal Mills provided a cake weighing six hundred pounds, covered with pink and green icing and miniature elephants.
By 1934 Queen Tut had reached her grown weight of 7,500 pounds and, mindful of her waistline, ate more cake than icing.
For her birthday in 1936 Bewley Mills’ Chuck Wagon Gang performed. The Frontier Centennial was under way, and Sally Rand of Nude Ranch fame, Ann Pennington, the “shake and quiver” queen, and other showgirls of the centennial dispensed servings of cake. Fathers took their children—sometimes protesting—through the serving line multiple times.
In 1938 when Queen Tut turned eighteen, her party was a combination birthday party and debutante coming-out party. Ten thousand people helped her eat an 1,100-pound birthday cake and sang as Sid Cunningham and his Crystal Springs Ramblers played “Happy Birthday.”
Queen Tut performed her tricks, assisted by Sugar, the zoo’s other elephant.
Her gifts that year included a barrel of apples, two thousand cookies, and three bushels of bananas.
Queen Tut’s long reign was due, in part, to her docile nature. Not all elephants in captivity share that trait.
On July 12, 1940 zookeeper Jim Brown went into the elephant shelter to give Queen Tut and Sugar their breakfast. Sugar slapped Brown across the back of the head with her trunk and trampled his chest. Tut was outside the shelter, heard his cries, and came into the shelter. She drove Sugar out and stood in the doorway until zoo employees arrived.
Brown suffered two broken collarbones, a concussion, and cracked ribs. He said that was not the first time that Queen Tut had held Sugar off when Sugar had attacked workers.
Sadly, Sugar was given a death sentence.
Soon after the tragedy, zookeeper Hamilton Hittson bid farewell to Queen Tut as he left to find a new companion for her. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
The Star-Telegram sponsored a fundraising drive to buy a two-year-old elephant from a New York zoo. She was named “Penny” for the pennies that children donated to buy her.
Fort Worth National Bank lent the zoo $2,000 to buy Penny. When the fund drive had raised enough pennies to pay off the loan, the bank held a “mortgage-burning ceremony”: The note was burned in a campfire made by Boy Scouts.) (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
(In 1961 Penny, like Sugar, became dangerous to handlers. The zoo tried to rehabilitate Penny—unlike Sugar—and even hired an elephant whisperer. But he could not even approach Penny. Sadly, Penny—like Sugar—was given a death sentence.)
This photo of 1947 shows Queen Tut taking bread and peanuts from her fans on her birthday. That’s Penny to her right. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
WBAP-TV news footage (see link above; no audio) documented Queen Tut’s birthday in 1951. She was treated to bananas in lieu of a cake. At the end of the footage are F. D. Peneston and his two daughters. Peneston had been one of the schoolchildren who donated to the fund to buy Queen Tut in 1923. (Video clip from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)
Fort Worth’s first royal was not all pomp and circumstance. Queen Tut had a practical side.
In the early 1930s when Botanic Garden was being built, one worker recalled, “It was one big weed patch when we began.” He said workers tried to create a pond where a spring had fed a watering hole on an old cattle trail. But the watering hole wouldn’t hold water. The problem was solved when Queen Tut was enlisted to walk around and wallow in the watering hole. Soon the ground was packed hard enough to hold water again.
Queen Tut also had a generous side: Before she grew too tall, she would stack hay on her back, walk to the fence separating her and Betty, a jennet (female donkey), and allow Betty to eat the hay off her back.
But Queen Tut also had an impish side. She was known to smash the door of her shelter and to remove the gasoline cap from the cleanup truck and fill the gas tank with dirt.
In August 1964 Queen Tut curtsied in the doorway of her stone shelter. The shelter, built for her in 1923, had been enlarged as she had grown. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
Four months after that photo was taken, Queen Tut died at age forty-four, a long life for an elephant in captivity. Night attendant M. B. Florence was with her when she suddenly collapsed. He said that she showed no signs of struggle or pain and believed that she died quickly.
Queen Tut had remained gentle her entire life. Former zookeeper Jim Brown, who twenty-four years later still credited Queen Tut with saving his life, remembered Queen Tut as a gentle elephant.
“I never heard of her trying to hurt anybody anytime,” he said. “I hate to see her go. I’m afraid it will be a long time before they get an elephant everyone thinks as much of as they did of that one.”
In death Queen Tut shared the front page of the Star-Telegram with reports about the Vietnam War, Che Guevara, and the bombing of an African-American church in Montgomery.
In a final act of noblesse oblige, the body of Fort Worth’s first royalty was donated to science, given to the University of Texas at Arlington so that students could compare her skeleton with that of mammoths unearthed in the area.
Thanks for this, Mike. BTW I am pretty sure I have that chain she is wearing on the newspaper article. Most of it is hand forged, sounds quite musical when it moves. It was pulled from the trashpile when they bulldozed a bunch of the old exhibits.
Thanks, Barbara. Tut’s chain! What a evocative, eerie relic. Glad it was saved.
I saw that you had provided the scan of Queen Tut’s birthday postcard for this article. My great-grandfather, Anthony Bondi was one of the bakers that worked on the cake and is pictured on the other side. I no longer have the original copy and would like to know if you have the original postcard. If so I would be interested in purchasing it to surprise my Dad. Please let me know with a reply and we can exchange information.
Mr. Bondi, I have forwarded your query to Barbara via Facebook.
Hi Mike, I loved this article. While I performed with Ringling Bros. circus in 1968, I rode an elephant named Jenny. She was very gentle and I was not afraid of her, unlike some of the others. Her trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams had a herd of 18. I am going to try to copy this to send “hard copy” to some dear friends. They will love it, too!!
Jana, if any member of the Poly High class of 1967 had a more interesting work history, I can’t think who it would be! Thanks.