Chunee the Elephant
On November 14, 1813, Lord Byron went to the Strand in London to see an elephant. Not an elephant but the star of numerous plays and pantomimes, Chunee. He was a huge elephant by any standards, standing approximately 11 feet tall, and weighing nearly 7 tons. His trick or party piece like they say; was to pick up a silver sixpence from a member of the public, and then pass it back to the visitor all with his trunk. Lord Byron paid the fee and recorded the act writing: “The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.”
Chunee was one of three elephants brought to Regency London, England in East India Company ships in the early 1800s. A former circus elephant owned by Stephani Polito. Purchased to join his menagerie at Exter Exchange on the Strand in London.
Engraving of Exeter Exchange from 1829, viewed from the east, looking west down the Strand
While being exhibited at Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Chunee was sold to another showman who dealt in ‘foreign birds and beasts’. A man by the name of Mr. Pidcock had purchased Chunee and showed him to the public alongside kangaroos, beavers, exotic birds, and such oddities as a two-headed cow. After Mr. Pidcock’s death in 1810, Chunee was was sold again and ended up with Edward Cross (zoo proprietor and dealer in animals).
Edward Cross, painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse in 1838.
The Royal Menagerie, Exeter 'Change
from Ackermann's Repository (1812)
At the time the elephant was very docile and described as being well behaved, obeying every command. As the years went by, Chunee started to grow as all beast do, and outgrew his tiny cramped den. A new larger den was constructed for him albeit still small, but capable of sustaining his massive size and strength, for now. At the same time, one of his long-time keepers had passed away leaving Chunee devastated but then allowing him to become attached to a carpenter by the name of Harrison.
Chunee achieving a remarkable friendship with Harrison remained docile and obeyed Harrison's every request and command. Although at times troublesome, Chunee and Harrison played almost every day. Whenever Chunee would get out of line or misbehave, he would receive a prick of a gimblet (a small tool for boring holes, consisting of a shaft with a pointed screw at one end and a handle perpendicular to the shaft at the other), usually enough to tame the large beast.
One day in 1820, while one of Chunee's keepers went into his den to exhibit him, Chunee refused to leave. The keeper proceeded to strike Chunee with a cane, as was the usual practice, but Chunee reacted violently. Unbeknownst to the keeper, Chunee was suffering from an infected tusk and was in excruciating pain. Chunee threw the keeper down while another keeper tossed the man a pitchfork, which Chunee caught and tossed away. Mr. Cross, hearing all of the commotions, came running in and pulled the keeper out, saving his life. Cross later noted that "this was the first appearance of those annual paroxysms, wherein the elephant, whether wild or confined, becomes infuriated."
Cross then decided, in order to calm the beast, he had to visit the apothecaries, to obtain a mix but it had no effect. Giving Chunee six pounds of bone marrow seemed to do the trick but only worked for a few weeks. Chunee continued to have similar fits of rage through the years with his rage becoming more frequent and more violent. It was obvious Chunee was sick and tired of being in pain while being confined in a small den not suitable for an elephant of his size.
Finally, on February 26, 1826, Chunee fed up with his constant confinement and tusk 'ache' began to act out. Although on medication the constant pain would not subside and Chunee continued his fits of rage. On March 1, without provocation Chunee lunged at his den crippling the top hinges and loosening the iron gates. A friend of Cross fortified the den and all who were there, including Chunee's best friend Harrison, made attempts to calm Chunee, with no avail.
Cross decided to put the great beast down and had one of the keepers obtain a massive dose of arsenic, mixed with oats and sugar but he refused to eat the laced food. Cross again attempted to calm Chunee with his favorite fruit, oranges. But the site of his once favorite fruit infuriated the now annoyed elephant. Cross said, Chunee's "eyes now glared like lenses of glass reflecting a red and burning light." Chunee crushed the oranges under his foot and became all the more enraged. Cross attempted to poison Chunee once more with a conserve of roses mixed with arsenic but the elephant, probably because of the aching pain, refused.
This is when things go from bad to worse for Chunee. Cross contacted his brother-in-law, Herring, who was a great shot. They went to Surgeons Hall in Lincoln Inn Field to observe an elephant skeleton to determine the best spot to shoot an elephant. Cross went to obtain military help and more guns but returned to find Chunee dead! What??!!
Here are the events of the execution of Chunee as they unfolded that day.
While Cross was gone, Chunee’s fury increased to such a point the keepers were forced to fight him with spears to prevent him from escaping his now structurally weakened den. The constant barrage of poking with the spears only infuriated the now irritated elephant even more. In fact, Chunee was so furious that Cross’s friend Tyler worried the massive elephant might fall through the floor, crushing patrons below. For that reason, everyone in the Change was told to vacate the premises.
Chunee’s fury continued to increase steadily while three rifles that were earlier obtained were then loaded. Tyler, Herring, and an assistant entered the area were Chunee's den was, and took positions about twelve feet away from the elephant. They had other keepers stand behind them with spears while one of the keepers named Cartmell was told to, "use his usual tone and give commands" as if exhibiting Chunee.
Cartmell cried out “Chunee! Chunee! Chuneelah!” and the elephant took a somewhat favorable posture allowing the men to get a clear shot. Two balls were fired towards Chunee's heart, but the shooters missed hitting his shoulder blade. The pain of the balls hitting his flesh and bone further infuriated Chunee making the situation worst.
The keeper Cartmell continued to call Chunee, while Tyler, Herring, and the assistants fired again. Now injured from the blast of the rifles that were constantly being loaded and provided, albeit not fast enough, Chunee's increasing anger was in full rage now.
Chunee, now being attacked from every side, spun to hide his head, as Herring fired several shots at close range. Chunee’s size began to shake the entire building with every lunge and spin he attempted. He proceeded to race around his tiny den in circles, in a frantic, uttering frightful elephant screams, grunts, and growls.
An anonymous cartoon depicting Chunee's death, 1826
About thirty balls lay sunk into Chunee and he finally went down from fatigue. Herring, thinking that a shot must have struck a vital organ, began to cry out-- 'He's down boys! he's down!' But within moments, the magnificent Chunee began to rise again with a renewed vigor and began to charge! Cartmell again used Chunee's training against him, commanding him to, "Bite Chunee! bite!", the command for kneeling. Chunee being the good, well-trained elephant that he is kneeled allowing the men to fire upon their immobile target.
Chunee falls a second time, facing the rear of the den. With one foot poking through the bars and his toe touching the floor. Chunee rested for a while, breathing heavily and not moving. Although exhausted and now full of 100 to 120 balls, the powerful elephant was still determined to rise to his feet. To the dismay of his executioners, the defiant Chunee rose again for the third time!
After an hour of fighting, Herring instructed that Chunee is shot "constantly to the ear." The furious Chunee rushed the gates one last furious time before being shot in the gullet. It was later that Tyler described the lunge "as the most awful of the whole." All the men continued to fire at the fallen beast while his keepers plunged spears through his side. Chunee took his last breath finally perishing in his den laying in his favorite 'sleeping' position but now never to awaken again.
It took a total of 152 balls and multiple jabs with spears to succomb the poor Chunee. It was said that the sound of Chunee wailing in agony was, in fact, more alarming than the reports of the gunfire.
One nineteenth-century poet decided to pay his respects to Chunee with the following poem titled, “As He Laid Dead at Exeter Change.”
In the position, he liked best
He seem’d to drop, to sudden rest;
Nor bow’d his neck, but still a sense
Retain’d of his magnificence;
For, as he fell, he raised his head
And held it, as in life, when dead.
Yet Chunee's death led to still more ignominy as people paid the usual entrance fee to see his now lifeless body chopped, butchered, and dissected. Doctors and medical students from the Royal College of Surgeons cut him up and displayed the parts accordingly. His skeleton was said to have weighed 876 lb (397 kg) and sold at auction for 100 euros and exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and later at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Later, Chunee's skeleton was on display in the Hunterian Collection until 1941 when it had the misfortune of having been struck by a Luftwaffe airstrike.
His skin weighed in at 1900 lb (860 kg) and was sold at auction, still riddled with bullet holes to a tanner for 50 euros.
Chunee's death was not for naught. The Times received many complaints from people complaining about the appalling, cramped living conditions. Others wrote in complaining of the horrors that ensued that day and of the systematic, barbaric and cruel slaughter of this animal. A month after the hideous execution of Chunee, the Zoological Society of London was founded (April 1826). The Exter 'Change was soon forced to close down its doors and was actually demolished in 1829. But not before all the animals living there were transferred to a zoo in Surrey.
Yes, a sad story indeed and a cruel way for one of the earth's majestic creatures to be slaughtered. There are many stories of elephants and the cruelties they endure in circuses and in places like these. Most elephants being euthanized because of tuberculosis and of untreated abscess in the teeth and tusk.
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