Corsicana’s ‘Killer Elephant’


A version of this story ran in the October 2012 issue.

When the Al G. Barnes Circus came to town on Oct. 12, 1929, Corsicana was in the last days of an oil boom that had started at the turn of the century. Railroads and an electric light-rail service from Dallas had connected the town with the rest of the world, and the population had peaked at more than today’s 25,000 residents.

The circus was also waning as a central institution in American life. Radio and film had begun to usurp its role in popular culture. But on this day in 1929, cotton farmers, merchants and oilfield workers from miles around still wanted to see the circus—and the elephant herd in particular.

“Elephants, the most sagacious of all animals, are regular life savers with the circus, where they are called upon to do all kinds of odd jobs of which they are capable,” the Corsicana Daily Sun explained on Oct. 10.

The circus parade went right through downtown, where thousands of people lined the streets. H.D. “Curley” Prickett was leading one of the largest elephants, Black Diamond, though he wasn’t the elephant’s regular trainer. Prickett had handled Black Diamond for seven years before leaving the circus to work for Eva Speed Donohoo, a prominent landowner in nearby Kerens and a former society editor for The Houston Post. For old times’ sake, he’d secured permission to walk Black Diamond through Corsicana.

The elephant, also called Tusko and Congo, had already killed three people, a fact not everyone knew. To prevent a fourth attack, circus trainers had sawed his tusks short and fastened an iron bar across them to restrict his trunk’s range. Chains and shackles further curtailed his movements, and female elephants chained on either side were intended to prevent him from bolting.

When Prickett and Black Diamond reached the spot where Donohoo stood between two parked cars, they stopped for a moment. Some say Donohoo asked to pet the elephant. A moment later, Black Diamond tossed Prickett over a car, breaking his wrist. Using what remained of his tusks, he knocked Donohoo to the ground and dragged her from between the cars, smashing them with his weight. Bystanders attempted to wrestle the woman away from the elephant, but Black Diamond continued his attack until circus hands tightened the chains that connected him to the other elephants. Donohoo was rushed to a local clinic, where she was pronounced dead.

About half a block away, 5-year-old Carmack Watkins was perched on his father’s shoulders to get a good view of the parade. “People were hollering and cranking their Model T’s [to escape]. Some of them had come in horses and wagons, and horses were rearing up and havoc was everywhere,” he recalls in a recent interview. “The last thing I saw was Prickett went in the air, and [the elephant] went up to that woman, and we moved out.”

Black Diamond was likely in a state of “must,” an annual period of hormone-induced irritability and aggression in male elephants. But the Daily Sun explained things in more dramatic language. The sagacity of elephants, celebrated in an article just two days earlier, had been replaced with bloodlust: “‘Black Diamond,’ the killer elephant, lay trussed in his death cell today, his little eyes aglow with a jungle lust to kill and his heavy chains a clanking badge of shame…”

Other headlines described Black Diamond as a “mad elephant” or “enraged brute.” Some Corsicanans demanded his death.

The rhetoric of lynching was often applied to rogue elephants, says Janet Davis, an associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin who studies circuses and the animal-welfare movement. In her 2002 book The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top, Davis suggests that elephant executions reveal a conflation between black men and elephants in the minds of onlookers.

Phrases like the Daily Sun’s “jungle lust” are “weird but very specific references to anxieties in this racially volatile society, in this period of Jim Crow America,” Davis says. “The ways people write about elephants, males especially, with ‘unbridled must,’ unbridled sexuality, is a kind of mythology that accompanied the justification for lynching one reads about.

“It’s very much a testament to the ways in which racism in America is so deeply embedded in daily life and popular entertainment.”

The lynching metaphor corresponds to elephant trainer George “Slim” Lewis’ description of events after Donohoo’s death in his 1955 memoir Elephant Tramp. Lewis was part of the Barnes circus crew in Corsicana. While the show went on, with two scheduled performances drawing record crowds, some spectators were disappointed they didn’t get to see the “killer elephant.”

Black Diamond was confined in his boxcar, guarded by two showmen. Lewis writes that an angry throng had followed the elephant back to the car, “threatening that Diamond would never leave Corsicana alive.” Late in the afternoon, a “self-appointed executioner” with a .45-caliber pistol tried to get into the car but was fought off by the trainers. A group of residents followed the circus to the next cities on its tour, demanding the elephant’s execution.

Popular lore holds that Donohoo had hired Prickett away from the circus in the presence of Black Diamond, and the sight of the woman who’d stolen his beloved trainer provoked a jealous rage. Prickett himself, interviewed in the hospital, suggested that Black Diamond had been jealous.

But Lewis writes that Prickett hadn’t been with the circus for a year or two at the time of the attack, and that his authority over Black Diamond was gone.

“Reporters said Diamond had been overjoyed to see his old trainer, and became jealous of Mrs. Donohoe [sic] when she talked to Curley [Prickett]. That was pure fiction,” he writes. In his assessment, the elephant’s intended victim was his headstrong former trainer, Prickett, who asked to lead the elephant through downtown Corsicana simply to show off. Donohoo just got in the way.

Within a day of Donohoo’s death, John Ringling, who owned the Barnes circus, had sent his verdict: “Kill Diamond in some humane way.” But how?

The circus could take its cue from other elephant executions, most famously those of Topsy, in 1903, and Mary, in 1916. Topsy, a Coney Island elephant who killed an abusive handler, was electrocuted as part of a stunt by Thomas Edison. Mary, who had killed a circus hand in rural Tennessee, was hanged from a railroad crane. Davis has found evidence of additional executions in Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine and Rhode Island.

Black Diamond’s handlers entertained several solutions, including poison. They rejected Corpus Christi’s offer to drown the elephant by tying 30 tons of lead to his feet and dragging him into the turning basin with tugboats. They considered enlisting fellow circus elephants as his executioners: a chain would be wrapped around his neck, and three animals would walk in different directions, strangling him. Ultimately, they decided to use a firing squad.

On Oct. 16, spectators lined the route of Black Diamond’s last march to a pasture a couple of miles outside Kenedy, southeast of San Antonio. While circus performers wept, the executioners chained the elephant to a block and fired between 50 and 170 rounds—accounts vary—until he fell.

Onlookers rushed to collect relics from the massive body. A taxidermist and the Houston zookeeper arranged for the head to be transferred to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The local undertaker, a member of the firing squad, made a foot into a stool that’s now displayed in the Karnes County Museum near Kenedy. A butcher sold strips of the hide for a dime apiece. A local who watched the execution ended up with some of the elephant’s bones.

Less than two weeks later, the stock market crashed, marking the beginning of the Great Depression. Ringling, who had gone into debt buying several shows, including Barnes’, was forced to give up his circuses.

In a 1975 article for The National Humane Review, former trainer Lewis wrote that the deaths of Donohoo and Black Diamond were a turning point for male, or bull, elephants, whose must was often misunderstood as a permanent temperamental flaw. Circuses began disposing of their male elephants, sending them to zoos or killing them outright.

They say elephants never forget
. Neither did Carmack Watkins. A lifelong Corsicana resident, Watkins founded an eponymous oil and gas pipeline construction company in 1954. His success supported his avocation as a big-game hunter, and the Trophy Room, his personal museum, at company headquarters in Corsicana is filled with his taxidermic zoo.

In the mid-’90s he decided that Black Diamond, or whatever remained, would be an appropriate addition to his collection. Watkins assigned one of his employees to find out where the elephant was buried, and perhaps buy the land and dig up the bones. The man came back with better news: Black Diamond’s taxidermy-preserved head and his skull were stored in the basement of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. With help from Navarro College faculty, Watkins negotiated to have the pieces “assigned” to his personal museum, and had the head restored. Now school groups, tourists and even former circus performers come to see it.

The Trophy Room, a quarter of the length of a football field, is a cross between a natural history museum and a man cave. A printed guide lists 240 specimens, but the room holds more than that. The heads of deer, moose, cape buffalo and a rhinoceros adorn the walls. A lion, tiger and cougar–each wearing a saddle–are frozen midstride. A polar bear and brown bear, both standing upright, look across the room at an ostrich and a longhorn. Watkins estimates he’s responsible for about half the trophies himself; the rest were procured by family and friends.

Black Diamond’s head is mounted at the back of the room, against a mural of Mount Kilimanjaro (he was an Asian elephant, but Watkins has hunted in East Africa). The elephant’s glass eyes, fringed by feathery lashes, watch over a collection of gifts from visitors: an elephant-hair bracelet, an ice bucket made of a hollowed-out elephant trunk, a Model T truck axle that was used to stake Black Diamond to the ground, brought by a visitor whose father worked for the circus. The offerings from so many pilgrims turn this corner of the room into something like a shrine.

In contrast to the solemn presence of the head, the skull nearby on the ground has the empty sockets and prehistoric appearance of a paleontology exhibit. Watkins gives a forensic analysis of the skull’s sawed-off tusks: The groove made by the iron bar that held down his trunk is clearly visible. The worn spot on the right tusk came from the elephant sleeping on his side in the boxcar.

Watkins thinks the elephant’s behavior in Corsicana was the inevitable result of his captivity. “He was not in his right environment. In a boxcar day and night, cold and hot, with no water, chained—that’s not any way to treat an elephant.”

It’s hard for him to explain exactly why he is drawn to the animal he calls “Ol’ Black Diamond.”

“I saw it happen when I was little, and it impressed my mind so much,” Watkins says. “Sometimes I’d see a write-up in the Dallas paper about it, and I’d read it twice.

“A lot of people ask about Black Diamond and want to know the history, especially from somebody that was there that day. I’m about the only one left, I guess.”

He gestures for me to sit on an elephant-foot stool while he plays a CD someone sent him.

My name is Black Diamond; the circus can’t tame me
And three men who tried to are dead
Now they’ve cut my tusks short, and put a metal bar on
So I can’t reach my trunk to my head…

It’s “Black Diamond’s Song,” by Austin songwriter Al Evans.

In addition to Evans’ ballad, Curtis Eller sings “The Execution of Black Diamond,” though he’s changed some of the names. Mary the elephant’s hanging is the subject of three different plays, including Elephant’s Graveyard, by George Brant, a Michener Fellow at UT. Topsy’s electrocution has been incorporated into poems, plays, indie rock songs and movies.

In August 1931, the Corsicana Daily Sun ran an opinion piece in response to a national magazine story about the elephant’s death. The editorial, titled “The ‘Murder’ of Black Diamond,” defends locals from accusations that their mob mentality killed the animal:

“The question arises: Who ‘murdered’ Black Diamond?
It is no mystery.
Black Diamond was the victim of the great god Free Publicity…”

The circus cashed in to the tune of at least a million dollars worth of free publicity—space that could not be bought with money—by the execution of the big elephant.”

The writer may have had a point, Davis says. The circus delayed killing Black Diamond for four days, citing danger from the elephant’s continued “jungle madness.” In that time, the show—sans Black Diamond—performed to crowds in Bay City, Corpus Christi and Kenedy.

“The execution of an elephant is a way to show that the circus cares about community order,” Davis says. “More cynically, of course, [circus] shows also cared about maintaining spectacle at any cost, so killing an elephant was a way to retain that.”

Today, the tragedy is an official part of the city’s tourist literature. The Corsicana Chamber of Commerce prints a walking tour of the historic downtown, subtitled “Roughnecks and wild elephants.” The site of Black Diamond’s rampage, near the intersection of 1st Avenue and 13th Street, warrants a paragraph:

“… imagine a sunny October 1929 autumn day with the excitement and activity of the Al G. Barnes Circus coming to town. This was the date and the setting for the tragic death of spectator Eva Speed Donohoo, attacked by an enraged circus elephant as he bolted from the parade.”

It’s hard to imagine the parade filling these streets, now dominated by the beige, windowless Navarro County Jail. The scene of Donohoo’s death today is occupied by a school administration building. On the opposite side of the road are A-1 Auto Rental and Budget Bail Bonds, whose sign reads: “You want out? Just give us a shout.”

Downtown Corsicana has a dusty charm, though it has suffered as business migrates to the highways at the edge of town. Two-story buildings, some decorated with murals or vintage signs, line the brick streets. Law offices and furniture sellers are interspersed with storefront churches and empty windows. A coffee shop and longtime diner have recently closed.

Just outside downtown is the rambling Oakwood Cemetery, where Donohoo is buried. Her simple headstone includes this statement: “Killed by Al G. Barnes circus elephant.”

No grave exists for Black Diamond, though he has a permanent resting place in circus history and Corsicana lore.

Freelance writer Robyn Ross lives in Austin.