Death by Elephant in Texas

Entrance of Oakwood Cemetery
Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana, Texas is a large, very old and quiet place. The grass is kept trimmed, any trash is quickly picked up and the flowing stream which runs through it is kept clear of brush and nature's debris. There are a number of notable folks resting in peace within the fenced grounds - government officials, pioneer settlers, Indian fighters and war veterans. Also interred here is the victim of what surely must rank as one of the most unusual causes of death.

On October 12, 1929, the Al G. Barnes Circus came to town. The citizens of Corsicana, the oil field workers and cotton farmers from near and far made their way in to see the show and the elephants. The circus paraded right through downtown where thousands of men, women and children lined the streets. The largest elephant, a 32-year-old Asian male named Black Diamond, was being led by H. D. "Curly" Pickett.

For seven years, Curly had been Black Diamond's trainer and caretaker, but he had recently left Black Diamond and the circus to work for Eva Speed Donohoo, a prominent landowner, businesswoman and former society editor for the Houston Post.  Eva had spoken with Curly while he was feeding Black Diamond and when he agreed to work for her, Curly and Eva had simply turned their backs and walked away from the creature. When Curly heard his previous employer would be in town, he got in touch with the circus owner and for old times sake, the owner agreed to let Curly lead the massive beast in the parade.

What the people didn't know however was that Black Diamond, who had been born and spent his first 17 years in the wild before being captured and sold, had killed 3 of his trainers in his first 8 years as a circus performer. After each of the first 2 killings, Black Diamond was sold to another circus until finally coming to the Al G. Barnes Circus. The 3rd trainer to die was the one before Curly. 

Curly had a good reputation for being gentle and taking good care of his charge, ensuring the animal had plenty of food, was exercised and washed regularly and removed from the dark, confining boxcar whenever an opportunity presented itself. By all accounts, Black Diamond seemed to have taken to Curly and there were no incidents during their 7 years together. The man who replaced Curly was told of the 3 previous deaths and to prevent another attack, he had sawed the elephant's tusks short and placed a heavy iron bar across them to restrict his trunk's movement. While being led in the parade, he was also chained between 2 other elephants.

 At one point during the parade, the procession just happened to come to a momentary halt stopping Black Diamond right where Eva was standing between 2 parked cars watching the parade. A moment later, Black Diamond picked up Curly and tossed him over the nearest car breaking his wrist. Pushing the parked cars aside and smashing them with his weight, he used the remainder of his sawed-off tusks to drag Eva back into the street where he began flailing her with his trunk before finally stepping on her. 

Screaming in shock and fright, women and children bystanders ran out of harm's way while some of the men tried to pull Eva away, but Black Diamond wouldn't let them get near and continued pummeling her until circus handlers managed to tighten the chains attaching him to the other elephants and used them to pull the enraged brute away. Eva was quickly transported to a local hospital, but there was nothing that could be done for her. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

An angry mob of local citizens soon descended upon the circus grounds demanding the death of the guilty elephant. Black Diamond was confined to his boxcar and guarded by 2 burly roustabouts armed with clubs. One man proclaimed himself the executioner and armed with a .45 pistol, tried to get into the boxcar, but the roustabouts managed to stop him and convinced him to be on his way. When word leaked out about the previous 3 deaths, the pressure to put down the killer became even stronger. Late the next day, word came from the owner of the circus - Black Diamond must die, but he wanted it done in the most humane way possible.

The execution of Black Diamond
(photo courtesy of thecircusblog.com)
There was much discussion as to a humane way to kill such a huge animal. First, a large quantity of poison was put in his food, but other than an upset tummy, this didn't seem to bother him. It was finally decided that death by firing squad would be the quickest method. By this time, the circus, which had quickly left the angry mob in Corsicana, was in Kenedy, a small town outside of San Antonio. On October 16th, the elephant was led to an wooded pasture and securely chained to several trees. While hundreds of spectators watched and circus performers cried, 3 local men standing just a few feet away fired shot after shot into Black Diamond. Estimates vary, but it is agreed between 50 - 120 shots were required to end the elephant's life. 

A taxidermist removed Black Diamond's head and after preservation, transferred it to the Houston Museum of Natural History. An undertaker who was a member of the firing squad, received one of the huge feet and made it into a stool which is still displayed in the Karnes County Museum near Kenedy. The local butcher was given the hide which he sold for 10 cents a strip. The owner of the pasture received some of the bones. Spectators took the rest of the body as souvenirs. Soon, there was nothing left of Black Diamond except a large spot of blood-soaked ground. Even that was scooped up in jars and buckets and carted away by the last of the souvenir hunters.

Two weeks later, the stock market crashed. The Al G. Barnes Circus went bankrupt and disbanded.

Why did Black Diamond so deliberately kill Eva Donohoo and injure his one time trainer? Did he blame her for taking away the only trainer he had loved?  Did he hold Curly responsible for leaving him to the care of a man who cut off his tusks and saddled him with that heavy iron bar? Did he blame them both for simply turning their backs on him and walking away without even a goodbye? Did he think Curly had returned for him and seeing Eva, thought she was back to take Curly away again? Or did he simply miss his home in the wild and have an "I'm not taking this anymore" moment with Curly and Eva merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Nobody will ever know for sure.

In the Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana, Texas lies Eva Speed Donohoo, the one and only person killed in an elephant stampede in Texas.

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