The first woman to climb on the tusks of America’s largest performing elephant

Nellie on Fritz
Nellie on Fritz

Following Friday’s short introduction here to pioneering American journalist and author Nellie Bly, Roamer shared several readers’ collective curiosity about the reference to her elephant training!

Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, born in Pennsylvania in 1864, the granddaughter of Robert Cochran who emigrated from Londonderry in the 1790s.

Portrait of a 21-year-old Nellie Bly

Portrait of a 21-year-old Nellie Bly

Aside from her own books and ubiquitous newspaper articles, which earned her enormous celebrity status, she’s been the subject of numerous profiles, publications, film productions and even a board game based on her journey around the world in 1889.

Friday’s page outlined several of her chilling First World War front-line reports, and her first big ‘scoop’ in 1887 when she feigned madness to report from inside a mental institution.

The passing mention of her elephant training came from an article she wrote in The New York World newspaper.

The article was printed in the February 23rd edition of the newspaper, headlined – ‘A Thrilling Experience with the Immense Animals in their Winter Home’.

Nellie on Fritz

Nellie on Fritz

The rest of today’s page is a summarised and edited version of Nellie’s report, beginning with a practice session with eight baby elephants, animals that she “always had an intense fondness for”:

It was with great eagerness I followed my guide through the door into the elephants’ training quarters.

Mr Newman, the trainer, smiled when I told him my business.

“They are greenhorns (inexperienced),” he explained.

Publicity photograph promoting Bly's Around-The-World Journey

Publicity photograph promoting Bly's Around-The-World Journey

“They are only beginning to know their names and a few tricks. You stand by me until I get them into the ring,” he added.

They came in the order he called them:

“Lizzie! Alice! Nellie! Albert! Chief! Ruth! Fannie! Pilot!”

“I want to teach them some tricks,” I said to Mr Newman.

“You can put Ruth through some tricks,” he answered, and told me to order her to sit down, and I did. Much to my delight, she obeyed, carefully seating herself on the box that surrounds the ring.

Then he gave me a large bell, which I handed to Ruth, who rang it noisily for a moment and then handed it to Mr Newman as if it made her tired.

Mr Newman gave her a carrot, which pleased her so well that she did not want to go out of the ring.

“I now want to help put the big elephants through their tricks,” I said, boldly, and everybody smiled.

I marched with the men to the second elephant house.

Facing the ring and with their backs to the building, were chained the largest and fiercest elephants I ever saw.

“You’ll be the first woman ever to put them through their tricks,” said their trainer, Mr Conklin.

“That’s Fritz,” Mr Conklin said proudly. “The biggest one in the United States. He stands 11 feet six inches high and weighs 12,580 pounds. You’ll ride him.”

There was a leather harness over his head.

Fritz had long ivory tusks. They were sawed off the other day, but they are at present four feet long. The ends are surmounted with brass knobs.

“Catch hold of the harness as high up as you can,” Mr Conklin instructed me, and with a little lift he hoisted me to the tusks that he had ordered Fritz to lower.

Then he commanded Fritz to lift, but before he could get six feet above the ground I overbalanced and went backwards from the tusks.

Mr Conklin caught me quickly and I tried to apologize.

“Put me on again,” I said. “This time I will stick there.”

But I did not.

As Fritz’s head was ascending somewhere up in the air I slid off again; this time front, and I hung by one hand suspended to the harness at least 12 feet up in the air.

I only had time for one thought. That was that Fritz would fling me down and crush me.

But Mr Conklin shouted to him to lower and down came the mammoth head until Mr Conklin was able to grasp me by the wrist and put me down upon the earth.

My heart was beating very rapidly and my left arm felt sprained, but I determined that I would do the trick.

“Put me on again,” I urged, and once more I was seated on the ivory tusks.

This time I sat squarely and held firmly to the leather harness.

“Up! Up! Up!” commanded Mr Conklin, and Fritz lifted his head until I thought I could easily touch the roof.

If Fritz stands 11 feet, by throwing up his head he must have held me at a low estimate fully 16 feet above the ground.

And that great big trunk against which I rested, longer than my entire body, and the greater part of it thicker than my body, what if he suddenly wound it around me and crushed me to death?

I touched the trunk.

I patted it in a friendly way.

I thought if I could convey to him my meaning Fritz should know I felt kindly towards him.

Then came the command to lower and down went the big head until I slid off into Mr Conklin’s uplifted arms.

“You are very brave,” said Mr Conklin.

I did not tell him I had not courage through it all. I merely did it because I hadn’t the courage to say no.

You can read complete archived articles by Nellie Bly at www.historicjournalism.com/nellie-bly.html.