A Circus Elephant Enjoyed Her 1860 Swim Across The Ohio River
All of Cincinnati - and Covington, too - turned out on the morning of 9 August 1860 to watch an elephant swim across the Ohio River.
The elephant was Lalla Rookh, pachyderm star of the Dan Rice Circus. As a special treat for Cincinnati, a perennially lucrative stop for the Rice show, promoters announced that the traditional circus parade would be preceded by this morning swim.
Lalla Rookh was a talented beast. For the past decade, she had been a highlight of Dan Rice’s big-top extravaganzas. She was famous for her tightrope act (although the “rope” was the width of one of her feet) and she also danced, rang bells and fired a pistol. She was a huge draw and, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, brought out a good crowd, estimated between 15,000 and 20,000:
“A tolerably large portion of the population of Cincinnati and Covington assembled upon the Ohio and Kentucky banks of the river yesterday, to witness the promised swimming excursion of Dan Rice’s famous elephant ‘Lalla Rookh.’ An extremely knowing look upon the phizes of many of those present evinced a strong suspicion that they were the half-conscious victims of a mammoth 'sell;’ but when the animal made her appearance upon the Covington side, and marched down to the water’s edge, all doubts vanished, and there was a general eagerness manifested to see what was to follow.”
What happened - at first - was complete joy on the part of the elephant. Lalla Rookh lay down in the shallow water near the shore and rolled about enjoying the cool river currents. Her keeper, C.W. Noyes, gave her a little prodding and she pushed out into the deeper waters in the center of the stream.
Despite published appeals to stay out of the river, hundreds of small boats and skiffs occupied the river to get a better view. In John C. Kunzog’s 1957 report on this event, he noted that Lalla Rookh was upset by the close company:
“ … numerous small craft followed, and by the time the elephant reached midstream she was, as Dan Rice expressed it afterward, 'cramped for room.’ The animal became incensed and gave a small cry. Rice, who had warned in his hand bills against this very thing, spoke to the animal. 'If they are bothering you, go after them, Lalla.’ The animal needed no coaxing; as if she understood the words spoken, she wheeled around and pursued her pursuers. They fled in terror, rowing to safety on the Kentucky shore.”
After ensuring that the waterway was cleared, Lalla Rookh was again led into the river a short distance below the mouth of the Licking River. This time, she took a leisurely route across to the foot of Race Street. The Enquirer conveyed her pleasure in the aquatic foray:
“While in the water she would frequently dive and remain under for a considerable time, and her various maneuvers appeared to afford a great deal of amusement to the spectators.”
Alas, this joyous swim apparently led to the poor elephant developing a fever. (The Ohio River was pretty much an open sewer at the time.) She died just a month later in Columbus, Ohio.