Last weekend, Sweetums and I were traveling around southern Alabama and Georgia taking photos for my upcoming Guide to the Quirky South (The History Press). I had several places on my list that I had never visited, including the abandoned school that serves as Hawkins Middle School in “Stranger Things.” (More on that coming soon).
I happened to notice on a map that an intriguing grave was located between two of our stops so I had to add it to the list. It was a grave of a circus owner marked by a life-sized statue of a baby elephant. The grave of William “Billy” Duggan (1899-1950) is located in Pleasant Grove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery in Cairo, Ga., near Moultrie.
I always hate to drive to isolated spots and have Sweetums be disappointed with the roadside attraction so I down-played it, telling him the “life-size” elephant was probably the size of a large mastiff dog. Turns out, the elephant is 5.5 feet tall, the size of the real baby elephant on which it was modeled. It was quite impressive and beautifully carved. The elephant, one of a group trained by Duggan, is at the center of a legend that says she followed Duggan to the hospital the day he died, which is highly unlikely since a) Duggan would have been in a car and b) reports say the circus animals were wintering in Florida at the time of Duggan’s death in Moultrie.
Here’s what is posted on Duggan’s entry on FindaGrave.com: “William F. Duggan, born in Moultrie, GA on January 18, 1899, wanted to work in a circus all his life. At age 12 he ran away from home to join the Sparks Circus. His assigned chore was to feed the elephants and he soon fell in love with these beasts. In 1950 Duggan’s dream of one day owning his own circus became reality when he purchased the Pan American Animal Exhibit and turned it into the Hagen-Wallace Circus. Sadly, Duggan never saw his circus perform as he died a short time later while his circus wintered in Florida. He was buried in Moultrie, and to honor his dad, Duggan’s son arranged for this life-size replica of Nancy, Duggan’s beloved baby elephant, to be carved from Tate, GA white marble and placed on his father’s grave. The cost of the sculpture was $ 10,000. It said to be the only elephant memorial in a cemetery in the world.”
That last statement is untrue. A quick search turns up numerous elephant memorials just in the American South, although it’s possible the Duggan’s grave marker is the only life-sized statue.
Below some of our photos from our trip to the cemetery, followed by information on other elephant monuments.
John King, a circus owner, was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte, N.C., after he was crushed to death by a huge elephant named Chief. According to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, King died Sept. 27, 1880, while the circus was stopped in Charlotte.
The article from NCDCR says, “The John Robinson Circus, of which Chief was a part, had arrived in Charlotte that day with two shows planned. Crowds of spectators were camped out near the circus, anticipating the next day’s shows. Many of them witnessed the horrifying events of that evening. Chief, a large male elephant, charged his keeper and smashed the man into a railcar, mangling him to the point that he was dead within minutes … King was buried in Elmwood Cemetery with the circus band playing and two other circus elephants in attendance. For the grave, Confederate veteran Billy Berryhill carved an obelisk monument with an elephant in the shaft. Chief never worked in the circus again, although he remained with them and marched in the parades until he was exiled to the Cincinnati Zoo.”
A more modern carving is on the grave of professional elephant trainer Robert “Smokey” Jones, who died in 2002. Smokey was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1996. He is buried in Rosemound Cemetery in Commerce, Texas.
There are several cemeteries with “Showmen’s Rests” around the country and several of them feature statues of elephants. The statues do not mark specific graves but honor all circus performers buried in the cemetery. Here are a couple:
Showmen’s Rest in Southern Memorial Park in Miami:
Showmen’s Rest in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma. See additional photos here.