It was a carnival of carnage.
When the 12-year-old Indian elephant Little Rajje rebelled against her trainer, Bill Pratt, at the circus in downtown Lansing on Sept. 26, 1963, the city went wild. Little Rajje was a big, but well-trained beast — clocking in at 3,000 pounds and with 10 years of accident-free experience in the both the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circuses under her belt — until onlookers started antagonizing her during an evening performance.
Terrified and annoyed, Little Rajje stomped her foot and broke her chain. Despite Pratt’s coaxing pleas, she ran off and bumbled into a local department store, where she wandered around among the menswear, sporting goods, and gifts sections for half an hour, knocking into merchandise and causing thousands of dollars in damage.
Police and circus employees finally calmed her down, but a loud burglar alarm (set off by a shoplifter taking advantage of the chaos) sent her into another panic. Little Rajje bolted out through the store’s back entrance and into a residential neighborhood.
As she rampaged through backyards and down streets — smashing porches, flipping cars, and trampling a 67-year-old man — Little Rajje attracted the worst sort of attention: high school boys.
These boys were watching a varsity football game, but when they saw an elephant rumbling behind the stands, they decided to capture the beast. About 500 strong, they screamed at Little Rajje and rushed toward her, lobbing football equipment and trash in her direction. Other Lansing residents joined in the chase, until a crowd of nearly 4,000 marauders formed a mob behind the now furious elephant.
All the while, police and Pratt trailed the crowd, begging them to stop. But there was no stopping now. The crowd had become a hunter, and Little Rajje was its prey.
After 15 minutes, the authorities caught up with the madding crowd. Eight shots from police rifles turned her to a mud-stained heap in the middle of the road — still wearing her sequins and embroidered dancing harness.
As the mob of 4,000 formed an open-mouthed ring around the dead elephant, someone in the crowd reportedly shouted, “Murderers! Murderers!” Police attempted to keep restless bystanders back, but to no avail. A man stepped out from the gawking faces and unloaded a full clip of .22 caliber bullets into the corpse.
Pratt leaned against a nearby car and buried his head in his hands, weeping.
“Damn these people,” he shouted. “They wouldn’t leave her alone.”
The incident made national news with a photo spread in Life Magazine featuring the weeping Pratt — earning Lansing infamy in the elephant-loving community.
Looking back on the affair in 2011, one of the high school ringleaders, John Fouts, told the Lansing State Journal that he and his friends started the hunt for the same reasons a dog chases a car: mindless impulse.
“Only after the elephant was killed did I realize what we had done,” Fouts said. “Five hundred kids chasing anything through city streets will always lead to nothing good.”
But that was 55 years ago this week. We generally don’t have elephants at the fair anymore. Or freakshows. Or snakecharmers, gypsies, and crystal balls. Nothing wicked this way comes, except the constant crowd, always on the mindless hunt for pleasure — until its sport lies muddied and dead in the street.