The Elephant War by Karen Rathert

Barnum had been bamboozled—those were the reports coming out of Liverpool. “It’s a fraud!” The Times claimed, “Unless pink and gray can be called white.” Other newspapers described the elephant as albino, with pink eyes and mottled skin, and rumors were that Barnum was disappointed. Of course, he was. He’d invested $200,000 in the damn thing based on a recommendation and hearsay. But the truth of it hardly mattered. People are going to believe what they want to believe—that’s what I learned from the elephant war—and people wanted to believe Toing Talon was a sacred beast, a noble god from the East making his way toward them in a tiny stall in the belly of the steamship Tenasserim, bringing with him, no doubt, blessings, and magic. The public clamored for news of the mystical creature, and we gave them the facts, which meant every circus owner in the country with a modicum of self-respect had to get himself a bigger and better act to compete with Barnum for the fervid eyes of reporters—or as in the case of Emmet—find himself a more sacred more alabaster elephant.

It didn’t take long. Several weeks after Toing Talon disembarked amid a flurry of photographers and newsmen and a frothy-mouthed crowd, the Fantastic Emmett Adler Circus press office sent announcements to all the papers big and small, including the New York World, the London Daily Mirror, and my very own Pittsburgh Tribune, announcing the unveiling of The World’s Only Living White Elephant! (because of course Barnum’s was a fake)! “This is a sacred beast,” the announcement went on to brag, “born in the jungles of the East, worshipped by princes, and purchased for an incomprehensible sum. Be among the first to be astonished by this holy animal!”

I confess, unlike most of my colleagues, I love these press events. Granted, it’s a long series of train rides and cabs dropping you off in some pokey town half the size of the tent city blooming on the nearby dusty lot—or in this case, series of barns parked in the snow, since this was where the circus was wintering. But upon arrival, the circus folks treat us like royalty, plying us with food and drink while selling us on whatever ruse they have going while we, on the other hand, play Sherlock Holmes and try to uncover the mechanics of their tricks. Sometimes of course we’re inspired by the ambition and the grace because there is the celestial rose blooming in the circus shit pile, it’s a matter of separating the metaphorical wheat from the chaff. I’ve seen an automobile summersault off the loop and women glide phosphorescent from their ropes along the firmament, and the choreography of the trains and tents and wagons is itself a wonder. The circus folk market dreams. On occasion, those dreams are cockroaches. Back then I would have argued that we in the press operate the lights that send the vermin scurrying so the good people don’t waste their money on cheap illusions. I would have argued we hold the circus to a standard, ensure authenticity, promote the dreams, and keep them big. But back then I was an innocent. I believed truth was the ultimate elixir.

So, one Tuesday night in late February, we caught the Adler train from Philadelphia to the winter headquarters. Once there, we huddled in the ring barn, cold and white as an upside-down porcelain tub. A river of green velvet stretched like Styx across the length of the barn, separating us mortal reporters from the heavenly elephant realm. The small stage before it I thought to call Purgatory, mixing my holy metaphors because we’re talking about the circus, for Christ’s sake, a gallimaufry of sparkly objects. “The godly pachyderm is behind the curtain,” an usher whispered, and I pressed my finger to my lips and winked, then slid onto a frozen bench and flipped open my notepad. Waiters in black slipped like mud from cracks in the curtains and the side of the barn oozing toward us lifting trays like torches. From those trays, they passed down endless glasses of strong drink so my colleagues were soon hanging like shadows over the edges of their seats.

Now I was not someone who would normally refuse a glass of rye, but I mostly abstained that night. The way they were pushing that drink made me certain it was part of the sell—drunk reporters have dim eyes. Although it could also be said that drunk reporters are happy reporters. Either way, indications were the Adler folks wanted us dull and happy, which made me suspect there was sleight of hand about to happen. I took my drink out of politeness and because I needed the heat of it, but then I waved the insects away.

Sober, the chairs were hard and cold and my colleagues were bores, with several of them snoring. I was relegated to watching the lifecycles of my breath, webbed souls forged of my lungs, lingering through several heartbeats only to perish in a swipe of frozen air. What is the point of such an existence? A speaker took the stage and shifted papers on his lecturn, and a few of my brethren shifted as if they might listen. The speaker cleared his throat and his voice was a sharp object—I pictured a razor drawing a line of blood. He launched into a story about the treacherous journey of the elephant from there to here, about how the royal family granted the Emmett Adler circus permission to hunt and capture the sacred beast in exchange for luxurious gifts, and how men nearly died tracking it. And then once they’d captured the elephant, the journey home was long and arduous. The travelers were trapped in mountain passes or stranded in the jungle during monsoons fending off packs of starving hyenas. Years, I calculated, those travelers were on the road, and probably they died many deaths. While the speaker narrated the journey, the waiters pushed their wares—three or four gathered between me and the stage holding odorous glasses under my nose and saying how time won’t get a sober man drunk, and so I took another drink to shut them up. And then, alas, in a matter of weeks, the travelers had crossed a continent and an ocean and delivered the holiest of tuskers to this chorus of reporters—truly a miracle.

Finally, Emmett took over the stage from the aforementioned windbag.

“Welcome!” he shouted, and several of my colleagues rose up like cobras from the coils of their frozen asses and raised their pens as if they held gavels.

“You are the first,” Emmett lowered his voice to a whisper so we had to lean in to hear—I imagined a garden of drab and dying sunflowers lilting toward the sun.

“What you are about to see is sacred. Holy. . .” Emmett waved his hand and six Buddhist monks came to stand behind him to show us just how holy. The monks (resembling his famed ensemble of acrobats) were costumed in saffron robes and stood with folded hands and bowed heads. Somewhere incense was burning, and the sound of hand drums rose from behind the curtains—though not loud enough to drown out Emmett’s voice.

“He was a god in his home country. For there are no others like him. . . .” Emmett raised his hands like Abraham parting the Red Sea like he could silence the chorus of snores.

“Of course you’ve been told otherwise, led astray by a demon named Phineas T. Barnum. . . . Now that is a man skilled in the art of subterfuge. Remember how he sowed the tail of a fish to a monkey and called it a mermaid and charged the destitute a fortune to see it? He tried to fool you with that albino elephant, but you knew better. . . . No. This is not some albino freak of nature. This is a king among beasts, worshiped by princes!” Emmett paused and there was a crescendo of drums. My dear colleagues, the ones who had grown bored with this prattle and slipped back into sleep once again sprang up—this was a drowsy bunch—and most of them looked disorientated to find the evening had hardly advanced. I accepted another drink and Emmett rattled on for several more minutes.

“Well then . . . let’s not tarry. Let me introduce you to the world’s one and only sacred white elephant. Surus!”

Emmett whisked himself off stage and roustabouts took away the podium and that platform of purification. The curtains slid open as the circus band played, and then, silence. We looked, I imagined, like a choir that had been interrupted mid-verse. Had there been gnats alive in that frozen room they would have nested in between our teeth and gums. I pulled my lips together and wondered if I’d gone and died and was seeing a ghost. But that elephant was whiter than any ghost, I was sure of it. He stood there tied to a tent post in a pool of sawdust under a blaze of calcium lights. He was small, dwarfish even. Hardly bigger than a yearling, but he was certainly white. He was white as the whitest of teeth. Pure white like a bucket of milk or Tom Sawyer’s fence. The sclera of the eye turned back into one’s head, well that would be closer to red if positioned beside the sparkling Surus. In other words, the elephant was unreal. The royal red toggery hanging on the wall above that pearly glow stood out like a clown on an otherwise empty beach, and the bleached ribbon of trunk gripped a bundle of hay-like an albino snake, swinging it in a lackadaisical way.

How many glasses of rye had I had to drink? I wondered to myself and then thought, not that much. That’s elephant’s a fraud. I’ve been around circus folks enough to know if something appears unreal, there’s bound to be fancy needlework or outright deception . . . notice where the circus people are directing your attention and look someplace else. That was the law of reporting on the show.

While the monks were directing my colleagues’ attention toward some unmonkish summersaulting, I crept closer to tiny Surus to get a closer look at his trunk. Where the appendage curled it was cracked like paint. By god he’d been painted.

“You need to stay back. This is a dangerous animal.” A steal grip on my shoulder yanked me backward so that I nearly fell on my ass.

“Goddamn!” I shook myself free of the offending hand and brushed my coat as if I could remove the terrible offense. “Dangerous my ass. This is the smallest elephant I had ever seen. He looks like you lifted him off the shelf of the five and dime.”

“Step any closer and you’ll get yourself trampled.” The monk clasped his hands the size of dinner plates calloused from prayer, no doubt.

“The poor creature couldn’t trample the sawdust he’s standing in,” I said, moving into the warm glow of light. “This is a circus animal. He has to be used to crowds.”

“This is a sacred animal. How dare you! Would you pat the Lord Jesus Christ on the nose! Would you stomp on the Buddha’s tooth or yank the beard of Mohammad! . . . I don’t think so. You’d be struck by lightning, no doubt about it.”

“If the Christ’s nose was covered in a paint, I sure as hell would . . .” I rubbed my eyes. “So, your saying I will be struck by lightning if I touch this animal?”

“Maybe. Something like that,” the monk sneered, and I thought he might hit me alongside the head with one of his hand plates. My colleagues didn’t seem to notice. Several were lying in the dirt like dogs. They could freeze like that, I thought to myself. Emmett should offer them blankets.

“I wasn’t going to give him peanuts,” I whispered to my monk, who had transformed into a holy trinity. Probably it hadn’t occurred to them that I could write the unflattering truth about their threats of violence, and then families would boycott the Fantastic Emmett Adler Circus, such is the power of truth. The loss of income would cause Emmett to fire these fanatics. . . . I will think about doing just that, I thought. I teetered back to my chair and pulled a pad of paper from my pocket as if to take notes, determined not to be distracted from my mission by the acrobatics—such an odd way to display religiosity. And then providence directed my attention to a red bucket tucked under the canvas near a tentpole. Recalling the water pump just outside the tent, I made as if to take a smoking break. I waved my pipe at the gurus because I too was an actor and they were watching—they knew I was on to them. Outside, I filled the bucket, and then I stole back inside with water sloshing my pant leg.

I would like to say I swept up to the elephant with the speed and grace of a circus acrobat, leaping over the rope that separated the pachyderm god from us mere mortals, but I was not so elegant. Instead, I rushed and nearly fell stepping over that rope. I pulled my handkerchief from the water as my monk grabbed my arm midair and we struggled as mightily as Jacob and his angel. I waving my sodden rag in the air like a white flag of surrender. But there was no surrender. The monk shifted his footing and I fell forward across the back of the elephant, pressing my handkerchief into his backside as I slid to the ground. The white came off in clumps, and water dripped down the elephant’s leg in a muddy stream.

“What the hell are you doing!” Emmett by this time had rushed into the fray and was leaning over me. “How dare you!”

“It’s paint!” I yelled from where I lay on my back in the sawdust with my handkerchief waving, then regretted my outburst when I noticed the other reporters were looming toward me—any one of them might steal my story! I was grateful when the green curtain swung shut, blocking them from my discovery.

“It’s paint,” I snarled at Emmett, swinging the handkerchief, which was then snatched from my hand. I rolled over and scrambled to my feet as best I could, and Surus brushed the handkerchief along my face, maybe to taunt me, possibly to wipe away the line of sweat that was seeping down my brow (one can never know for sure an elephant’s motivation).

“My dear Dexter. Are you drunk?”

“Maybe he’s divine,” I spat, tottering on my feet, “but he sure as hell ain’t white.” Surus punctuated my outburst with a flick of my handkerchief, which he then pressed to my chest. Several of my colleagues had now passed over to this, the celestial side of the curtain, and they were stumbling toward Emmett and my showdown before they were diverted by monks and roustabouts.

“I’m just doing my job. I’m here at your invitation to report on your new attraction. You can bet I’ll be writing up an interesting story for the Pittsburgh Tribune.”

Emmett was turning red. “Tell the good people of Pittsburgh the truth. Tell them how you attempted to defile this treasure from the East. Tell them about the lies you dreamt to besmirch the reputation of Emmett Adler. Tell them how you stood in the light of the sacred and plotted corruption!” He exhaled a blast of air and pulled at the waistband of his pants.

“Well now. What’s going on here?” Sam from the New York World swayed in front of us like untamped fencepost in a strong wind.

“Why don’t you have your editors give me a call,” Emmett said, his fingers were playing his pantleg like a piano. He shifted back and forth on his feet, being someone in nearly perpetual motion, and then took out his own handkerchief and blew his nose.

“Pardon,” he said, stuffing his hanky back into his suit pocket.

“I’m sure my editors would be pleased to talk to you.”

Then it seemed he was shifting tactics. He took my arm.

“Why don’t you and I go have a smoke,” Emmett said.

He took my arm and out we went into the blasted cold. The barn blocked the wind but didn’t keep my face from numbing. Emmett pulled out rolling paper and none too dexterously rolled a cigarette and passed it to me then rolled another for himself, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets once we were lit up. The sounds coming from some of the other barns were haunting—the occasional cries of a big cat and the howls of monkeys, I felt like some sort of prey.

“Do you like the circus?” Emmett asked.


“Do you remember your first show?”

“The Sells Brothers. When I was twelve.”

“The Human Cannonball.”

“George Richards. . . . I saw him.”

“He was something. . . . Look Dexter. You think you saw something in there.”

“I did see something.”

“If there’s one thing you learn in this business, it’s that what you see is rarely what is.”

“I think I saw you painted your elephant and passed it off as white.”

“There you go. The world is a magical place.”

“You can’t have it both ways. Either something’s real or it’s not. I saw what I saw.”

“Exactly” Emmett said. “You saw what you think you saw. . . If you’ve seen any magic show, you’ve probably seen an act where a woman gets into a box and appears to get sawn in half. But of course, that doesn’t happen. That would be murder, and magicians are not murderers. At the end of the trick, the woman gets out and is whole.”

“Why don’t you let me take a look at the elephant again.” Emmet’s son Otto stood by a door at the other end of the barn shaking hands with the reporters filing out.

“That’s impossible. He’s been terribly stressed.”

“I need to be getting back.” Even with my gloves, my hands were frozen. I dropped my cigarette in the snow.

“They won’t run it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The paper. They won’t run the story.” He flicked his cigarette and disappeared back into the barn. A piercing scream shook my spine.

The next day in the Tribune offices, I wrote the story, and I told the truth about the fastidiousness of the paint job and the brilliance of the white and the jumble that passed as chants, and I was pleased, I’ll have you know, to save the public from chicanery. And I was admittedly excited the morning after to see my revelations on the front page of the paper. It could be I thought I would a bit of a hero, exposing the lies and deception and bringing an end to the elephant war. And so I was disappointed, to be sure when my story wasn’t on the first page. I paged through the paper and it was nowhere to found. In fact, buried in Section B was an article by my nemesis Richard Axel praising The Fantastic Emmet Adler Circus, featuring a rare and spectacular sacred pachyderm. I was enraged.

I marched into the office of my editor and tossed the paper on his desk and I didn’t hold back.

“God damn it, Sam! What in the blazes? You cut my story!”

“It’s not verifiable,” Sam was unimpressed with my outburst. He barely glanced up from the copy he was reading.

“Of course it’s verifiable! There was white paint on the elephant and when I wiped it away, the elephant was gray! It’s black and white. . . . Gray and white!”

But Sam didn’t want to hear it. He waved me away and when I didn’t move, he waved again.

“There are other papers that would love to break this story.”

“Are they going to hire you?” Now he looked up and though his face was placid behind his eyes were boiling.

It broke my heart to think my own paper was beholden to circus folk. I unburdened my sorrow on my dear friend Chester Lee later that day at a pub not far from the offices, and I was surprised by his response.

“You are a most fortunate man,” he said. He leaned back to give the waiter room to slide a plate of milk-fed squab chicken and onions au gratin on the table in front of him.

“I don’t see how Sam killing my story makes me fortunate at all.”

Chester leaned back even further like he was lying back in a bed. He rubbed his stomach and gazed at his dinner and worked his mouth like he was chewing something.

“For Christ’s sake, Chester. Make your point.”

Chester laughed then and sat up in his chair and lifted his knife and fork in the air and made a show of cutting into the chicken.

Seeing how it was going to be, I started in on my own dinner. When he saw he’d lost my attention, Chester leaned in.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” he chewed slowly. “You’re going to telegraph Mr. Barnum and tell him that, for a certain sum of money—make it a healthy sum—you will disclose under oath a revelation about the Adler elephant.”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious. Barnum will pay. I guarantee it.”

Chester was an old theater man. He’d spent years promoting the shows in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. He knew something about show business, so had to at least consider his advice.

“How much is a healthy sum?”

Chester gave me a number and I almost fell out of my chair. I grabbed a glass of water as if that might bring back my balance.

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Barnum will pay. And you get your story out. Not in your exact words, but you get it out.”

Chester popped forward and picked up his knife and fork.

I wrestled with the philosophical questions of it through three glasses of rye. What Chester was calling me to do was to reveal the truth in the only way I could, and the public should know the truth. And Mr. Adler should be exposed for the purveyor of fraud that he was. That I might benefit financially from truth-telling—well that was no crime. After all, I benefited from truth-telling with a paycheck from the newspaper.

Chester and I parted ways and I went to the telegraph office and sent a message to Barnum’s press office stating my offer. The next morning, a pounding on the door woke me from my sleep. Two of Barnum’s agents greeted me with an appointment card, which mentioned a restaurant where I was to meet that legendary fellow this very day.

I brought Chester with me since he seemed to be an expert in this type of negotiating. When we arrived, none other than the great Phineas T. Barnum was there—I recognized him by the long, bare forehead and famous curls, now completely gray.

Barnum was old but not frail. He stood up and his grip was firm. He insisted on food before any talk of business, so we ordered a light fare and afterward came up with an agreement. We’d have an affidavit drawn up, and each party would keep a copy. Once an investigator confirmed the findings, Barnum would pay me the agreed-upon sum, at which point, either of our parties could go public. It was so very simple

“How will your investigator confirm my story?”

“Plenty of people know Emmett’s elephants. One of them matching the description of this white elephant, in gray, of course, has to be missing. And then there’s the toggery. Silk, you said. The circle of folks that make such items is small, and every one of those people is in everyone else’s business. It won’t take long.”

“Well then. It appears we have a deal,” Chester said raising his glass.


Days. That’s how long it took for Barnum’s investigator to confirm my story. Surus was none other than Tiny, an Indian elephant from the Emmett Adler Pantomime Troupe. The royal toggery was from a tailor in Buffalo who confirmed Emmett’s people had put in a rush order several weeks ago. I received a payment of more than a year’s salary within the week along with two free tickets to the Greatest Show on Earth’s Madison Square Garden performance. Barnum purchased full-page advertisements in all the major newspapers telling the story of the Emmett’s white elephant hustle.

That would be the end of it, I supposed. I thought Emmett would pull the elephant from the promotional posters or people would boycott the circus in protest, but I was wrong. To the public, it seemed, truth was a golem—a simple, mute creature molded from sand that they crumbled if it didn’t serve. In the case of Emmett and Phineas, it was a hairy mole on the nose of a distant cousin—a distasteful distraction if it got between you and your jellied veal. Both men declared victory. The Greatest Show on Earth and The Fantastic Emmett Adler Circus featured the world’s only white elephant that season, each alleging their competitor’s beast a phony. The Greatest Show on Earth opened in New York with The Revered and Holy Toung Taloung in the back of the menagerie tent. The lighting muted the gray and made the elephant appear more brightly colored than it was. The Fantastic Emmett Adler Circus opened in early spring in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with The Astonishing Surus, the World’s Only Sacred White Pachyderm. The elephant had its own tent near the menagerie tent, and visitors paid a nickel to see him. Both elephants were an astonishing success.

As for me, that is when I retired my pen, so to speak, and picked up another in the press offices of The Greatest Show on Earth and later for the five Ringling brothers, and that is where you will find me today.

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