Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

084: Black animal trainers in late 19th century Britain

Maccomo the Lion Tamer

The old horse-drawn menageries expanded as railways provided faster journeys between towns and permitted more of the public to gather in one place. Animals on show were exotic but to increase the attractiveness men (and some women) performed with them. Lion tamers were at the top of the list for thrills – and a large number of them were ‘coloured’ or ‘black’.

In August 1860 the Alhambra in central London had a boring show with a black man riding on a hippo. On 6 January 1862 The Times reported that Maccomo the ‘African lion tamer’ working with Manders’s menagerie in Norwich had been attacked by a lion. The year before, the census had recorded him as Angola-born Martini Maccomo aged 25, then in Bath. He performed with both lions and tigers, and was in Newbury then Southampton in July 1870. He died in Sunderland in January 1871.

Charles Wood was attacked by a bear at Day’s menagerie in Walsall (Birmingham Daily Post, 28 September 1870). Martin Largue worked with both lions and tigers for the Sanger-Astley group in London in 1879 (Standard 21 January 1879) and the Aquarium in Shoreditch, London, had Richard Jorgnis (he worked as Dacona) in 1880 according to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 18 January. Hezekiah Moscow had that job in 1884 – the RSPCA alleged he had mistreated a bear but the law relating to animal cruelty was restricted to domestic animals and bears were not domestic (Morning Post 4 February 1884, Manchester Times 9 February 1884 etc). Ledger Delmonico was successfully sued by the RSPCA for cruelty to his hyenas in Derby in 1880.

Some of these animal trainers were foolish: Alexander Young returned drunk from a day at the races in Irvine, Scotland in August 1889 and got into the lion’s cage (Glasgow Herald 27 August 1889) and Marcus Orenzo went into a cage of five lions with just a short stick – and was attacked (Shrewsbury, September 1889).

The fashion for coloured animal trainers can be seen in advertisements in Britain’s weekly show business magazine Era: 28 October 1893, 1 June 1895, 2 May 1896 for example.

Moses ‘Eph’ Thompson was a skilled elephant trainer born in Michigan (or Canada) and known well into Russia. He and his beasts were in London in December 1893. He died from tuberculosis in Egypt and is buried in Woking, Surrey as is his Russia-born son. There are relatives in England a century later. [see page 140] Martin Bartlett was based in Yorkshire in the 1890s. And Alexander Beaumont had been attacked by one of his lions in Bolton in January 1893, and was killed by one in Islington at Christmas 1895. John Humphreys who was born in St Vincent in the British West Indies was widely known as Alicamousa, and was in London in 1882 and in Scotland in the 1890s. An American who married into an English circus family in 1866 worked as a lion tamer before becoming an actor. Joseph Ledger died in England at the end of the century.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published my article on Maccomo in October 2012.

Photograph from Manders’ Shows and Menageries by Kevin Scrivens and Stephen Smith, published by the Fairground Society, 38 Stratford Avenue, Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire ST5 0JS.

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