140 : ‘Eph’ Thompson the elephant trainer, 1859-1909
African-descent animal trainers were far from rare in late 19th century Britain (see page 084 of this site). Some had exotic-sounding show names and were said to be from Africa when they were born in the U.S.A. or the Caribbean. As part of the world of entertainment in fairs and circuses they were seen by many thousands, all round the country. The developed rail system enabled swift movement between towns and the tents, costumes and animals travelled hundreds of miles every year. The showman known as Eph Thompson was an American, and he travelled with six elephants.
Born on 28 October 1859 he died (from tuberculosis) in Alexandria, Egypt, on 17 April 1909 according to the grave stone at Brookwood cemetery near Woking – which describes him as ‘”Eph” Thompson’. The 1870 census records of Ypsilanti, in eastern Michigan some 35 miles from Detroit noted the Thompson family – Frances and Phillip Thompson and their children, the three boys having been born in Ontario, Canada (within sight of Detroit). The parents seem to have been born in Kentucky and we might assume they had fled slavery to Canada before the Civil War. The lad who became ‘Eph’ was here named Moses Thompson. He joined a circus and graduated as an elephant trainer, touring Europe.
Passports were not needed in European countries other than Imperial Russia (which then included Finland and Poland) and the Ottoman Empire (which included much of the Balkans), some travellers had them in order to prove their identity to police and civic authorities. The files of the U.S. Passport Office include the applications made at U.S. embassies and consulates, and these pages have been trawled by Rainer Lotz, who noted those where the applicant was said to be black, negro, dark, colored etc. Two were completed by Thompson and neither mention Ypsilanti or Canada, nor give the birth date that appears on his grave.
At the American consulate in Rostov on Don, a port city near the Black Sea in imperial Russia, on 14 July 1895 Thompson said he was Eph Thompson, and had been born in Philadelphia on 28 March 1859. He had left Philadelphia in 1883. He has been located in Berlin and Frankfurt in the mid-1880s and then, in 1887, working for Carl Hagenback, Europe’s top circus and menagerie entrepreneur (based in Hamburg). He was a trainer of elephants: twelve in Hamburg and six when they toured.
Eph Thompson was praised in December 1893 when reviews of London’s Christmas entertainments were listed. He was a ‘handsome man of colour’. He had his U.S. passport renewed in St Petersburg in August 1895.
He and the elephants were back in London in 1897. South London’s entertainment centre the Crystal Palace mounted an Imperial Victorian Exhibition, with ‘native Indian weavers’, and opportunities to ride a camel or an elephant. This was additional to Thompson’s elephants, cycle races, and a massive fireworks display according to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 6 June 1897, p10.
1898-1899 has him back in Germany, now married to Jessie Kelly, an acrobat’s daughter. In July 1900 Thompson worked in Paris, followed by a spell at the Palace theatre, London, returning to Germany where in January 1902 he was in Hanover and described as ‘the unrivalled animal trainer’. In May 1902 he and his elephants were at the Hippodrome in central London and then at the Tower Circus in Blackpool.
In January 1903 he and Jessie were in Berlin. At America’s Berlin embassy in August 1903 he declared he was Eph Thompson, was with his wife Jessica, was an elephant trainer and ‘negro’, and had been born in Philadelphia on 28 October 1860.
He worked ‘with his wonderful elephant Mary’ in 1903, a year that ended with the Christmas season in London. Despite the costs of moving and caring for a troupe of elephants, Thompson toured widely in Britain, appearing in locations yet to be identified. The London Hippodrome and the circus at Blackpool were prestigious jobs, and would have led to other opportunities. Promotional material which clearly shows Thompson’s African descent includes three elephants kicking a football, balancing, and rolling down a sloping platform. These had replaced an earlier image of Thompson balancing on a pyramid made by six elephants. Thompson’s uniform was similar to a cavalryman’s, highly decorated with embroidery.
Thompson sailed to New York from Hamburg in August 1905 and has not been traced in continental Europe afterwards. His reputation remained firm in England, with the London entertainment weekly The Era printing his portrait photograph in The Era Annual 1910 with a note that he had died on 17 April 1909. A German journal noted he died in Alexandria (Egypt) which, with that date of death but the birth year 1859, is on his tombstone in Brookwood cemetery, Surrey. It does not mention elephants.
The southern German city of Leipzig had an American consulate and there in December 1908 his son, an elephant trainer named Leo Thompson said he was ‘traveling abroad with a troupe of trained elephants and have at present no home in the USA’. He was issued with a US passport. Leo had been born in Tula, Russia, in September 1888. His mother was a circus equestrian professionally known as Dolinda de la Plata. Tula was an industrial centre 120 miles south of Moscow. Leo had gone to New York from Rotterdam in September 1907 and at the end of 1908 was in Leipzig where he was working with a troupe of elephants. He died in 1920, aged 31.
The Thompsons were an unexpected pair of professional circus performers, whose skills in animal management took them to distant lands and provided entertainment and gave a sense of wonder to many, including thousands in Britain.
Thompson descendants live in England a century later. A book sympathetic to the exploited elephants in American circuses is Michael Daly, Topsy (New York: Grove Press, 2013) – it suggests why Thompson was so successful.
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