Bicycle History: Lions & Tigers & Bears … and Bikes!

Beasts and bicycles, just think of all the fascinating possibilities. Here are three of the stories I found in old newspapers that leapt off the faded pages and bit me … 

The Bear, the Bicycle, and the Bloomers

Bruin was a performer, a dancing bear who lived with his “master” somewhere in London. Apparently this was OK back then … but bloomers were a problem, as we shall soon see. Bruin was out for a walk one day and then, according to the May 8, 1897 edition of The Illustrated Police News, London, and other newspaper stories …

Bruin was trudging along the road quietly following the hook in his nose to which his master had attached a chain, and allowed to pass without observation several women wearing the orthodox skirts on bicycles or tricycles without opening his mouth or wagging his tail. At last … a corpulent lady in bloomers came slowly wheeling along, and the moment she came within range of the bear’s vision, he suddenly snarled, jerked the chain out of his keeper’s hand and made for the bicycliste. With his head he butted the machine, which, with the lady on it, fell over and on himself, to the great amusement of the large number of spectators, who laughed heartily at the mixture of Bruin and the bloomers. The keeper promptly ran after his charge and rescued him from underneath the frightened wheelwoman, who shrieked much, but was not wounded.

OK, first of all: “corpulent.” Was that necessary? And then: “rescued him.” Wasn’t it the bicycliste who was the victim and needed to be rescued, and not the other way around? And finally, for a little 1897 context: Bloomers were a bit controversial back then, as wheelmen had to fight the conventions of society to ride and wear comfortable attire that wouldn’t get caught in their chains and wheels. 

Never volunteer to catch a runaway lion

Throughout history, a few clever lions and tigers have figured out a way to escape the zoos and circuses where they were held prisoner. Can you blame them? And so, according to the August 3, 1894 edition of The Meriden Daily Journal, Connecticut, Prince, the “royal” lion of Pleasure Beach, a resort and entertainment center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, escaped “when preparations were being made for the performance.”

And, by coincidence, an unlucky one for the cyclists, there was a bicycle track nearby. And so, of course, Prince, as lions tend to do, began stalking his prey and …

… chased them around the track, catching up with them, but did not interfere. Leon Crockett, the keeper, called for volunteers to help capture the lion. L. M. Rich, the amusement director, and Colonel Jackson, the manager of the Calverly, the high-rope walker, went to his assistance. Calverly himself left the wire and went to the colosseum and dressed in a bright red suit, but this angered the lion, and he could not get near him. At last the men coaxed him near the cage, and four men, by main force, pushed him into his cage.

Volunteers? Who in their right mind would volunteer to help catch a lion? Because … “Calverly had his hand badly bitten in the struggle.” Calverly, who is Clifford Calverley, was one of the great high-wire artists of his day, and one of several who walked across Niagara Falls in the 1800s. I’m working on a story on the Great Blondin, the first to walk Niagara, and the first to ride a bicycle on the high wire.

And now, the tiger riding a tricycle story

Carl Hagenbeck was the world’s greatest animal trainer, in the 1890s, and toured the world with his circus. According to a story in the September 23, 1893 edition of The Alma Signal, Kansas …

Two Bengal tigers pull a chariot in which a big lion rides and another lion and a dog push [it] about the inclosure. A pyramid ten-feet high if formed with a white bear at the top and an elephant under the frame work.

“My animals love music and they perform twice as well with a band as they do without,” Hagenbeck was quoted as saying in an October 4, 1893 article in The Saint Paul Globe, Minnesota.

All of the above is a prelude to the best feature of the Hagenbeck show, according to the story in the Globe

The next feature in the programme was that a tiger should ride round the circus on a tricyle. A man rolled in the tricycle, the tiger was called bby name to come down from his perch, which he did slowly and unwillingly enough. “For, said Mr. Hagenbeck, “he always hates this ride of his.” Then the tiger mounted the tricycle growing frequently the whole time; two of the boar-hounds [Great Dane dogs] walked behind a footmen, the band struck up a slow tune, the tiger set the tricycle in motion, and slowly and solemnly enough the little procession passed round the circus.

I found a story about an elephant who may have been the first to ride a tricycle, but I’ll save that for a future post as Lions, Tigers & Bears sounds better than Lions, Tigers & Elephants. And yes, I thought about putting in the “oh my,” but decided against it. Too cliche.

Here’s the link to another of my on-going series of fascinating, bicycle-history stories. Sign up for email alerts so you won’t miss any. And remember: Never volunteer to help catch a lion!

Here’s the link to my five Biking France books (Bordeaux, the Loire, Provence, the Loire and Normandy) and Numbskull, my cycling-centric novel.


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