An escaped elephant rampaged through Wilmington 100 years ago. Celebrate her Sunday!

In October of 1922, a traveling circus swung through Wilmington with an elephant named Topsy as its star attraction, delighting the coastal North Carolina city with the antics of a four-ton pachyderm.

But as spectators would soon learn, this particular elephant owned a reputation for misbehavior — a wanderlust soon to send Wilmington into an uproar curable only through peanuts and brandy.

Twice, Topsy broke free of her circus confines and rampaged across Wilmington, lumbering into cars, plowing through a cabin and smashing around the Eureka Dye Works, where she caused $5,000 in damage.

Courtesy of the Circus World Museum/Wisconsin Historical Society
Courtesy of the Circus World Museum/Wisconsin Historical Society

A nationwide story

On her second jaunt, The Wilmington Star reported, she swam across the Cape Fear River, trunk held high — hijinks that played across front pages nationwide.

“Topsy’s a good girl,” her owner Reuben Castang assured The Star at the time. “I grew to have an affection for her because she had such a mischievous vein. She was what we call a stampeder.”

On the 100th anniversary of Topsy’s rampage, a Wilmington museum house and restaurant have combined to celebrate the elephant’s long-forgotten destruction binge, the modern Star-News reports.

Billed as “A Toast to Topsy,” the Sunday evening event at Dram Yard offers comfort to freedom-seekers everywhere, inviting all to shake off their confines in elephantine fashion.

“She’s a fantastic character,” said Hunter Ingram, assistant museum director at the colonial Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens, who discovered Topsy’s story while hosting the Cape Fear Unearthed podcast. “We don’t think about elephants as fantastical and larger than life. In 1922, the circus was huge because people had not seen elephants in person.”

A grocery store capitalizes on Topsy the elephant’s escape in this 1922 ad in the Wilmington Morning Star.
A grocery store capitalizes on Topsy the elephant’s escape in this 1922 ad in the Wilmington Morning Star.

By local accounts, Topsy’s handlers with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were loading her aboard a train car when a pack of barking dogs spooked her into a frenzy. Some news accounts added a passer-by firing a gun to further spark the commotion.

“There are said to be several automobile owners who had quite a time straightening out their machines after Topsy bumped into them in her flight,” the Tampa Times reported.

The frightened elephant racked up $1,700 in damages wrecking a laundry, tearing off a porch and demolishing a cabin, by the Fayetteville Observer’s count. But the dye works produced the day’s largest damages tab: $5,000.

But shortly after her rescue in nearby Greenfield Lake, Topsy tore off again. The St. Louis Times elaborated on her motives:

“Such seemingly cloistered, assured comfort palled upon Topsy,” the newspaper gushed, “when she compared it with the wild, unfettered freedom. ... Topsy tore up the stake to which she was chained and started off on a rumbling gallop toward the river.”

The legend of Topsy grows

The story grew wilder as it made its way west. A St. Louis paper blamed Topsy’s spree on a circus-goer feeding her chewing tobacco. By the time it traveled to Oregon, writers had her losing an eye in the ordeal, cornered by hunters.

A front-page headline from the St. Louis Star and Times from 1922 describes the escape and capture of Topsy the circus elephant in Wilmington.
A front-page headline from the St. Louis Star and Times from 1922 describes the escape and capture of Topsy the circus elephant in Wilmington.

But Ingram’s research shows Topsy lived on to perform in many more circuses, outlasting her North Carolina infamy.

And on Sunday, her jumbo-sized spirit will galumph back into town — a fresh symbol for Wilmington, an incentive to break through barriers.

“She just wanted to see the city,” Ingram said. “She was on a Wilmington walkabout. She terrified people in the moment, but she kind of captured people’s hearts afterward.”

If You Go

“A Toast to Topsy”

5:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday

The Dram Yard, 101 S. 2nd St., Wilmington

No cost to attend. A portion of the event’s proceeds benefits the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens.