The sea lion

With hoaxes dominating the news these days, I thought I would share a story from Old Princeton that surprised me as I was skimming through pages of the Princeton Republic from 1876.

It was the story spread over two issues of local men trying to capture a sea lion in the Fox River here in Princeton. It started with a report from Oshkosh.

Princeton Republic, August 5, 1876 – “When Cooper and Bailey’s great show was in Oshkosh, one day this week, they backed the cage that containing the sea lion down into the lake to give the animal a bath. The back door of the cage was unbolted, and when the wagon went off the bank, the largest lion struck the door with such force as to push it open and the animal escaped. Up to this time, it has not been recaptured.”

The following edition included a detailed report seemingly describing locals’ encounters with the lion and her cubs.

It seemed so odd, I had to look deeper.

Sure enough, the August 1, 1876, edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern available at reported that a sea lion was “swimming at large” in Lake Winnebago after escaping from the Cooper, Bailey & Co. circus.

“The liberated sea lion swam off a distance, dove down and reappeared in two or three different places, but all efforts to capture her were unavailing,” the newspaper said.

The circus offered a $500 reward for the capture and safe return of the sea lion, which it said was about two weeks away from giving birth to pups.

“Should she not be captured and give birth to her young, there is no knowing what Lake Winnebago may be turned into. Small boys who go in swimming had better be careful,” the Daily Northwestern joked.

A few days later, the newspaper admitted the story seemed to be a hoax perpetrated by the circus.

“The improbability which has surrounded the report that Cooper, Bailey & Co.’s circus lost a sea lion in the lake, has given rise to a very general discussion and has been the occasion of more jokes and sells than anything that has happened in this city for many a day,” the Northwestern said. “The joke as to who caught the sea lion and how, has afforded amusement for two or three days, and the story of the finding of the lion’s nest of eggs as big as pumpkins has taken in many an unsuspecting one, who stood with mouth open in astonishment at the wonderful stories.”

The newspaper said the news of the lion’s escape had come from the circus’ press agent and manager. A local railroad station agent told the Daily Northwestern, however, that the circus had shipped a female sea lion in delicate condition to Philadelphia about two weeks earlier.

“It would seem, therefore, that the managers of the show intended to come a joke on Oshkosh, and get a little free advertising, in both of which they amply succeeded.”

The Princeton Republic joined in the fun with its own “sighting” of the sea lion and her cubs the following week. (As odd as the story is, it is even odder that I know the people mentioned, even the ones whom the writer refers to only by initials and first name! I have added names in parenthesis.)

Princeton Republic, August 12, 1876 – “Our village was thrown into the wildest frenzy of excitement on Friday morning about nine o’clock, by the intelligence that Cooper & Bailey’s Sea Lion had come up the Fox River and was gamboling about with a litter of five cubs just below the bridge. The news went like wildfire through town and soon an immense concourse of people had gathered in our streets to discuss the strange story. Some were a little incredulous at first, but when it became generally understood that Gard. Green was the man that first saw the lion and heard it whistle for the bridge it dissolved all doubts, and the great crowd heaved and surged toward the river.

“When our reporter reached the spot, the bridge was wide open and (David) Messing said the dang lion might come up under his float and spoil his business. We said eggsackly; and turned to watch M.C.R. (Marion Russell) who was floating about in the center of the stream in a dug out, with a horse pistol in one hand and a mail bag in the other. It was evident that he expected to bag one of the cubs anyway.

“Just at this moment Tom Andrews came along, having been out after a bear that he had heard was destroying all the huckleberries on Pine Island. He brought his gun to bear on the top of an old spile in the river, and would have pulled the trigger, but Si (Eggleston) told him if he shot with that aim, he was liable to break all the windows in his little house nearby. Tom gave him a withering look of scorn and said that if that was the opinion the crowd had of his shooting, they might go to Potsdam for all he cared, he wouldn’t give a cent for Cooper & Bailey’s whole show. Norm. Lowe then carried him away in their little new wagon.

“During all this time the lion was going up stream and was frequently seen rising to the surface of the water. In fact, it came up so many times that M.C.R. got excited and sent Charlie Rawson to the post office after another bag and five pounds of ounce cartridges. When the shipping clerk went by (Elmer) Morse’s he was badly out of breath and could only stop long enough to tell Morse about the lion, of which singular to relate, he hadn’t heard a word. He explained the matter, however, by saying that he and Chit (Thomas Sayles Chittenden) had been trying to dissolve partnership, owing to a slight difference of opinion over a bag of Kingston flour that Chit said wasn’t charged on the right side of the book. By this time the lion had gone rapidly up stream and was lingering around (James) Hubbard’s dock. Morse had heard somewhere that music has charms, and so he immediately repaired to the bank and struck up the Marseilles hymn. It had the desired effect, and the animal quickly approached the shore, whereupon on Morse grabbed him by the mane and dragged him into his icehouse where he says he is going to keep him until lions are quoted higher in the market.

“P.S. – Rawson were gone so long that he didn’t get back in time to give M.C. any assistance, so he didn’t get but two of the cubs. One of these he is going to send to Mrs. Dom Pedro as a centennial present, and the other he and Herb Childs are going to train on the railroad.”

Nothing like a little satire to start the week.

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