Friday, June 21, 2013

Question the Queen City: When an elephant roamed Charlotte

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Editor's note: In this series, local author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte. Submit inquires to

My mom told me a tale about an elephant that once escaped from a circus and roamed Charlotte for a couple of weeks, sometime back in the 1950s. It's the most bizarre story I've ever heard. Do you know any of the details? Madison Tate, Charlotte

A pachyderm did escape from the long-gone Airport Amusement Park in Charlotte on Wilkinson Boulevard, not too far from the old Douglas Municipal Airport, back in the 1950s. Her name was Vicki.

She was a young Indian elephant - only 6 - when she escaped from her confines on Sunday, Sept. 11, 1955.

According to all of the stories I was able to uncover, the 2,300-pound tyke partied like it was 1959 for nine days before her ultimate capture. Reportedly, she hung out mostly in a deeply wooded area not very far from the amusement park but forayed into nearby neighborhoods, much to the chagrin of her owner and friend Jack Partlow.

Vicki and trainer relaxing after her party session
  • Courtesy CMLibrary Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room/Shelia Bumgarner
  • Vicki and trainer relaxing after her party session

Countless reports appeared in global media, detailing Vicki's would-be captors' in-vain efforts: grain and hay and molasses were distributed in a trail from her forested hold-up back to the amusement park in the hopes it would lure her home. Vicki didn't bite.

Tantalizing headlines appeared in newspapers the world over. "Female Elephant Still Hiding from Owner in Woods" and "Runaway Vicki Leaves Hideout At Charlotte," were just a few. As the days passed and Vicki remained at large, the headlines became a mix of comedic and dire: "Vicki Still Has Posse in Woods." "Escaped Elephant Elusive," "Man Will Try Baby Talk with Elephant" and "Teargas Guns To Be Used on Vacationing Elephant."

Bulldozers were used to dig deep pit traps. She wasn't falling for the trick.

Other elephants were brought in to see if she was in the mood for some action. She wasn't impressed.

Her handler Smoky Strickland tried to slip an elephant hook around her neck. Vicki smacked him squarely across the forehead with her trunk and made a clean getaway.

"I remember Vicki quite well," says Katherine Partlow, Jack Partlow's daughter-in-law. "My mother would take us to see her at the Airport Amusement Park. I think a lot of Charlotte kids from that era grew up loving Vicki. She was just as sweet as could be, but she escaped a bunch of times - that didn't end up getting all the newspaper and TV attention."

By day six local government officials were growing impatient and embarrassed at all the Charlotte Elephant jokes sweeping the country. Vicki, on the other hand, had left her woodsy lair and decided to see the town. She was seen at a truck stop, reported in the parking lot of the Lakeview Motel, and spotted precariously close to the airport, which meant she would have had to cross a state highway, innumerable city streets and railroad tracks.

It's not clear just how many people or establishments Vicki paid a visit to, but she did consistently return to her favorite wooded spot. Strickland once again attempted to spur her from the area, toward home, by using an African bush-beating technique that involved loud cries and drum beats. Once again, Vicki failed to respond.

Louis Reed, a former Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus elephant trainer, was flown in, promising that he could bring her home with "Indian Jungle Calls" and "talking like a baby." His efforts finally brought about the end to her partying days.

Vicki's unprecedented foray in the Queen City finally came to a close on Tuesday, September 20. Reed, with Partlow, Stickland and a posse of policemen and civilian volunteers were able to herd Vicki into a nearby large enclosed field, where she was allowed to run about freely until finally running out of steam. Partlow and Strickland rushed to the elephant's side to help calm her down.

A short time later she was said to be munching down on sweet grass and slurping up giant gulps of water (too much partyin' obviously left the girl a bit dehydrated). Newspaper reports indicate she was led back to the amusement park calmly and without incident.

"She stayed at my father's park for another year," recalls Jack's son Dennis Partlow. "She had been there for about seven years before she escaped, so she had not developed the hard feet elephants in the wild have to protect them from dangerous things that could cause wounds or infections. Ultimately, I think the escape did some serious damage to her feet, which later led to infections setting in."

In 1957, Vicki was sold to Carowinds developer Pat Hall, who moved her to an amusement park in Hickory. Sadly, her tale ends there.

Even though Indian elephants have been known to live as long as 75 years, Vicki died in Hickory in 1958 at just 9 years old. Partlow speculated that the infections may have resulted in her death, but a direct cause was never released.

Moore is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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