Entire special exhibitions have been dedicated to these grey giants; we even had a whole ‘Year of the Elephant’. And our golden mascot Caruso is in pride of place on the roof. There are many stories to be told about our elephants, and they stretch far back into the past. One of these is about the ‘Murten elephant’. It’s a story that began spectacularly, ended even more spectacularly, and gave the pachyderm a popularity that endures to this day.
Murten, 1866. Early in the morning on 28 June, a tumult broke out in the town, home to 2,300 inhabitants. A young Indian elephant was rampaging through the streets and destroying everything that lay in his path. Trained as a circus animal by the American travelling circus Bell & Meyers, he was being displayed as an attraction to bring in the crowds. The exotic giant was also a real spectacle for the locals in Murten, who led secluded lives – most of them would never before have seen anything like an elephant. Every single seat was sold out for the show on 27 June. But the real spectacle only began once the spectators had made their way home.
In the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 3 am, people were woken by cries of alarm: the elephant had got loose and was blundering through the town, wreaking havoc as he went. Only after he had spent the whole day rampaging through the streets did he return to his stall, where he could again be contained. But what then? The young elephant had not only caused fear, alarm and devastation all across the town, but also had his keeper on his conscience: the man had brutally fallen victim to the elephant as he ran wild. The local political authorities came together for this unusual case to decide on the fate of the offender. Their verdict was a curious one when seen from today’s perspective: death by cannon shot. A cannon was ordered from Fribourg. A six-pound cannonball, fired on the orders of the artillery captain at the time, punched through the elephant’s ribs beneath the left shoulder blade and led to the animal’s death. That was how the Indian elephant – albeit involuntarily – entered history as the ‘Murten elephant’. And then, almost more curiously than the cannon shot itself, he was carved up the following day on the same spot, and the exotic meat was sold to the locals for CHF 0.20 per pound.
To commemorate the dead elephant, the Murten authorities planned an exhibition pavilion that was meant to contain a specimen and the skeleton for posterity. What began spectacularly, however, ended with disenchantment: for financial reasons, the elephant specimen was sold to the ‘Naturalien Cabinett’ of our museum. When the museum moved from Hodlerstrasse to our current location in the 1930s, the specimen was unfortunately lost. The patched, faded elephant skeleton, however, is still here, and makes its rounds through our skeleton cabinet – if you know what you’re looking for, you can spot it thanks to the rib broken by the cannonball. The skeleton is there to remind us that the ‘Murten elephant’ was neither an uncontrollable monster nor a mythical being. The young bull’s outburst of rage, which must have been a terrifying sight for the people of Murten, had a biological cause: the elephant had reached puberty, and his actions were influenced by hormones – which is completely normal for a bull elephant.
Musth, which shouldn’t be confused with rut, is a highly aggressive state that can hit bull elephants when they are 15 or older. The body produces 50 to 60 times more testosterone than usual. This hormonally caused condition can appear roughly once a year and last several months, which is why circuses today no longer keep male elephants. Unfortunately, musth continues to cause many bull elephants pain. Domesticated elephants in Asia still often cause the deaths of humans when in musth – which then leads to brutal consequences for the elephant. They are chained up to trees and starved in the belief that this will end the state of musth more quickly. Even the ‘Murten elephant’ spent most of its time in the circus chained up, and was kept under control by his keeper using brutal methods. While the young bull’s rage, which ended in his ‘execution’, has a clear explanation today, those involved at the time simply did not have the necessary biological knowledge.
In the name of the elephant
The story of the ‘Murten elephant’ still moves people today. In 2001, our museum dedicated a special exhibition to him and his story. His skeleton has been on display since then, and the museum also dedicated itself to the sensitive elephant for the whole of 2016. During this time, we focused entirely on the grey giant – from head to toe, roof to cellar. In addition to various events, we also displayed the work Plan für ein Elefantengrab (‘Plan for an elephant grave’) by Bernhard Luginbühl, which was inspired by the drama of the Murten elephant. The Wattenwyl elephant is another famous pachyderm. The proud bull ran in front of the great game hunter Vivienne von Wattenwyl’s gun in East Africa in 1923, and was skinned single-handedly by the young woman from Bern. You can now see him on the first floor of our museum. Since our ‘Year of the Elephant’, Caruso has also occupied pride of place on our roof. The golden elephant has since achieved cult status in Bern, and has become our mascot. In early 2019, we loaned him to the Bern Concert Theatre, where he stood by the gates to greet visitors. The theatre dedicated an entire, mostly fictitious, stage play to the ‘Murten elephant’.