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MONMOUTH’S MAGIC ELEPHANT SHROUDED IN MYSTERY
It has been said that an elephant never forgets, but the true details concerning a celebrated elephant buried in Monmouth 83 years ago have been lost to time.
A rare dwarf elephant weighing less than 1,000 pounds, Nizie was a star attraction in the magic show of Monmouth’s Will Nicol—the Great Nicola—in the early 1930s. Nicola, who performed extensively in the Far East, was said to have acquired the elephant in India, but the exact circumstances of that acquisition are as mysterious as the Nicola’s illusions.
Some basic facts seem to be undisputed:
Press accounts support the premise that Nizie was acquired during a tour of India in 1930. At the end of the tour, Nicola performed in Honolulu, and the local paper reported he had an elephant traveling companion called “Jazz.” A UPI photo from early November shows Leona Eddings (Nicola’s future sister-in-law) with the elephant—now called “Nizie”—on the dock in San Francisco. The troupe had just returned from an Asian tour and the Burlington (Iowa) Gazette reported that it had then gone to Chicago to leave an elephant at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The first bit of conflicting information occurs here, though, as the UPI caption says the elephant was presented to Miss Eddings by a native prince in India, while the Burlington story says a maharajah gave it to Nicola.
Ralph Eckley (who knew Nicola) long asserted that the elephant was a gift to Nicola’s niece, Doris Holt, who conducted Nicola’s band during the 1930 tour. A Monmouth College tennis champion, she reportedly so impressed the Nizam of Hyderabad with her athleticism that he presented her with the elephant.
But a number of inconsistencies regarding Nizie’s true origins arise from various sources, making the royal gift story suspect.
Nicola’s proclivity for telling tall tales about the elephant surfaces in various accounts. In 1943, he told a reporter for the Indianapolis Star that once he parked Nizie in his bathtub at a Cleveland hotel, then called room service for a ham sandwich, a cup of coffee and a bale of hay. When the manager asked him what he did with the elephant, Nicola said, “I make it disappear,” to which the manager supposedly replied, “Well make it disappear out of here damn quick.”
Nizie made headlines in 1934 when Scientific American published a story about engineers from General Electric X-Ray corporation bringing a portable X-ray machine to Nizie’s stall at Lincoln Park Zoo, where he was ailing from arthritis. The exposure, which required 45 seconds to penetrate the elephant hide, confirmed the diagnosis of inflamed and stiffened joints.
The previous summer, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about Nizie, in which his caretaker was quoted as saying “Nizie was bought as a baby elephant in Bombay,” and also speculated that he was almost old enough to vote, making him perhaps born in 1912.
A database called AsianElephants.net states the Lincoln Park Zoo had in its collection an elephant named Nizie between 1919 and 1928, at which time it was transferred to a private owner. Nicola began supplying Lincoln Park with animals in 1917. Might he have purchased Nizie in Bombay and lent him to the zoo for several years?
Nicola, who began his career as an escape artist, drew much of his inspiration from Houdini. In 1918, Houdini became the first magician to make an elephant disappear, when he placed a 10,000-pound pachyderm named Jennie in a cabinet equipped with mirrors. No doubt this illusion made an impression on Nicola. Could he have purchased the dwarf elephant with the vision of one day duplicating Houdini’s trick, and spent the next decade perfecting the trick?
The answer lies buried with the magician in Monmouth Cemetery and with his faithful companion in a pasture a few blocks away.