Chunee, The Death of a Regency Elephant

In July of 1810, a few months after Napoleon Bonaparte married Marie Louise of Austria, an elephant was purchased from a Captain Hay by a Mr. Parker and a Mr. Harris, proprietor of Covent Garden Theatre. They paid nine hundred guineas. The elephant, named Chunee, was “neither old nor full-grown.”[1] He was purchased to perform in a grand pantomime known as the “Harlequin Padmanaba.” He was ridden by a Mrs. Henry Johnstone and praised as a stellar performer, roaring and performing with the best of them. Besides Chunee’s performances at Covent Garden, further public exhibits were arranged, and he was presented at the Royal Menagerie Exeter Change, referred to as the Change.

Firing Upon Chunee, Public Domain

Firing Upon Chunee. Public domain.

In 1814, the superintendent of Chunee, a Mr. Cross, purchased him. Chunee was then permanently moved to the Change where he and the other animals were housed on the second floor above various shops. Chunee’s keepers also came with him. A the time, the elephant was well-behaved and obeyed their every command.

Over time, Chunee increased in bulk and strength. Because of his new size, a new den was constructed for him. Around this same time, one of his usual keepers died. So, during the construction of his new den, the elephant became attached to a carpenter, a man named Harrison.

Chunee usually remained docile and obeyed every wish that Harrison requested. This playful state between the two occurred almost every day, and they achieved a remarkable friendship. No concerning incidents with Chunee happened during this time, although occasionally Chunee was troublesome. However, when he misbehaved, “the prick of a gimblet was an intimation he obeyed.”[2]

One day, in 1820, when Chunee’s keeper went into his den to exhibit him, Chunee refused to obey. The usual practice was to strike him with a cane when he was disobedient and that is what the keeper did. But this time Chunee reacted violently because unbeknownst to his keeper he was in pain suffering with an infected tusk. Chunee threw the keeper down, and another man, sensing the danger, tossed the keeper a pitchfork. Chunee, however, tossed the pitchfork aside and seized the keeper. Cross, hearing the commotion, came running and pulled the prostrated keeper from the den saving his life.

Cross noted that “this was the first appearance of those annual paroxysms, wherein the elephant, whether wild or confined, becomes infuriated.”[3] To calm Chunee, Cross visited the apothecaries and obtained a mixture of salts, treacle, calomel (a fungicide), tartar emetic (expectorant), gamboge (purgative), and croton oil (purgative). This combination was administered, but it had no effect on the elephant. Six pounds of bone marrow were also tried and that seemed to calm Chunee for a short time, but then three weeks later he became infuriated and more bone marrow had to be given.

Similar incidences of rage continued to spontaneously occur over the years until they became more frequent and more violent. Finally, on Sunday, 26 February 1826, things came to a head when Chunee began to act out. Medication was given and although it seemed to have no effect, he remained calm until Wednesday, the 1st of March.


Chunee’s den. Public domain.

That Wednesday, without provocation, Chunee made a powerful lunge against his den. Fortunately, over the years, the den had been hardily fortified and the bars were the size of a man’s arm. But it did not matter how large they were as this time he “broke the tenon, or square end at the top of the hinge story-post,”[4] and this loosened the strong iron gates that had resisted his prior attacks.

As Cross was unavailable, Cross’s friend, a man named Tyler, fortified Chunee’s den by placing a large timber in front. Attempts were also made to calm him. But Chunee was upset and all attempts failed, so when Cross returned, he found Chunee in a furious state. Even Chunee’s friend Harrison could not control him.

Because the den was now insecure and because the elephant was in such an excited state, Cross decided Chunee needed to be destroyed immediately. To accomplish this, he obtained a massive dose of arsenic, which he mixed with oats and sugar, but the elephant refused to eat it. So, Cross attempted another method, hoping to soothe him. This time he ordered his favorite fruit. But Chunee’s “eyes now glared like lenses of glass reflecting a red and burning light.”[5] Oranges were his favorite fruit and as each orange was presented, instead of eating it, Chunee crushed it under his foot and became more enraged.

Chunee’s orange stomping behavior heightened Cross’s concern. He now mixed arsenic with a conserve of roses and offered it to the elephant. But again, Chunee refused to eat it. As Chunee was five tons and furious, Cross was fearful of the consequences and dispatched a message to his brother-in-law named Herring, who was an excellent shot.

When Herring arrived, he and Cross went to view an elephant skeleton to determine the best spot to shoot Chunee, but when they got to Surgeons Hall in Lincoln’s-Inn Field there was no skeleton to view. They did, however, obtain three rifles, and, it was at that point that the men split up: Herring went back to the Change, and Cross went to talk to an eminent anatomist and then obtain military help. However, an hour later when Cross arrived back at the Change, he found Chunee already dead!

Apparently, during Cross’s absence, Chunee’s fury increased to such a point the keepers fought him with pikes and spears to prevent him from liberating himself from his den. This did little to deter the elephant who only became more incensed. In fact, the elephant was so incensed, Cross’s friend Tyler worried the elephant might fall through the floor. This would endanger everyone below, and, so, everyone inside the Change was removed.

In the meantime, Chunee’s furor steadily increased. The three rifles earlier obtained were then loaded. Tyler, Herring, and an assistant entered the area where Chunee was confined. They each took a position about twelve feet away from the elephant. Keepers were placed behind them with spears and pikes and one keeper named Cartmell was told to use his usual tone and give commands as if exhibiting Chunee. Cartmell cried out “Chunee! Chunee! Chuneelah!” and the elephant took a somewhat favorable posture. Two balls were fired towards his heart, but they entered his shoulder blade. Chunee then made “a fierce and heavy rush at the front, which further weakened the gates.”[6] In this frantic state, Chunee continued to crash at the iron gates.

Amidst mass confusion, the keeper then hallooed at Chunee, and Tyler and Herring cried “Rifles! Rifles!” The assistants rallied and pointed their spears at the elephant they feared would now break through the gates. Rifles were provided, but not nearly fast enough as they were discharged again and again. Each time this produced “a similar desperate lounge [sic] from the enraged [Chunee].”[7] In the meantime, Chunee was being attacked from every side.

He now spun to hide his head, and Herring fired several shots through the grating. Chunee’s hysterical movements to escape began to shake the entire building. He “flew round the den with the speed of a race-horse, uttering frightful yells and screams, and stopping at intervals to bound from the back against the front.”[8] After taking about thirty balls, Chunee suddenly sunk onto his haunches, and Herring “conceiving that a shot had struck him in a vital part, cried out — ‘He’s down boys! he’s down!'”[9] But it only lasted for a moment for the wounded elephant rose once again and moved forward with renewed vigor.

More balls were again fired as Cartmell cried out his usual commands, “Bite Chunee! bite!” to which Chunee responded, kneeling as commanded, despite being fired upon. Chunee fell a second time and was now laying with his face towards the back of the den, one foot thrust out between the bars, his toes touching the floor. He rested, breathing heavily, not moving. However, despite having received between 100 and 120 balls, he rose a third time, exhausted but determined to stay on his feet.

The fight had been raging for an hour when Herring directed Chunee be shot “constantly to the ear.”[10] One ball took effect, and he rushed round the den and gave one last furious lunge at the gates. Tyler described the lunge “as the most awful of the whole.”[11] He was then shot in the gullet and fell with deliberation as if to rest while the men continued to fire at him. Spears were also run through the elephant’s side, and, this time the elephant did not move. He had died laying in his favorite position.

Chunee at His Death, Public Domain

Chunee at his death. Public domain.

After Chunee’s horrible death, one nineteenth century poet decided to pay his respects to the magnificent elephant with the following poem titled, “As He Laid Dead at Exeter Change.”

  • “In the position he liked best
  • He seem’d to drop, to sudden rest;
  • Nor bow’d his neck, but still a sense
  • Retain’d of his magnificence;
  • For, as he fell, he raised his head
  • And held it, as in life, when dead.”[12]

Chunee’s story inspired a chapter in Suzan Lauder’s fictional book, “Ramsgate.” Click here to learn more.


  • [1] Hone, William, The Every-day Book, 1827, p. 337.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 323.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 325.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 327.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 331.
  • [7] Hone, William, The Every-day Book and Table Book, 1837, p. 331.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 533.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 534.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Hone, William, 1827, p. 321.

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