Massarti the Lion Tamer Killed in 1872 by His Lions

Manders’ Menagerie was a traveling circus that relied on Massarti the Lion Tamer for one of their most famous acts. Massarti, who was born Thomas Macarte* in Cork around 1838, had been hired by Mr. Manders in 1871 to replace the African lion tamer, Martini Maccomo,** allegedly a native of Angola who had arrived in 1855 and whose fame quickly spread resulting in Mr. Manders securing his services. As Macomo’s replacement, Massarti’s exploits was expected to rival his predecessor in the lions’ den.

Portion of a handbill advertising Maccomo at Manders’ Royal Menagerie in 1860. Public domain.

Maccomo had died unexpectedly in the Palatine Hotel in Sunderland from rheumatic fever on 11 January 1871. As Massarti had been employed in and around menageries for most of his life, visitors to the menagerie were likely expecting to see his new show be as spectacular as those of Maccomo’s, whose heroics were well known.  One newspaper demonstrated his bravery when they published stories of his deeds stating:

“Maccomo’s encounters with the lioness at Newcastle, at Christmas, 1858, and with the lions at Norwich, in 1863 and 1864, will be long remembered; while his terrifying fight with a tiger at Liverpool, in February, 1860 showed his matchless nerve and sang froid. On the latter occasion he had entered a den containing four full-grown Bengal tigers, to put them through their accustomed performances, when he was suddenly seized by the right hand by the largest tiger. … The menagerie at the moment was crowded with spectators, and the only unmoved individual in the vast assemblage was the one most interested in the fearful issue – Maccomo himself. The tiger closed his ponderous jaws upon the hand of the lion tamer until his teeth met, and the most terrible consequences were anticipated by the affrightened spectators. Not a muscle did the heroic African move, but stood defiant as a Roman gladiator. For some minutes he remained in his fearful position until a thick iron bar was heated to redness, and which was then handed inside the den to him. Taking the red-hot iron in his left hand, Maccomo, without a moment’s hesitation, thrust the same into the mouth of the tiger, forcing it into the glands of its throat, and compelling it to loose its deadly grip. The brave fellow then emerged from the den amidst the vehement cheers of spectators, and immediately after – his iron nerves being strung to their utmost tension – he fainted in the arms of an attendant.”[1]

Maccomo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Massarti was anticipated to be as thrilling a lion tamer as Maccomo. Part of the reason was that Massarti already sported a lion injury, “his left arm having been torn off by a lion in the circus of Messrs. Bell and Myers in Liverpool, nine or ten years [earlier].”[2] It happened in mid November of 1862 when he was working as a lion keeper in Liverpool at the American Hippodrome Circus in Crosshall Street as an assistant to Alfred Moffat. As the 22-year-old walked past the lion cage, one of the lioness’ for some unknown reason seized his arm and brutally lacerated it. Although his cries summoned help from a performer named Batty, Massarti’s arm was so severely damaged there was no choice but to amputate.

Having lost his arm, you would think Massarti would be particularly careful around lions. He knew how dangerous they could be, but he was not cautious and regularly turned his back on the wild animals. Perhaps, that is why two other incidents happened where he was harmed. Both incidents occurred while he was employed with Manders’ Menagerie, which by this time was being run by Mrs. Rosina Manders because her husband William had died in 1871.

“The first time was whilst performing at Edinburgh, when one of the lions made a snap at his right arm, but only slightly grazed it. The next occasion was on Monday last when one of the black-mane animals, known as the Asiatic lion, bit him slightly on the wrist and finger.”[3]

Massarti had told his wife that he feared the Asiatic lion, and it was suspected that before the performance on Wednesday 3 January, when he dressed up as a Roman gladiator and carried a sword, that he had enjoyed an alcoholic drink to enhance his courage. This time when he stepped into the cage to perform with the lions, it was no close call, instead it was a fatal performance.

The audience of about 500 spectators were glued watching the show unaware when the attack began that it was not part of Massarti’s act. However, their interest soon turned to horror when they realized what was happening, and the public was likewise horrified when they read the dreadful and terrifying details in newspapers:

“A very shocking affair took place last night in Bolton, … Part of the performance consists of a ‘lion hunt,’ during the course of which five large lions are put through a variety of movements by a man, dressed in a French uniform, whose name is given in the bills as [Massarti], but whose real name is Thomas Macarte. … Last night, about half-past ten o’clock, the last representation in connection with the ‘farewell visit’ of the establishment was given, and during its progression Macarte slipped and fell to the floor while engaged in a large cage with the five full grown lions. One of the largest of the animals, a black Barbary lion, immediately sprang upon him with a terrific roar and was quickly followed by its companions. A horrible scene ensued. Within the den a frightful tragedy was enacted, the cries of the unhappy man struggling in the fangs of the savage brutes, being scarcely heard amid their roaring. Outside the cage a scene scarcely less appalling was witnessed. in the large assemblage of visitors, stalwart men shrieked, women tore their hair and fainted, and many were unable to seek their homes until a considerable time had elapsed. Macarte was rescued from the lions as quickly as possible but ere this could be done he was frightful torn by their teeth and claws, his legs, head, and hands being lacerated to such a degree that the flesh was completely torn away from the bones.”[4]

Lions attacking Massarti. Author’s collection.

A slightly different version was given by a Salford visitor who attended the show. His eye-witness account stated:

“[T]he ‘tamer’ was just finishing his performance, part of which seemed to consist in his falling on the floor, while the lions ran growling round him, and in his thrusting a sword into the mouth of one of the lions. The latter act appears … to have infuriated the animal concerned, and it immediately jumped on Macarte, and began dragging him round the den. Three of the other lions joined at once in the attack, but the largest and finest of the group crouched himself up in a corner of the den and took no part in the horrible affray. Macarte on being seized defended himself with mortal desperation, stabbing his assailants right and left, but the thrusts of the sword seemed only to augment, the fury of the brutes. Attempts were made by the menagerie attendants to beat off the lions, and several shots were fired into the den, apparently without ball, but for ten minutes the horrible scene continued. Nobody dared to enter the den, and poor Macarte had to fight with his brute antagonists literally single-handed. Not until an iron partition had been thrust violently between the man and the lions, so as to shut the latter off into a separate cage as it were, was the dreadful struggle ended.”[5]

The attack on Massarti. Author’s collection.

Typically, hot irons were used as a defense strategy to control the lions and were prepared beforehand. These same irons were also sometimes used as props but were usually “kept leaning against, lying under, and inserted in a large fire, which was always burning in an open-grated cage on the floor of the menagerie, immediately opposite the lions’ carriage.”[6] Unfortunately, on this day, the irons were not readied, which delayed Massarti getting help. Furthermore, when the hot irons were finally brandished, Massarti’s escape proved to be only temporary because before the iron door could be closed to separate the lions from the injured man, a lion grabbed him by the foot, dragged him beyond the door, and all the lions preceded to attack him anew.

By the time Massarti was removed he was horribly injured. The back of his scalp was torn off, his thighs ripped, his chest slashed, and the bones of his pelvis bitten through. There was also a bleeding laceration that ran from his shoulder to his hand. He was still conscious as his was conveyed to the infirmary and he supposedly remarked, “Harry, I am done for.”[7] He was right. His injuries were so severe no one could help him, and he died with minutes of being removed from the lions’ den.

During the attack, Massarti was not the only one who suffered an injury. The lions were injured too when an agent named Birchall attempted to help, as did a butcher named Brierscliffe.

“[He] thrust at the lions with a pickel, forcing the prongs up to the hilt in the neck of one, and causing it to yell with pain, and to turn its attention to its own safety; another he endeavoured to stab in the heart, but the prongs glanced off at the shoulder bone; while a third received sundry wounds about the face.”[8]

One of the animal’s injured was the lion that Massarti had stabbed several times as he fought for his life. It was a ferocious 7-year-old black maned lion that had grown up in captivity after it was captured when it was six months old. It was also the same lion that the great lion tamer Maccomo greatly feared.

The wounded lion and the one who killed Massarti. Author’s collection.

As news of the lion attack spread, everyone had an opinion. In fact, there was much speculation about whether the attack was the lion’s fault or Massarti’s. One leading newspaper of the time reported on the catastrophe and noted:

“It is time to dispel the nonsensical notion that wild beasts can be tamed by the sort of kindness prevailing among travelling exhibitors, or that kindness is the means actually employed to fit the brutes for caravan performances.”[9]

There was also much conjecture as to why the lion attack occurred. It caused the proprietor of Wombell’s Royal Menagerie, Alexander Fairgrieve, to write a letter dated 10 January 1872 to The Bolton Evening News. Fairgrieve stated that he wanted to clear up discrepancies and help readers and the citizens of Bolton “understand this matter.” He noted that lion exhibitions were no more dangerous than other exhibitions and compared it to a monkey exhibit or the famous tightrope walker and acrobat Charles Blondin. Fairgrieve also provided three reasons why the attack likely happened:

“In the first place, it was an extra performance, at a late hour of the evening, and just before feeding, when the animals would naturally long for quiet and rest after three or four exhibitions of the kind during the day. Undue fagging, especially coupled with hunger, has an irritating influence on the best of human tempers, and makes many a placable man an angry man. Need we wonder, then, that lions, however well trained and subdued, should have had their savage element excited by an extra unexpected performance when hungry at a late hour. In the second place, it is clearly brought out in evidence that Maccarte himself was excited. The Rev. Enoch Franks, whose testimony was given with that fine generous delicacy towards the poor victim which all must admire, is reported to have said that, ‘His opinion was, that the deceased had taken sufficient drink to make him become foolhardy. … Witness did not think any one would call the deceased drunk. He was just in that condition when men are mischievous, bold, or daring.’ And in the third place, Maccarte did not put the lions through their performance with his usual tact and consideration. This was observed by several witnesses, and Mr. Frank distinctly says, ‘He kept the lions going through one class of performance a long time, and witness began to be apprehensive that aggravation must follow.’ Now, … I repeat that any one of these facts was sufficient to cause the fatal accident. It was not the result of the ‘incurably savage nature,’ or the ‘cruelty,’ ‘treachery,’ and ‘innate desire for blood,’ … but the direct result of mismanagement on the part of Macarte. … It was observed by many that Macarte was not going through the performance in the usual way, and the catastrophe was anticipated before it actually took place.”[10]

Of course, some people were outraged that Fairgrieve would compare a lion exhibition to Blondin’s acrobatics or to a humorous monkey exhibit. One person with the initials J.A. claimed to have been a friend of Mr. Manders, and he remarked that he could not agree with Fairgrieve’s opinion “not on the grounds that his [opinion] is unavoidably an interested opinion, but because my own observations forbids me to be persuaded by Mr. Fairgrieve that it is only occasionally we need to expect to see a poor wretch ‘butchered to make a [British] holiday.’”[11] Moreover, according to J.A. after lengthy discussions with Mr. Manders and frequent attendance for weeks at his exhibits, he had an opinion:

“The result has established clearly to my mind that, although fatal casualties are not frequent, there is, nevertheless, frequently injury and mutilation, while daily risks of the most imminent kind are only evaded through the use of the most systematic precaution. No reliance whatever is placed by either proprietor or attendant on the acquired ‘gentleness’ or taming alleged to result from kind treatment; and although from the habits of daily routine life ‘performances’ are gone about with little apparent excitement or apprehension on the art of the keepers and performers, there exists no illusion in their minds regarding the demeanour of the animals, even when most placable to ordinary observation. … It would exhaust your patience and available space if I recounted many of the illustrations which immovably impressed on your mind a conviction of the lottery-like hazard connected with lion [performances], and, indeed, of all performances with menagerie animals of naturally ferocious disposition. Unless where death instantly occurs, under tragical circumstances, the particulars of injury and of peril are, I am informed, either withheld from publications wherever practicable, or glossed over as of trivial import. … I will not comment on the scoffing derision with which Mr. Fairgrieve meets the wounded cry of an excited public. I think he has here made a mistake. I sincerely trust that he may fail in his effort to undo the wholesome impression which is being made by our Macarte’s horrible death, and I hope for the time when lion performances in Britain will be referred to as we now refer to gladiator and lion cabinets in the days of ancient Rome.”[12]

Massarti’s funeral was held on Saturday 6 January 1872 at the Bolton Cemetery. One newspaper provided details:

“The band … headed the procession, and en route to the cemetery played the Dead March in ‘Saul.’ Some two or three thousand persons who filled the cemetery behaved in a very disgraceful manner, and when the doors of the chapel were throw open to admit the coffin the crowd rushed into the building in hundreds and conducted themselves most indecorously. The Rev. Canon Carter, a Roman Catholic priest, who conducted the service, was compelled to stop, to ask the crowd to be silent and to remove their hats. It was with difficulty that the coffin was borne from the chapel to the grave. On the coffin was placed a bouquet of camellias, lilies, & c., intermingled with sprigs of fern. At the conclusion of the service the Rev. Canon Carter addressed the crowd. He expressed a hope that the death of M’Carty would have its effect, that in the future persons would not be allowed to expose themselves to such danger. The band then played music adapted to Pope’s ode, ‘Vital spark,’ and the crowd then quietly dispersed.”[13]

Massarti’s unfortunate death was not forgotten by Rosina Manders. About seven months after he was buried in the Bolton Roman Catholic section of the cemetery, she installed a memorial over his grave that was purchased from a well-known marble merchant, John Stubbs. It was a white marble cross nearly three feet high, placed on a slab, also of white marble, that was about sixteen inches square by eight inches thick that then stood on two larger blocks of granite. The inscription read:

“In memory of the great Lion Tamer, Thomas Maccarte, aged 34, killed at Bolton, Jan. 3rd, 1872, by the lions in Manders’ Star Menagerie. Erected to the memory of an old and faithful servant by Mrs. Rosina Manders, sole proprietress of the Grand National Star Menagerie. ‘When thou hearest of a fellow mortal being suddenly plunged into eternity, think of the mercy that has spared thee.’”[14]


*Also listed as Macarthy or Carter.
**Maccomo was also spelled Macomo and was also known as “the African Wild Beast Tamer,” “Angola’s Mighty Czar of All Lion Tamers,” “the Black Diamond of Manders’ Menagerie,” “the Dark Pearl of Great Price,” “the most talented and renowned Sable Artiste in Christendom,” and “The Hero of a Thousand Combats.”

References:

  • [1] Leeds Times, “Death of Maccomo, the “Lion King”,” January 14, 1871, p. 8.
  • [2] London Daily News, “The Horrible Death at Menagerie,” January 6, 1872, p. 6.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Manchester Evening News, “A Lion-Tamer Killed by His Beasts at Bolton,” January 4, 1872, p. 2.
  • [5] Manchester Evening News, “Another Account,” January 4, 1872, p. 2.
  • [6] The Glasgow Daily Herald, “Is Lion Taming a Perilous Occupation?,” January 16, 1872, p. 2.
  • [7] New York Daily Herald, “Macarte, the Lion Tamer,” January 22, 1872, p. 10.
  • [8] Illustrated Police News, “Terrible Scene in Manders’ Menagerie. A Lion Tamer Killed,” January 13, 1872, p. 2.
  • [9] The Bolton Evening News, “Lion Taming Exhibitions,” January 11, 1872, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Glasgow Daily Herald, p. 2.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Morning Post, “Funeral of the Lion Tamer,” January 9, 1872, p. 6.
  • [14] The Bolton Evening News, “Tombstone of “Massarti,” the Lion Tamer,” July 6, 1872, p. 4.

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