Magician’s disappearing elephant shrouded in mystery

Lincoln Park Zoo employee Danny Bostrom poses with Nizie in the early 1930s.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — 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.

Hoping to establish the definitive story of Nicola’s elephant, I set out to research every source I could find — from period newspapers to the archives of the late Monmouth historian Ralph Eckley. I soon discovered that variations on the story are so numerous that I am fairly convinced Nicola intentionally spun yarns about him, to create both mystery and publicity.

Some basic facts seem to be undisputed:

• Nizie was a male dwarf Asian elephant weighing 600–800 pounds, acquired in India.

• Nizie traveled with Nicola during his winter tours. Using a large crate and mirrors, Nicola made the elephant seem to disappear. During the summer months, Nizie was an attraction at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

• In 1933, Nizie became ill from being fed an unhealthy diet and developed arthritis. A sling to help him stand was devised by his keeper at the zoo, who also fed him cod liver oil and gave him violet-ray treatments. The following summer, engineers from General Electric devised a portable X-ray machine that confirmed the diagnosis.

• By summer 1934, Nizie had become too weak to be cared for at the zoo and was shipped to Monmouth, where he was put under the care of veterinarian Vird O. Cudd at his home at 525 North 11th St. Nizie failed rapidly and died in late September. He was buried nearby — reportedly in a pasture just north of the Cudd home.

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 as a gift.

In a 1940 interview in the Monmouth College student newspaper, Holt recalled her adventures with Nicola but failed to mention the maharajah encounter.

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 d — — quick.”

In a 1984 letter to Ralph Eckley, Hugh T. Martin of Chicago wrote, “I remember the story that while walking the elephant in New York, a smart-aleck taxicab driver yelled at Nicola, ‘Hey, Buddy, do you want a lift?’ Nicola said it was one of those large cabs with the fold-down seats, so he said, ‘Sure’ and pushed the elephant in the back while he rode in front with the driver.”

Syndicated New York columnist James Aswell wrote in 1933: “A commotion near city hall the other noon drew me on the run from Park Row … It couldn’t, I was sure, be less than a riot … Bluecoats milled angrily around what appeared to be a large Communist banner. … But the large Communist banner was only a red blanket for a 12,000-pound, or thereabout, baby elephant. … A swarthy gentleman, in the center of the rumpus, turned out to be a vaudeville conjurer, who had brought his pet to call on Mayor O’Brien … The police said it was against the law for elephants to visit the mayor … The tot’s name, I found was Nizie… Plodding away he had a melancholy look, and so did his master.”

The story that most made me question Nicola’s claim that Nizie was a gift from royalty was written by reporter Charles Eugene Banks in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1928 — two years before Nizie was reputedly acquired. Banks reported that Nicola was discussing the magnificent diamond ring he always wore — given to him by the Boy Emperor of China.

“This matter of receiving presents from all the potentates I performed for was very lucrative to me,” Nicola told the reporter, “and on a tour through India I received lots of jewelry and other valuables. The culmination came when I gave a special show for the powerful Nizam of Hyderabad…With Yankee canniness I showed the powerful Nizam the wonderful gifts I had received from other rulers, hoping that his ego would induce him to surpass in magnanimity as he believed he surpassed the others in power and distinction.”

Nicola continued: “After the show, Nizam told me that he had the most magnificent gift for me that I need ever hope to receive in the Orient. I was thrilled with the picture of some sparkling ruby as big as a roc’s egg, or perhaps a thousand-year-old tapestry. The Nizam led me out to the grounds of the palace and with overweening pride pointed out to the white gates. I looked and looked again — what did I see? A huge, husky, browsing elephant! Truly the Nizam’s gift surpassed all the others — in size.”

Nicola concluded by saying he feared to offend the Nizam by refusing the elephant (which he had no way of transporting), so he asked if the potentate would keep the beast until he could arrange to send for it. “For all I know my present is still consuming grass in Hyderabad, and I’m afraid to go back,” he told the reporter, “thinking of the feed bill he will have run up.”

At 600–800 pounds, Nicola’s pet was far from the huge, husky elephant that Nicola described in his story. Originally called “Jazz,” perhaps Nicola renamed him “Nizie” after deciding to weave his earlier tale of the Nizam into the story of the elephant’s lineage.

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. As I mentioned in an earlier column, 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.

Jeff Rankin is editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching and writing about local history for more than 35 years.

Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu