Waterford Township, Mich. – Many believe the death and burial of a circus elephant named Little Jennie in Oakland County to be a myth. Others actually recall the event vividly.
There is in fact an elephant buried at the site of the former Summit Place Mall in Waterford, Michigan. Because this July will mark 50 years since her death, it is time to re-tell her story.
Little Jennie the elephant
Let’s set the scene. It was a hot July weekend in 1972. The families of Waterford are excited because the circus is coming to town. Link Shows is playing until Sunday at Pontiac Mall. The show includes three elephants, Babe, Jimbo, and Little Jennie. However, that Friday night, only Babe and Jimbo were under the circus lights, their co-star Little Jennie was laid to rest that morning.
Earlier that week the elephant reportedly fell ill and refused to eat. With the help of Waterford and Detroit Zoo veterinarians, it was determined that Little Jennie was most likely suffering from pneumonia and that there was nothing they could do other than try to get her to eat and drink water. Attempts at recovery were unsuccessful, Little Jennie passed away on Friday, July 21, 1972 around 10 a.m.
Little Jennie was a movie star before she started her circus life. Most notably, she starred in the 1954 film, “Elephant Walk” alongside academy award winning actress, Elizabeth Taylor. She was one of ten elephants cast for the movie, one of which happened to be Babe.
Pontiac Mall was known for using their large parking lot for events to attract more customers. Events like carnivals, circuses, even “freak shows,” were not out of the norm for the community, but a funeral for an elephant was most definitely a first.
The myth has lived on due to so much speculation that surrounds this story. Some claim that the elephant was shot as a courtesy because of how ill she was. I’ll act again as a myth buster, she was not shot. The 60 year old elephant died of old age related to the supposed pneumonia.
What do you do with a four-ton lifeless elephant? She could not be moved because of her sheer size, so the Waterford police instructed the carnival owners to bury her not too far from where she quietly passed. After the carnival heads got in contact with Little Jennie’s owner, it was not until 4:30 p.m. that the elephant was placed in her grave.
I know what you’re thinking, Morgan, this story is already so interesting, how could it possibly get any better? Let me tell you. The carnival owners and her trainer, Bill Waite, were not thrilled that her remains had to be buried right then and there, they wanted to move her someplace more dignified or special to the company. It just was not possible, and the clock was ticking.
At 3:45 p.m., the Pontiac Mall owners reportedly gave permission to bury Little Jennie on mall property and a backhoe began digging a nine-foot hole for the elephant. The story goes, the backhoe driver began pushing Little Jennie into her grave when cries from her trainer stopped the operation. He unchained Little Jennie’s co-star Babe and instructed him to push the dead elephant into her grave.
Babe and Little Jennie worked together for so long, so this was how Waite thought to honor her and give her a proper funeral.
I reached out to the members of the Waterford community asking if anyone had any recollection of these events. Gay Tadje Hemingway, a Waterford resident, actually remembers riding the elephants. He told me, “I remember it well. A circus was on the corner of Telegraph and Pontiac Lake Road. I took my kids to the circus and we even got elephant rides. One of the older elephants was grazing under a billboard and just keeled over and died. They had a backhoe dig a hole for her and she was pushed into the hole by the other elephants.”
Retired Waterford Police Lieutenant, Ron Morgan Sr. remembers the event vividly. He told me his gut wrenching side of the story:
“I was a Waterford police officer at the scene....Jenny was not shot, she just died. There was a carnival and she was a part of it....It was very hot and the head of the carnival could not get ahold of the owner, who was in Germany. (What to do?) We had to get an order from the health department to bury the elephant, who was getting very ripe to say the least...OK, we call in a backhoe and dig a hole not far from Telegraph and Pontiac Lake Roads... Jenny is pulled out to the hole and the backhoe guy reaches out with his bucket to pull her into the grave....The trainer of the elephant starts to yell and tells the backhoe guy to, “Wait, wait!” He then runs toward the tents and pretty soon, he comes back riding another elephant. A long tusker, ‘Babe’, who was Jenny’s mate. These two elephants had appeared in several movies, including, “Elephant Walk,” with Liz Taylor... Anyway, the other elephant and trainer walk up to Jenny and the trainer begins poking the live elephant with a hooked rod and saying, “Poosh Babe, Poosh.” (Push)....Tears are actually running out of Babe’s eyes as he lowers his great head and begins to push Jenny toward and into the hole with a resounding and stinky plop...And the deed is done..... A very sad scene indeed....Jenny is buried pretty much near what used to be a signboard out near Telegraph. I don’t know if it’s still there or not....I expect that there will be quite an indentation in the soil out there. RIP Jenny.”Ron Morgan Sr.
After connecting with Michelle Wyse, the daughter of Dexter Wyse, she told me about how her father led the team of maintenance men that operated the backhoe. She said:
“My dad’s name [was] Dexter Wyse (he worked at the Pontiac Mall for 27 years as the Maintenance supervisor from 1965 until 1992) Most people remember my Dad as the guy that road around the mall on his golf cart with an unlit cigar hanging out of his mouth) His team of maintenance men had used their mall owned 750 CAT excavator to dig the hole for the elephant’s grave. I was 8 years old at the time and my mother worked right across the street at Oakland Schools at the time. I would spend some of my summer days with my mother at Oakland Schools. I remember crossing the Pontiac Lake road with my mom to go see what all the commotion was because it was literally in eye sight where they were digging the grave for the elephant. Mom and I connected at the grave site with my dad and I remember standing with them near the site and crying when the living elephant pushed the big elephant into the hole because it was something you don’t see every day as an adult let alone an 8 year old child. Oh the questions I had at the time for my parents. What? Why? Kids enquiring minds want to know! ;-(”Michelle Wyse
Where is her burial site located?
The location of the gravesite is still debated as the exact location is unknown. The recently demolished Summit Place Mall did expand on to the original structure, so it could be possible that with the expansion, the grave was paved over.
In a phone interview with Gary Wall, the Township Supervisor and lifelong Waterford resident said that he remembers it happening, but does not know where her final resting place is located. He said it could be paved over, it could be left exactly how it was when she died, it’s just not something we know.
Waterford residents are eager for that closure, to know where she is buried, but without some kind of excision or locating team, we will not be able to properly memorialize the tragic death of Little Jennie.
Just know that anytime you are near the Telegraph and Pontiac Lake Road intersection, you are close to her and can remember her story.