“She was the most beloved thing in Birmingham.”
Published: August 31, 2023
Avondale Park. Birmingham, Alabama. The town is decorated for Christmas. Garland everywhere. Wreaths aplenty. Visions of reindeer tinkling in the snow.
There is an old man in the park, talking to a giant bronze elephant statue. His adult children are nearby, snapping photos. A small crowd is gathered around him because he is in love with this inanimate object.
I ask the man why he is passionately stroking a statue.
“Ain’t a statue,” the old man explains. “This is Miss Fancy. She’s an old friend of mine.”
Then he tells a story.
The real Miss Fancy was born in 1871, in the wilds of India. She was a puny elephant, purchased by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus for a pittance.
In circus world, Hagenbeck-Wallace was big potatoes. Second largest circus in America. Founder, Carl Hagenbeck, was a pioneer who believed in reward-based animal training instead of fear-based training, so he never hurt animals like other circuses. As a result Miss Fancy was cheerful and good-natured.
Miss Fancy was likely trained to ride bikes, play musical instruments, play baseball, sing Schubert, and of course, wear wedding dresses.
In the late 1800s, Miss Fancy toured the United States, and entertained audiences from California to Maine. She was seen on posters and handbills from coast to coast.
But in 1913, her career ended. The circus made headlines when a Hagenbeck-Wallace train wrecked. It was a disaster. Hundreds of animals were badly maimed or wounded. Fancy was among the injured.
So the circus sold her. Fancy was 41 years old when she was sold to Avondale Park, in Birmingham.
“She was sent here to retire,” said the old man, affectionately stroking the statue. “She became the lifeblood of our town.”
Avondale Park was a glorified zoo. A rest home for animals. There wasn’t much going on in Avondale. People paid a few pennies to see Miss Fancy eat hay and make poop.
Things were pretty loose at the zoo. And by “loose,” I mean that Miss Fancy was rarely in her cage. Sometimes Fancy could be seen wandering city streets. She used to visit elementary schools or wander into open-air restaurants and eat from plates.
Other times, Birmingham police would receive reports of an elephant striding through neighborhoods, eating potted flowers. Fancy would often have “movements” in various backyards, leaving parting gifts that were roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial.
Miss Fancy’s trainer was John Todd. He was a man who became Fancy’s closest friend. Fancy wouldn’t do anything without John.
When World War I broke out, for example, John was called away to France. Fancy went into mourning without him. The 8,000-pound pachyderm refused to eat and wasted away to 4,800 pounds. The elephant cried herself to sleep sometimes.
After the war, John returned home. The first friend he visited was Fancy. He was still in uniform. Fancy greeted him with a series of trumpet blasts. The animal was so excited to see John that she almost “tore the damn zoo down.”
Over the following years, John would take Fancy out for daily exercise. He would ride on Fancy’s back, taking 10-mile excursions through the city.
He’d ride Fancy into impoverished neighborhoods, introducing her to local children. He let kids take free rides. Miss Fancy ate peanuts out of toddlers’ hands. She sniffed children’s faces with her trunk.
“She was the most beloved thing in Birmingham.”
Miss Fancy, was also a “medicinal drinker.” Because of her trainwreck injuries, John fed her corn liquor to ease her pain. He fed her a quart of whiskey, diluted with gallons of water. This became a lifelong habit for Fancy. She was, as far as historians know, the only documented elephant alcoholic ever recorded.
Of course, Fancy always shared her medicine with her friend, John. In fact, one afternoon in 1934, John was arrested for being under the influence while operating an elephant. A major offense in Jefferson County.
Someone called the police to report that an inebriated elephant was blocking traffic near 47th Street. They said Fancy’s trainer was so hammered you could have blindfolded him with dental floss.
Officers responded to the call and determined that John was “too high” to be piloting an elephant.
Police attempted to carry John away in their patrol car, but Fancy pitched a conniption fit, bringing to mind King Kong.
So officers changed their approach and allowed Todd to ride Miss Fancy’s back.
But, since all stories must come to an end, in 1934, Avondale Park sold Miss Fancy for a grand total of $710. John was heartbroken. The zoo was losing money. Residents didn’t want to visit animals anymore. So the park folded.
The day the crews arrived to carry the elephant to her new home, John almost couldn’t breathe he was sobbing so hard. John rode in the boxcar with Fancy all the way to Indiana, and wept bitterly when he left her.
She was 83 years old when she died.
But there are still some alive in Birmingham who remember her.
“I remember Miss Fancy,” says the old man. “I rode her one time with my little brother. And the whole time, I was screaming and laughing, and it was the greatest day of my life. And you never forget the greatest day of your life, do you?”
No, I don’t guess you do.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South.
Editor’s Note: Don’t Miss This Icon This Summer!
You can see Miss Fancy in bronze today at 4101 5th Ave. S. at Avondale Park, www.birminghamal.gov/parks-and-recreation/parks/.
The statue was built by artist Nelson Grice. There was a small stature in 2021 of Miss Fancy that was damaged and disappeared. Community leaders made it a mission to bring back Miss Fancy, this time, life-size version. You can read much more about her history and her impact on Avondale at bhamnow.com/2022/12/11/miss-fancy-statue-revealed-at-entrance-to-birminghams-historic-avondale-park-photos.
Look around Avondale and surrounding communities, and you’ll notice Miss Fancy everywhere in paintings, murals and pictures. She is the icon for Avondale Brewery.
Originally published December 17, 2022 Used by Permission