I have known Neil for fifteen years now since he was a schoolboy with ambitions for adventure and I was an earnest young hippie who merely wanted to start a club for people interested in unknown animals. Nothing much has changed over the years. We are just both a tad older...
P.T. Barnum, an American showman in the 1800s, obtained, or at least attempted to obtain a true cabinet of curiosities for his travelling exhibitions. I’ve recently seen sketches of his ‘sea serpent’, ‘giants’, ‘monster python’ and of course, been intrigued by his ‘cherry-coloured cat’ fiasco, Siamese twins and Albino family.
In Kent, George Sanger, who had a menagerie at Margate, in Kent, was often as eccentric in his plots and plans. In Seventy Years A Showman (1926) he writes of a strange tale which he was behind, involving twelve fully-grown wolves, which had been bred at the Hall-by-the-Sea. The wolves were due to perform at his London theatre, he writes, “…and in due course the large den containing them was placed by itself in a thirty-horse stable with plenty of centre room for my purpose. Then, I sent for my slaughterman from Margate. When he arrived I said, ‘Now, Jim, here’s a quid for you’, at the same time, to his gratified astonishment, handing him a sovereign. When he had done thanking me, I said, ‘Now Jim, I want you to go into the stable at eleven o’clock tonight, and you will see an old, worn-out cream horse, whose life has become a misery, tied up near the wolves’ cage. When the audience have left the theatre, kill him quickly, and leave him where he falls. Be sure you don’t say a word to anyone for six months, and I will then give you a tenner.”
Sanger had an associate at the time named Taylor, but whose professional name was Alpine Charlie. He would play a major part in Sanger’s strange plot and would become the hero at the end of the plan. And so, with only the secret known to Sanger, Jim the slaughterman, Sanger’s agent, Sanger’s son-in-law, and Mrs Sanger, George Sanger set about his fiendish scheme. After supper, he sneaked out into the theatre, bereft of any watchman etc, who were enjoying a drink. In the dark, Sanger slunk into the area, checked that the horse had been slaughtered by Jim, lit up two jets of gas, let free the wolves, which were in fact as tame as dogs but without food for two days, and casually returned to the bar. Once there he told all in his attendance, “Okay lads, time to lock up.”
Of course, when they arrived at the theatre, at Palace Road, imagine the shock when Mr Sanger screamed convincingly, “There! What’s this ? Call the fireman and tell him to turn off the gas, Why is it burning there to waste like that ?”
As soon as the fireman turned up, a Mr Wells, the shrieks of, “Oh my God, the wolves are loose! They’ve killed one of the horses”, rang out across the theatre. Scotland Yard were informed of the chaos and those who were already in attendance, and not in on the scam, his their eyes as the wolves tore at the carcass of the horse.
“Where is Alpine Charlie ?” asked Sanger. It didn’t take long for several searchers to locate the man, and as thousands circled the theatre, all seeking a quick glimpse of the escaped wolves, the local press soon buzzed the area, eager for a story.
Sanger wrote: ‘The excitement was intense. I had achieved my sensation. Next day the papers, not only in London and the provinces, but all over Europe were full of it. They were quite wolf-struck. The Lord Chamberlain and the wise men of Parliament swallowed the bait, and the Prime Minister was asked if he was aware that, “Wolves had broken loose in London, killed a horse, and jeopardized the Queen’s subjects ?”.
The wolves had been safely caged by a plucky performer named Alpine Charlie. What he did not know, and what he was not likely to learn, was that the terrible animals had slunk without protest into their den when Charlie, with a rattan cane, had appeared amongst them and said, “Get in there!”.
The following week the wolves appeared in conjunction with the circus and the pantomime and everybody came to see them and their marvellous tamer, Alpine Charlie.’