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Hippo Jumps Off Ship into Detroit River (1863)

(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #22, released on November 30, 2023.)

This a story that had a one-sentence mention in an article that I was reading while doing research for my last podcast about Slippery the Sea Lion.

During the afternoon of June 22, 1863, a very unusual incident took place on the Detroit River. At approximately six miles (9.7 km) downstream from Detroit, a remarkable event unfolded—an authentic hippopotamus chase. This spectacle occurred as a circus was making its journey from Buffalo to Detroit. Due to the substantial weight of both the hippopotamus and the elephants, they needed to be moved by steamship. The hippopotamus, a prized attraction in G. F. Bailey’s Quadruple Circus owned by G. C. Quick, Esq., found itself at the center of an almost successful bid for freedom.

The colossal creature, accompanied by his Egyptian captor and caretaker Ali, was transported on the steamer J. D. Caldwell. The hippo’s cage was too big to fit aboard, so it was transported separately by land. As a result, the hippo was shipped uncaged. During the voyage, observers noted the animal’s persistent gaze toward the water, seemingly yearning for a plunge into the lake’s depths. However, no one anticipated the creature succumbing to its amphibious instincts, so no extra precautions were taken.

As the steamer approached the city, a crash followed by a splash was heard coming from the bow’s side, which was facing toward the American shore. Pandemonium ensued as everyone rushed to the source of the sound. There they found that the colossal beast, unable to resist temptation, had broken free and dived into the river for an aquatic escapade.

Hippopotamus cigarette card. (New York Public Library image.)

Moments later, the immense head of the beast emerged above the water’s surface. A collective cheer erupted, and Ali, on the verge of diving into the water in pursuit of his beloved pet, was restrained as a small boat was lowered down to the river below. He then rowed towards the hippopotamus, which seemed delighted by its newfound freedom.

As Ali called the creature by familiar names, it responded by stopping, surveying its surroundings, and seemingly waiting for the boat to approach. However, just as it neared, the hippopotamus plunged again, creating a whirlpool where it vanished. After a considerable absence, it resurfaced about a hundred yards (274 m) away, closer to the shore.

Repeated attempts to approach the creature failed, and Ali, momentarily stumped and overwhelmed by grief, suddenly seized the oars, rowing towards the steamer. “Try the dog!” he shouted upon reaching the vessel. A black mastiff, accustomed to sleeping in the hippopotamus’s cage, had been howling since its companion’s escape. It was released, and swiftly swam after Ali. In about a minute, the hippopotamus surfaced once more at the dog’s approach. The dog barked wildly, and the two animals swam toward the American shore. Not long after, Ali also arrived at the shoreline. After uttering a few words to the hippopotamus, he used a leather whip and gave it a few whacks on the behind.  He then guided the creature to a secure location where it was safely tethered. Confirming the hippo was in good condition, preparations were made to transport it to its city destination.

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