The Circus Owner Who Pretended His Lion Wasn't On The Loose In Birmingham City Center

Frank C. Bostock in all his mustached glory. Image credit: The Taming of Wild Animals (Public Domain)

In the 1800s, one circus owner lost a lion in the center of the city of Birmingham, UK, then decided to simply pretend he had caught it, while it prowled the sewers below.

Frank C. Bostock was born in 1866, the son of a traveling circus owner. His father wanted Frank to do anything but follow him into the family business. You know how parents will be like "do not become an accountant whatever you do, it is so dull"? It was like that but "every day I have to see these pandas, day in day out seeing these pandas gnawing on bamboo".

His father decided that Frank should be a priest, and sent him off to priest school. But during a vacation from priest school, he worked on his father's show and saw the lion tamer being incredibly cruel to the lions. So cruel, in fact, that the animal turned on him and mauled him.

At this point, Frank begged his father to let him take the lion tamer's place, out of concern for the lion rather than anything else. After his father told him no he decided to give him no choice in the matter, and the next day he climbed into the lion's cage anyway. 

Whilst doing a check before the show, his father saw him in there and told him "if ever you get out of there alive, my lad, I'll give you the biggest thrashing you ever had in your life" which, let's face facts here, isn't the best way to motivate someone to step out of a cage.

However, when Frank showed quite a knack for not dying in a lion's cage, his father downgraded his thrashing to merely letting the 15-year-old get into a cage with a lion night after night. A lion, you might remember, which had just mauled a colleague to pieces. 

Frank took to the road with the circus, loving the life bar for one small problem: one of the menagerie's two lions was (understandably, having been ripped from Africa and every night placed in a cage with a piece of food that won't stay still) sort of a jerk.

"He killed one man, and wounded several attendants," Frank wrote in his book. "He required the most careful watching at all times."

Being kind to the lion didn't work. Punishing him didn't work. The only way to keep it from mauling people was to appease it at all times. 

"To attempt any sort of punishment or discipline with him would have been fatal; he was far too dangerous an animal to risk arousing his wild nature, and the only thing we could do was to keep him perfectly quiet, see that he was not irritated in any way, and was made as comfortable and happy as possible, with good food, a clean house, and another lion for companionship."

And so, they got the lion a friend, and were set to unveil the lion in Birmingham. This is where the story takes a rather ridiculous twist.

While attempting to move the lions into a cage together, they angered the angrier of the two lions, and after much rocking of the wagon, the lion (which you may remember had a taste for human flesh) managed to escape the keepers and headed right in the direction of Birmingham City Center, where around 200,000 people lived at the time.

Fortunately for people who didn't want to be food, the lion saw an opening in the sewers, where it headed and began to prowl. Frank knew what a danger the lion was to everyone, writing that "to approach the lion probably meant death". The lion made its way through the city underground, occasionally stopping to roar at manholes he came across.

"In about 20 minutes, every person in birmingham knew what had happened, and the greatest consternation prevailed everywhere".

Nobody was more alarmed than Frank, who was responsible for the lion, and would be responsible for anyone the lion killed. He was also worried about panicking everyone and inciting a riot, and people complaining about his zoo, writing that "people were beginning to flock towards the menagerie in thousands, with anything but complimentary speeches".

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