Friday, April 27, 2012

Who trained the Powers Elephants?

From the "history channel"
Jan. 20, 2010

I am researching George O'Brien (professionally known as George Power or George Powers), of Power's Dancing Elephant fame during the first half of the 20th century.
George's parents were Jeanette Lush O'Brien and John O'Brien.
John O'Brien was a famous horse trainer for the circuses of the time.
Jennie O'Brien was a high school equestrienne with the circus, and her husband trained her mounts.
After John's death in Baraboo in 1902, Jeanette (Jennie) O'Brien later married W.W. (Bill) Power, the elephant trainer, and young George learned the elephants from his stepfather.
George Power became famous for training the elephants to do amazing skits such as a mock baseball game, a war battle scene, a barbershop scene, bowling, and the waltz, two-step, Charleston, foxtrot, and hula dances.
Power's Elephants were at the New York Hippodrome from 1905-1922; in vaudeville from 1923-1926; in Europe with Bertram Mills Circus from 1926-1937; returned to the States in 1937; and worked fairs and circuses until George Power grew ill and the surviving elephants were sold in 1942.

I have done a lot of research on the Power family and the elephants. The mystery I am working on at the moment is:
What became of George Power's first wife and their child?
The wife may have been named Catherine, and the daughter may have been named Jeanette.
I have been deep into the old newspaper archives and, but the trail grows cold on them after 1922.
I am told that the wife left George and took the child with her.
George later married Liselotte (the woman in the photo). They had not children together.
If anyone has any clues to the names of the first wife and child, and where they may have lived over the years, this would help me to continue my research.

Any other info on the Power family is also greatly appreciated, especially Bill Power's early years, and how he came to be in the circus business after being an innkeeper in Canada.

Here is a very informative newspaper article, from the year 1950, about Power's Elephants.

Famed Elephants Just Marchers Now

by Frank Tripp

May 21, 1950

The “queen” of America's greatest elephant act of four decades ago was reminiscing, and it had to be about elephants. Jeanne Power is in retirement now, after 40 years of intimate association with elephants, and owner of the best.

"Elephants are much like people," she declares. "They are not treacherous. They do have moods; they pout, they are jealous of one another. They are inquisitive and their old trunk is forever is mischief, like the hands of an active child. They will snoop, pull down lights, open water faucets and undo each other's chains, as children might, but that does not make them bad.

"Elephants are like goats too," she chuckled. "They will eat clothing, blankets and all manner of things. Our Roxie once sneaked, chewed and swallowed a quart jar of jam, the crushed glass and all. We gave her up for lost but she lived for many years. Our Jennie ate a bushel of coal, and another time gulped down a whole barrel of road oil. She was weeks recovering, suffered terrible agony and lost several hundred pounds. She's still alive, and 86.'"

Power's Elephants are the ones of which I wrote a recent story. In it I made two statements which Mrs. Power corrects. Ringlings never owned these elephants, and I could not have met the sole survivor on a Syracuse street because two of the originals are still living, on the west coast, she reveals.

When Luna Park's founders, Thompson and Dundy, opened the massive New York Hippodrome in 1905, elephants were at once indicated as a must feature of their colossal extravaganza. They engaged one William Walter Power, proud peer of Pachydermists, as their elephant impresario.

William, hereafter called "Bill," one of my show-days convivial pals, left the Walter L. Main circus, bought its four biggest and best elephants and took them with him to the Hippodrome, hereafter called "The Hip." His was the first American elephant act to appear on an indoor stage. Power's Elephants; vast ensembles of circus thrillers; Marceline, the clown; Annette Kellerman; a block-long under-stage lake of water into into which a gorgeous ballet danced down an incline, disappearing as if into eternity; were many-year magnets which repeatedly attracted 20 million thrill seekers. Power's Elephants became The Hip's forefront symbol of bigness.

At The Hip, Bill met a dashing young widow, Jeanne Lush O'Brien, a Brooklyn girl who was of the show. She had a young son, George. Bill married her and to them came another son, Tom. Bill, Jeanne, George and Tom and four knowing elephants, Lena, Jennie, Ada and Lou, were destined to approach worldwide fame. Julia and Roxie later replaced Ada and Lou — and George replaced good old Bill.

When Bill died in 1920, Jeanne carried on. George took Bill's last name, and long before Bill's death had become a greater trainer than his stepfather. It was George who taught Jeanne's elephants to play baseball, bowl, to waltz, two-step and do the Charleston. George taught them stunts of which Bill had never dreamed.

The story of Power's Dancing Elephants stands way but front in the saga of elephant wisdom. For two score years they entertained two continents. They played year 'round in theaters, circuses, fairs and bull rings at weekly salaries of $1,500 and $2,000. They yearly earned more than the president, and in their careers as much as Man ‘O War. They went to Europe in 1926 and remained eleven years, in England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Sweden and Denmark.

And now, Jeanne Power, great grandmother of twelve children, lives above the Hudson's Palisades with her cherished memories of the circus and theater; which go back to her girlhood, when she was a lithe equestrienne and rode for Barnum and Bailey on their European tour of 1897. Of her original elephants, Lena and Jennie still live. Ada and Lou died first of pneumonia. Roxie, a replacement, lived to be almost 100. Lena, 93 and Jennie, 86, with Julia, a youngster of 67, are the three with which Jeanne Power parted in 1944—with broken heart.

It meant the end of her exciting life. Her son George, whose sickness forced the parting, is at Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. Tom is in the army. Time, and three world-famed elephants march on.

March is the right word, for they do not dance any more. Without George, they only march and maybe their hearts are breaking too. "They are just herded circus elephants now. I cried when I saw them," Jeanne Power said to me. Then she smiled, as show folks must and added, "but they looked well fed."

If you have any information on Power’s Elephants or the Power family, please contact Melani Carty at

From Yankee Clipper
March 19,1910

  Robert Orville Tyler, twenty-six years old, an elephant trainer, cut his throat last Thursday night, March 10, at his home, 254 West Thirty-ninth Street, New York City, just before guests arrived to have dinner with him, and died at Bellevue Hospital, Saturday, 12. Tyler had just returned from a trip on the road with his elephant, "Imogene," with "The Circus Man." His wife Leila Romber Tyler had invited about a dozen friends to dinner Thursday night, as a sort of welcome home party. He immediately went to his room and and cut his throat, severing the jugular vein. No reason was assigned for the act. Tyler started as an elephant trainer with Walter L. Main. He was later employed by Cummins' Wild West Show, and is well remembered as the trainer of Powers' elephants, which act was under his training when it appeared at the ___, Boston and New York Hippodrome. For awhile he had charge of the Luna Park elephants at Coney Island. Last July he took up the training of "Imogene" for her part in "The Circus Man." He worked hard and successfully with her, but his labors left his nerves broken. His wife is well known in musical comedy and dramatic lines of work. Tyler was a member of the Theatrical Mechanics' Association ___, and belonged to the Actor's Fund. . .


Bob Cline said...

I'll have to try to do some more research also. In 1904, Walter L. main sold his entire circus to Wm. P. Hall of Lancaster, MO except the elephants.

I have read somewhere ( Need to research ) that Powers was the Walter L. Main show treasurer. The elephants went out as Powers elephants but Walter L. Main still retained ownership for some time. The Powers didn't have the money to buy those elephants initially.


Wade G. Burck said...

It struck me as out to all of a sudden come across the name "Robert Orville Tyler" as being the trainer of the Powers elephants as well as doing a stint with them at Luna Park. All account's I have read say Powers was the trainer, and Powers was at Luna Park.


Bob Cline said...

I have gone back through the historical writings. I think your opening question of who trained the Powers elephants needs to be examined closer.

The Walter L. Main All New Fashion Plate Shows was an all new adventure in 1901. Mr. Main had been in the circus business and retired only to get back in the Business again. W.W. Power was the show's treasurer. William Winner was the Boss animal man.

According to the NY Clipper on Oct. 5, 1901 as found on page 679, the Main show was expecting Two Indian elephants to arrive in New York October 4th from Hagenbeck’s Hamburg Animal Emporium.

In 1902, Wm. Powers is listed as the Adjuster. Two excerpts from the NY Clipper in 1902 offer a couple more details.

“Mr. Winner is breaking a new animal act for next season that promises to eclipse any before attempted. In it he is using no less than 22 cat animals, three elephants, two horses and a pair of bloodhounds. Winner’s reputation as an animal breaker is well known, and he generally succeeds in all he undertakes.” NY Clipper, Jan. 18, 1902, page 1032

Walter L. Main has engaged the following for the winter…. "Wm. Winner will be supt. Of the menagerie as of yore, Richard Jones will again train the elephants, this time an entirely new act." NY Clipper, Nov. 8, 1902, page 819 and 825.

By 1903, we know there are now four elephants, namely ADA, LOU, JENNIE and LENA. Wm. Powers is once again listed as the Treasurer and Richard Jones is the Elephant Boss.

In 1904, with the same four elephants, Richard Jones is now listed as the Superintendent of Zoological Department while Wm. Powers is the Auditor and Adjuster.

Once Walter L. Main sold the show to Wm. P. Hall and retained the elephants, W.W. Powers started working with them. The February 11, 1905 NY Clipper offered the following on page 1229:

"W. W. Power has acquired the four performing war elephants of the Walter L. Main Shows. He has been successful in vaudeville with these big animals, and a new sensational act, now preparing, will be presented in three weeks. Mr. Power says this will astonish the public, as he claims nothing like it has ever been presented in America."

So I think that the answer to your question is that Mr. Powers may have refined the act for the vaudeville uses but it appears that Wm. Winner and Richard Jones are the ones that trained the elephants initially.

Maybe this helps, maybe not!
All my best,

Wade G. Burck said...

Wow!!!! Incredible research, and yes it help's greatly. I has always seen Power's listed as the trainer of the elephant act "The Power's Elephants" and as I said previously was surprised to see the name "Robert Orville Tyler" linked to them as the trainer. Mr. Winner got some great paper in 1902, didn't he. Thank you for looking into this Bobby, it is greatly appreciated.


Tom Shieber said...

You might be interested in my latest blog posting “Buy Me Some Peanuts: Elephants Playing Baseball,” which relates to Powers’ Dancing Elephants.

You can find it here:

– Tom Shieber