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Charmed Life

Beastly Night

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/2/2003

If one were to write a tome titled The Secret History of Baltimore Street Corners, the intersection of Mount Royal and Maryland avenues would have to figure prominently--and most gruesomely. Presently, the northeast corner of this roadway union houses the University of Baltimore's brick-paved Gordon Plaza. A statue of Edgar Allan Poe reposes here, as do on clement days scores of loitering students. But on a frosty January evening in 1901 this was the scene of a horrific and heart-wrenching tragedy wherein some 300 animals--lions and tigers and bears, among many others--met a fiery death. This was the night when the Frank Bostock Zoo burned to the ground.

This animal tragedy has it roots in a human one: the Battle of Gettysburg. Sometime in the 1880s or early 1890s a large round building--corrugated iron over a wooden frame--was erected on this midtown corner. (An 1896 city map shows the circular building taking up almost the entire space serving as plaza today.) It housed a cyclorama, a looming circular oil painting more than 300 feet long. Viewers stood in the center of the encircling artwork to enjoy a panoramic, 360-degree perspective. Such renderings were a novelty of the era, tantamount to the virtual reality of their day. Baltimore's cyclorama depicted the epic Civil War clash in Gettysburg, Pa., a popular cyclorama subject--indeed, such a painting is still on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park. (Through some quickie Internet research, I learned that as many as four Gettysburg cycloramas were painted; the one in Gettysburg likely came from Boston; I found no info on the fate of Baltimore's rendering, but most were scrapped once the novelty waned.)

Following its cyclorama duties, the round structure housed a roller rink and a bike-riding school, and served as an evangelist pulpit. In 1899 British-born animal exhibitor and trainer Frank Bostock moved a zoo into the space. Well, it was really more like a nonitinerant circus. Featured were animal acts from the likes of Pianka "the woman who makes lions do her bidding," and Morelli, "the lady of the jaguars" (or so they were described in newspapers of the day). An illustration of the zoo's interior shows a slew of crampedly caged beasts amid crowds of gawking spectators. Adding to the under-the-big-top feel of the space was a striped canvas canopy hung from the ceiling, which hid the upper-room sleeping quarters of many of the zoo's workers. This canvas also contributed to the building's undoing on the fateful night of Jan. 30, 1901.

Accounts have it that shortly after that evening's entertainment program concluded, blue sparks where seen at an electrical-wiring junction near the ceiling. (Recall that electrification was still in its infancy.) From these sparks, a fire, and from there, an inferno, thanks to the canvas, which helped to rapidly spread the flames. Both The Sun and Baltimore News provided graphic day-after details of the conflagration (the News under the grisly headline: "Beasts Roasted in Burning Zoo"). The patrons had already left the building when the blaze started, but a slew of employees were soon rushing about amid acrid smoke and falling glass, from heat-burst skylights overhead. A bucket brigade was launched, but soon proved hopeless. Pandemonium took hold.

It was also a night rife with rumors, with folks leaving theaters in the vicinity of the fire, cowed by tales of lions and tigers running amok in the streets. Alas, very few of the animals saw life-saving freedom that evening. Big Liz the elephant, two donkeys, and a trio of camels were pulled to safety through a Maryland Avenue door. The monkeys Mickey and Midge were also rescued. Ironically, when the large door was opened to save these creatures, it allowed an in-rush of air to feed the flames, sealing the doom of the creatures left behind. The majority of the animals died--and we can only hope quickly--in their cages. Bostock told the News he ruled out simply opening up all the pens, as he "would not take the responsibility of turning man-eaters loose upon the people of Baltimore." Around 300 animals died, though there are differing tallies of the total number--and types--of creatures killed. Among the lost were at least 20 lions (and a half-dozen cubs), five polar bears, some 55 monkeys, eight pumas, seven jaguars, one Bengal tiger, a kangaroo, a sloth, an ostrich, a hyena, two lemurs, and 10 poodles. No humans perished in the blaze, though much newsprint was given to midget performer Chiquita and the loss of her expensive jewels and elaborate wardrobe.

It took barely an hour for the great, dome-roofed edifice to be reduced to a twisted wreckage. The fire was so intense at times it illuminated the Washington Monument, seven blocks to the south, and delivered ash as far as North Avenue. The News provided this poignant postscript depiction of the ill-fated animal house:

"At the end there were a few feet of the frontage on Mount Royal Avenue left standing with a dozen square feet of the gaudily painted pictures of the lions' cage still visible, a silent mockery of all the great glory and strength of the beasts which had been burned behind it."

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