Miss Fancy

Avondale Park. Birmingham, Alabama. The town is decorated for Christmas. Garland everywhere. Wreaths aplenty. Visions of reindeer tinkling in the snow.

There is an old man in the park, talking to a giant bronze elephant statue. His adult children are nearby, snapping photos. A small crowd is gathered around him because he is in love with this inanimate object.

I ask the man why he is passionately stroking a statue.

“Ain’t a statue,” the old man explains. “This is Miss Fancy. She’s an old friend of mine.”

Then he tells a story.

The real Miss Fancy was born in 1871, in the wilds of India. She was a puny elephant, purchased by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus for a pittance.

In circus world, Hagenbeck-Wallace was big potatoes. Second largest circus in America. Founder, Carl Hagenbeck, was a pioneer who believed in reward-based animal training instead of fear-based training, so he never hurt animals like other circuses. As a result Miss Fancy was cheerful and good-natured.

Miss Fancy was likely trained to ride bikes, play musical instruments, play baseball, sing Schubert, and of course, wear wedding dresses.

In the late 1800s, Miss Fancy toured the United States, and entertained audiences from California to Maine. She was seen on posters and handbills from coast to coast.

But in 1913, her career ended. The circus made headlines when a Hagenbeck-Wallace train wrecked. It was a disaster. Hundreds of animals were badly maimed or wounded. Fancy was among the injured.

So the circus sold her. Fancy was 41 years old when she was sold to Avondale Park, in Birmingham.

“She was sent here to retire,” said the old man, affectionately stroking the statue. “She became the lifeblood of our town.”

Avondale Park was a glorified zoo. A rest home for animals. There wasn’t much going on in Avondale. People paid a few pennies to see Miss Fancy eat hay and make poop.

Things were pretty loose at the zoo. And by “loose,” I mean that Miss Fancy was rarely in her cage. Sometimes Fancy could be seen wandering city streets. She used to visit elementary schools, or wander into open-air restaurants and eat from plates.

Other times, Birmingham police would receive reports of an elephant striding through neighborhoods, eating potted flowers. Fancy would often have “movements” in various backyards, leaving parting gifts that were roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial.

Miss Fancy’s trainer was John Todd. He was a man who became Fancy’s closest friend. Fancy wouldn’t do anything without John.

When World War I broke out, for example, John was called away to France. Fancy went into mourning without him. The 8,000-pound pachyderm refused to eat and wasted away to 4,800 pounds. The elephant cried herself to sleep sometimes.

After the war, John returned home. The first friend he visited was Fancy. He was still in uniform. Fancy greeted him with a series of trumpet blasts. The animal was so excited to see John that she almost “tore the damn zoo down.”

Over the following years, John would take Fancy out for daily exercise. He would ride on Fancy’s back, taking 10-mile excursions through the city.

He’d ride Fancy into impoverished neighborhoods, introducing her to local children. He let kids take free rides. Miss Fancy ate peanuts out of toddlers’ hands. She sniffed children’s faces with her trunk.

“She was the most beloved thing in Birmingham.”

Miss Fancy, was also a “medicinal drinker.” Because of her trainwreck injuries, John fed her corn liquor to ease her pain. He fed her a quart of whiskey, diluted with gallons of water. This became a lifelong habit for Fancy. She was, as far as historians know, the only documented elephant alcoholic ever recorded.

Of course, Fancy always shared her medicine with her friend, John. In fact, one afternoon in 1934, John was arrested for being under the influence while operating an elephant. A major offense in Jefferson County.

Someone called the police to report that an inebriated elephant was blocking traffic near 47th Street. They said Fancy’s trainer was so hammered you could have blindfolded him with dental floss.

Officers responded to the call and determined that John was “too high” to be piloting an elephant.

Police attempted to carry John away in their patrol car, but Fancy pitched a conniption fit, brining to mind King Kong.

So officers changed their approach and allowed Todd to ride Miss Fancy’s back.

But, since all stories must come to an end, in 1934, Avondale Park sold Miss Fancy for a grand total of $710. John was heartbroken. The zoo was losing money. Residents didn’t want to visit animals anymore. So the park folded.

The day the crews arrived to carry the elephant to her new home, John almost couldn’t breathe he was sobbing so hard. John rode in the boxcar with Fancy all the way to Indiana, and wept bitterly when he left her.

She was 83 years old when she died.

But there are still some alive in Birmingham who remember her.

“I remember Miss Fancy,” says the old man. “I rode her one time with my little brother. And the whole time, I was screaming and laughing, and it was the greatest day of my life. And you never forget the greatest day of your life, do you?”

No, I don’t guess you do.


  1. Sandi. - December 17, 2022 6:13 am

    I really like this story a lot. Elephants are gentle creatures if treated with kindness.

  2. Rebecca - December 17, 2022 8:50 am

    One of my favorite articles. Avondale is a beautiful place. Our faith family is at the beautiful 100 year old church on 4th. Redeemer Community Church. I don’t believe it has changed physically since the day it was built. And the stories of its spiritual value for all have touched my heart infinitely.

  3. oldlibrariansshelf - December 17, 2022 9:02 am

    Sometimes great writers bring us beautiful stories which save us from the trainwrecks that our lives seem to have become. Thanks for being one of them.

  4. Trent - December 17, 2022 9:47 am

    If Twain & Harvey had a baby…never stop writing Sean. Thank you.

  5. Helena Shirley - December 17, 2022 10:34 am

    From 1977 until 1981 I lived less than a block from Avondale Park. 4220 7th Ave. South. I often took my first-born son for walks in that park. I loved it! There was a gorgeous rose garden and lots of interesting structures made of rocks. I had never heard that Avondale Park was once a zoo. Thank you for this bit of history!

  6. Pubert Earle Bozemann - December 17, 2022 10:56 am

    Sean, I love animals, and I especially love elephants. I had never heard the story of Miss Fancy, but a fine one it was! I’ll have to go see her one day when I’m in the Big ‘Ham! She wasn’t the inspiration for the Crimson Tide mascot was she? RTR!

    Your friend,


  7. mccutchen52 - December 17, 2022 11:20 am

    I agree with oldlibrariansshelf, a simple story about an elephant can melt your heart and maybe a little holiday cheer will work its way in.

    • Darcy Schmidt - December 17, 2022 3:21 pm

      This was so beautiful🥲😍

  8. Renee Welton - December 17, 2022 11:32 am


  9. Tina Herron - December 17, 2022 11:43 am

    Thank you. I never knew this. Such a rich history we have❤️

  10. Ginga Smithfield - December 17, 2022 12:02 pm

    This story breaks my heart!! How could they be so cruel as to separate Fancy and John? Just breaks my heart!!

  11. Liz - December 17, 2022 12:13 pm

    Ditto to what oldlibrariansshelf said

  12. Naomi - December 17, 2022 12:20 pm

    To my family in Birmingham.

  13. Gwen - December 17, 2022 1:09 pm


  14. Ht - December 17, 2022 1:50 pm

    Rode an elephant in Dallas, TX…the smell was rank yet at 77 recall that moment with Joy!

  15. David. - December 17, 2022 2:29 pm

    Thanks for this excellent story Sean!

  16. Judy - December 17, 2022 2:31 pm

    I have an elephant problem. It began on a trip to the Serengeti to watch animals migrate. Babu was the elephant’s name and he had the longest tusks on record. They are social,family oriented,travel in herds and protect each other. They make direct eye contact and you know they know stuff. We could learn from them.

  17. Ginger Smith - December 17, 2022 2:32 pm

    Wow. There was a circus train wreck in our town over 100 years ago, at the Alabama line. Our church was involved with helping those folks. I wonder…
    I was involved with the first published history of our church. I’ll have to look. Perhaps Miss Fancy came from this wreck? The book does contain a lot of Alabama history. Let me know if you want to know more. Amazing story.

  18. Patricia Gibson - December 17, 2022 2:59 pm

    Well that broke my heart! Awful that she was separated from John. 😢

  19. Happy Home - December 17, 2022 3:14 pm

    I used to play in Avondale Park, as it was in walking distance of our home in Forest Park. I attended Avondale School in the third and fourth grades, and as a latchkey kid, in summers, frequently walked to Avondale Park, and visited the public library there almost daily. I seem to recall some sort of plaque somewhere referring to the park’s past – never really meant anything until today. Thank you.

  20. JANE H JOHNSON - December 17, 2022 3:21 pm

    My mom used to tell stories of Miss Fancy coming to her school at lunch time to share her lunch and the lunches of her friends. Miss Fancy would also come to her house and the cook would treat her with whatever was available. Mom and her friends loved Miss Fancy, but she was 14 when Miss Fancy was sold and Mom had moved from the neighborhood and had moved on to other “loves”

  21. Sean of the South: Miss Fancy | The Trussville Tribune - December 17, 2022 3:33 pm

    […] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]

  22. Hazel - December 17, 2022 4:04 pm

    I will see Miss Fancy Monday. I wonder if her peanuts came for the Peanut Depot on Morris Ave. ( the original 1907 roasters.)

  23. Nancy Grinstead - December 17, 2022 4:05 pm


  24. Susie - December 17, 2022 4:22 pm

    Wonderful story, Sean. Thank you.

  25. sjhl7 - December 17, 2022 5:37 pm

    Wow! I have lived in the Birmingham area all my life and never knew about Miss Fancy. Of course, I wasn’t born until 1947 and I suppose she had already left by then …

  26. Linda Moon - December 17, 2022 5:49 pm

    If I had known Miss Fancy when I was a kid growing up in Birmingham, I would’ve loved her too!

  27. Alice Stagg - December 17, 2022 5:50 pm

    This brought to mind the event in 1915 near Columbus, GA. The Con T. Kennedy circus train collided with a passenger train as it approached Columbus from Macon. It was a terrible, fiery wreck and most of the animals died, plus about 24 people. The remains were buried in the Riverdale Cemetery and a circus tent tombstone memorial was put over the mass grave. Here is one report: https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/25301

    • Gigi - December 17, 2022 7:57 pm

      @AliceStagg ~ thank you for the link. What a tragic story. 😩🥲

  28. Carol Pilmer - December 17, 2022 6:15 pm

    Seriously, reindeer “tinkling” in the snow? Thanks far another great start to my day!

  29. Gigi - December 17, 2022 7:55 pm

    What a great story ! ❤️ Thanks for sharing this as only you can Sean !!

  30. Kathryn - December 17, 2022 11:04 pm

    I love this story. Thank you.

  31. Steve McCaleb - December 17, 2022 11:22 pm

    What a wonderful story ! If you believe there’s a special Hell for those who mistreat the animals that God has given us dominion over (I do) then I suppose then I must believe that somewhere inside those pearly gates John and Miss Fancy are ambling around up there spreading joy and happiness. I like that…..I like that a lot. Lord that it be so…….

  32. Harry Curtis - December 17, 2022 11:25 pm

    Another great yarn. I always enjoy your tales toung feller.

  33. William Stocks - December 18, 2022 12:30 am

    Birmingham was a great place to live when I was a youngster. Not quite the age to remember Miss Fancy though! Merry Christmas all!

  34. Liza Sullivan - December 18, 2022 2:42 am

    Sean, thank you, for bringing a little joy into our lives with each post. Have a lovely Holiday and New Year!

  35. Ginny Childress Becker - December 18, 2022 12:11 pm

    What a sweet short story … maybe you would consider developing a children’s book (with water color illustrations)!!! I want to follow your line of history research!
    Childhood Resident of Avondale
    1957 – 1968

    Write on! Write on!

  36. Ruth - December 18, 2022 12:48 pm

    A children’s book, what a great idea to tell this story and the history of that time.

  37. Ann - December 18, 2022 11:16 pm

    I think my life may be at least a wee bit better for having read your poignant, sweet story about Miss Fancy and John. Thank you, Sean.

  38. Stacey Wallace - December 19, 2022 4:04 am

    Thanks for a great story. Love to you, Jamie, and Marigold.

  39. Kristy - December 20, 2022 8:44 pm


  40. Francie Hurst - December 21, 2022 2:17 pm

    Funny and Beautiful story; deserves a little more “airtime.”Thank you for the smile and tears today.

  41. Susan W Fitch - January 6, 2023 12:00 am

    Just getting around to reading some emails when I saw this story. So sad, I remember as an elementary student that we had a small circus visit our school-yearly. Elephants, bears, horses, monkeys-maybe even lions. It was exciting but sad for these animals to be in cages and then perform. I can still smell the cotton candy and roasted peanuts.

  42. Kit - January 23, 2023 11:47 pm

    That was my neighborhood when I was a kid in the 1960s. Lived at the corner of Triangle Park on Essex Road, about 2500 feet from that statue. Great neighborhood but miserable time of life.


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