My siblings and I grew up on the story of the Great Commerce Lion Hunt of 1932.
Frequently, on weekends, my family would pack into our van and head south into Scott County to visit some relative or other. Many times we ended up in Commerce, where my dad was born and where my great uncle, Frank Glaus, owned a gas station/barber shop. Returning home, we would beg Dad to tell us the story of the Lion Hunt. My dad was a good story teller, and he would usually oblige us.
I can still hear him saying, firmly, "Uncle Pete shot those lions..."
Above: Uncle Pete
It was only later, when I started working at the Southeast Missourian and came to know G.D. "Frony" Fronabarger, that I learned that the details of a story told to sleepy children was a bit different than that reported in the newspaper.
In the fall of 1932, St. Louis leather manufacturer Denver Wright -- who at one time worked at the shoe factory in Cape Girardeau -- decided to stage an African safari in the wilds of Southeast Missouri. Wright had acquired two aging circus lions, perhaps with the idea of caring for them as pets or perhaps intending all along to hunt and kill them. On this point, as well as many others in the story, newspaper accounts differ.
However, by early October 1932, Wright was making plans to release the lions in a wooded part of Mississippi County, stalking them with dogs and guns after giving the beasts what he considered a sporting head start. But for some unfathomable reason, the authorities and residents of Mississippi County objected. And so, Wright started making other plans... Secret plans.
Despite objections by the good people of Mississippi County, word was leaked Oct. 12 that the hunt would indeed be conducted in a 5-mile, wooded tract between Pinhook and James Bayou. More than 100 men volunteered to surround the forest, to make sure the big cats didn't escape Wright and his fellow hunters. While public attention was directed there, the big game hunter was making alternate plans.
Perhaps Wright started having second thoughts about his safari. On Oct. 13, using the Missourian as intermediary, he offered the lions to the city of Cape Girardeau, saying he would call off the hunt if the city would take the animals as the start of a zoo. Mayor Edward L. Drum's quick refusal was comical: "Well! No! What in the world would I do with those lions. I haven't any place to keep them and I'm not going to feed them. I don't know anything about lions. Well, in fact I'm not a lion tamer..."
With Wright traveling to Springfield, Mo., in an effort to give the animals to a zoo there, his companion hunter O.W. Brinkmeyer and his nephew, Gerald Wright, left St. Louis the night of Oct. 14 with the caged lions in the bed of a Brinkmeyer truck. But instead of going to Mississippi County, they transported the cats to Commerce.
Having failed to rid himself of the circus performers in a less lethal manner, Wright and company transported them to Towhead Island off Commerce the morning of Oct. 17 and prodded them from the safety of their cage. The hunters intended to return hours later to track them through the wooded island with dogs and kill them.
Only, Uncle Pete Wise had a different plan. (Uncle Pete's real name was Walter E. Wise. How the Missourian came to call him "Tom" in its coverage is a mystery that still isn't solved.)
Wise -- in the company of Tom Hodgkiss, the chief deputy sheriff of Scott County; Joe Kent of Commerce; Missourian reporter/photographer Fronabarger and at least one other St. Louis newspaperman -- returned to the island armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun and revolvers. The official explanation in the Missourian was that Hodgkiss was worried for the safety of the hundreds who had gathered at Commerce when word spread of the hunt.
While Hodgkiss stayed with the boat, the others started to explore the island. Wise and one of the reporters soon found their prey. According to a newspaper account: "Wise and one of the newspapermen were walking side by side when they suddenly came upon the lions crouched in a dense undergrowth of bushes. The beasts turned about and snarled, moving forward a step, and Wise fired, dropping one of them. The other then lunged into a charge and was dropped. Both died instantly."
The lions were then placed in the boat and transported to the Illmo landing.
Meanwhile, Wright and his crew returned to the island, beating the bushes in vain for the lions. While the newspaper articles don't say clearly, the hunters apparently found the scene of the kill and returned to Commerce. Eventually, Hodgkiss returned there himself by boat with the lions and turned them over to Brinkmeyer and Wright.
In my dad's rendition of the tale, the latter was extremely upset and frustrated at the outcome to all his plans. "He cried like a baby," Dad said, "when he saw those lions" at the Commerce landing.
The Missourian spilled a lot of ink telling the story of the Commerce Lion Hunt, too much to reprint with this blog. Instead, I'm sharing with you the final chapter of the ill-fated safari, as well as a rather self-serving story that relates the Missourian's efforts in bringing the news to its readers.
Oct. 18, 1932:
Oct. 19, 1932:
Now, you might think that would be the end of the story. But it's not. Because the question of who actually shot the lions has continued for 80 long years.
Frony, himself a heck of a story teller, loved to regale listeners with his memories of the lion hunt. But, when asked pointblank, he would never say who actually shot the lions, leaving many to believe that it may have been Frony himself who wielded the Tommy gun on the Commerce Towhead, instead of his customary camera or fountain pen.
But I, and my family, know... It was Uncle Pete who shot those lions.