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  • April 5th, 2019

THE GREAT MISSOURI LION HUNT

By Joel M. Vance

 

                Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim survived many adventures as they rafted down the Mississippi River, but Mr. Twain, even at his most fervid, couldn’t have dreamed up an encounter with African lions on a river island.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Had Huck and Jim landed their rude craft on an island off Mississippi County in the Missouri Bootheel, in January, 1932, they might have run headlong into the King of Beasts–really.  The 1932-33 Bootheel African lion hunt stands as the most bizarre episode in Missouri’s hunting history

 

                It was the Perfect Brainstorm of a wealthy St. Louis businessman with an obsession over big game hunting and the money to make it happen.  Denver Wright Sr. (one of his nine children was Junior) made billfolds, belts and other leather sundries at two plants, one in St. Louis; the other in Doniphan.

 

                When he wasn’t holding up the pants of male America he was afire with the intrigue, glamour and danger of Dark Africa in the days when the Great White Hunter ruled and African safaris captured the imagination of everyone.  Frank Buck brought ‘em back alive and Denver Wright brought ‘em back dead….or wanted to.  Although Wright would go on to hunt worldwide and bag nearly every species of big game animal, the Missouri lion hunt was his first foray into the figurative jungle after animals far bigger than the biggest native Show-Me wildlife and ones that theoretically could kill him as easily as he could kill them.

 

                Yes, they were real lions, the kind that introduce movies from Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and no, they aren’t native to Missouri.  The plan was this: acquire a pair of lions, release them in what wilds remained in the Bootheel and hunt them down, African safari-style, with gunbearers, beaters and all the accoutrements of an Hemingway-esque outing. 

 

               Wright started big game hunting in 1932, coincidental with his Keystone Kops outing on an island in the Mississippi  River.  He had hunted Missouri’s indigenous game and apparently a few that aren’t, like moose, but Africa was his dream and, at that time, an unattainable one.  ”You can’t hunt big game in Missouri, so I decided to supply my own quarry. Just sort of bringing Africa to the United States,”  Wright said.  Later in life Wright said, “Some people wonder why a man takes a gun, goes into a steaming jungle, wades around in water for weeks, gets chewed up by bugs, doesn’t eat and is generally miserable—just to outsmart an animal.  Well, I sometimes wonder why some men meander around a golf course all day trying to outsmart a golf ball.”  Over the next two decades he traveled the world in search of big game—from polar bears in the Arctic to charging Cape buffalo in Africa. Ultimately he would visit 82 countries, often hunting, and would average two such trips a year.

 

                Wright was one of five children, born in 1889 in Providence, Kentucky.  He apprenticed at 17 to a Cape Girardeau shoemaker—his introduction to leather—and went to St. Louis, spent some time as a news “butcher” (peddler of newspapers) on a train, went to Atlanta for a while, eloped with a 14-year-old girl in 1911 (with whom he would have nine children) and moved to St. Louis permanently in 1918.

 

                  Ultimately he would have two profitable leather operations.  The one in Doniphan employed 300 people, which undoubtedly made it the biggest employer in the area.  Famed tennis player Helen Wills Moody wore a Wright products sun visor when she won at Wimbledon.  Wright became a licensed pilot at 58 and owned his own plane.  He was a police commissioner, school director and a deputy game warden in the days before Missouri’s conservation program became professionally-oriented (that happened in 1936 with a citizen-driven Constitutional amendment).

 

                     The January, 1933, hunt was the second of two tries.  The first, in October of 1932, involved two female lions he bought from a circus (the whole thing reeks of circus, as a matter of fact).  Wright planned to release those in Mississippi County but the sheriff, Jesse Jackson, was less than charmed at the idea of live African lions roaming his county.

 

                     Here’s how Time magazine described the first attempt: “Into the Ozark foothills in a truck went Denver M. Wright one day last week. With him beside the two young lions he had bought from a circus for $75, were two friends, a barber and a plumber. Somewhere in the hills were his two sons, lost. Behind him, horrified, was the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood, where he had long been respected as a manufacturer and a member of the school board. All around him was hostility. In Mississippi County waited a sheriff with an insanity warrant. In Cape Girardeau County waited 800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there. Over the rough roads of Scott County bounced the truck, stopping now and then while Hunter Wright begged shelter at a farm house. Always there was only one bed. ‘It’s making me look like an inhuman ogre,’” cried he.

 

                         While Time’s story captures the innately ludicrous nature of the outing, it was at odds with other stories (the part about the sons being lost, for example).  As a matter of fact one son, Charles, was a willing participant in the second hunt and applied the coup de grace to the first lion the Wright team encountered.  And it’s doubtful that Wright’s home town, Brentwood, cared much one way or another as long as the lions were released more than 100 miles south.

 

                       The first hunt was even sillier than the second.  It involved two young lionesses, a chicken dinner and a lost opportunity.  The 10-month old lionesses apparently were far less enchanted than Wright with the idea of a get-together in the brush.  They cowered in their cage and, as a reporter put it, “sulked.”  Wright’s hunting party released the two lions on a small island near Commerce Oct. 16 and repaired to Commerce for a chicken dinner.  When the hunting party returned to the island, they found lion tracks overlain with boot prints.  It was an “uh-oh” moment which became more suspicious when they found gouts of blood.  “Maybe somebody was hurt here,” Wright said hopefully.

 

                      Something was—the two lions had been shot by a fellow named Walter Wise, one cat lying down, the other just getting to its feet. Wise used a submachine gun borrowed by sheriff’s deputy Tom Hodgkiss.  The two finally ‘fessed up and returned the defunct lionesses later in the day.   The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, having fun with the whole thing, wrote, “So, the lionesses, poor, beaten creatures bought by Wright from a broken-down circus for a $15 drayage fee, had taken it, in a manner of speaking, lying down.”  That should have ended the harebrained scheme, but Wright was nothing if not persistent.  He bought two mature male lions from a north Missouri wild animal farm and set his sights on January for the next try.

 

                      Wright’s original plan was to release the lions on 20,000 wooded acres south of East Prairie, but the local citizenry, especially law enforcement personnel, started playing “What if?”  Especially, what if the lions somehow evaded Wright’s guns and got hungry?  What if the first hearty meal they happened on was some farmer’s prize bull?  Or the farmer?  A reporter for the East Prairie Eagle said, “Wright has been maligned, praised, complimented and criticized for organizing the hunt.  On the one hand a sly desire to see him prosecuted has been entertained.  His motive has been questioned.  His sportsmanship has been attacked.”

 

                       That’s a fair summary of the reaction from St. Louis descending to the Bootheel, with the antipathy swelling the farther south the safari went.  According to Time Magazine, folks in Cape Girardeau County were as grumpy as those in Mississippi County, recruiting “800 vigilantes determined that he should hunt no lions there.”  Time had a wonderful, well, time with the story   “Newshawks asked Hunter Wright if his lionesses were real. “’Well,’” said he, “’they look like lions, and they roar like lions, and they eat like lions. I guess they’re just lions.’” 

 

                      The hunt was plagued from the outset with weather—it rained almost constantly and the road to the river turned to slop.  The mighty hunters wound up pushing their vehicles out of one bog after another and finally enlisted a sympathetic farmer to pull them with his tractor.  The unnamed shipbuilder who put together the boat that ferried them to the island hunting ground apparently had fashioned a craft much like the African Queen, fittingly enough.  “A discarded automobile engine furnished the power,” George Conrad Nagel, who would be Wright’s eager chronicler, wrote.  “A discarded dish pan served to hold in place the stove pipe projecting through the top and acted as insulation against the deck catching fire.”

 

                      So far all the safari lacked was Humphrey Bogart covered with leeches. 

 

                     Everyone pitched in to drag the 800 pounds of lion ashore in their cage.  Instead of evolving from the ridiculous to the sublime, it evolved from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous.  “The first night was terrible,” Nagel wrote.  Not because of the accommodations, but the sudden change from modern conveniences, comfortable beds, steam heat, to an army cot in a tent on an island in the Mississippi River on a rainy night in January—one must experience it to appreciate how it feels.”  And the lions, no doubt just as uncomfortable as the hunters, persisted in roaring periodically through the night.  No one got much sleep.  When the lions were released they plowed through a four-strand barbed wire fence as if it were kite string.  That somewhat alarmed the hunting party which had hoped to rely on the fence to keep them safe during the night.

 

                    So, armed guards spent much time shining their flashlights into the trees and jumping at every sound.  Persistent rain glistened on the trees, looking in the light from lanterns much like the glowing eyes of ferocious lions.  “Throughout the 34 hours following their release from their cage Friday afternoon,” reported the Post-Dispatch, they [the lions] appeared utterly incapable of living up to the standard expected of hunted lions.  They refused to leave the vicinity of the camp, they gamboled before the bewildered members of the party, they insisted on howling through the hours of darkness when Wright’s retinue was already hard put to it to find dry spots under tents that failed to ward off the drenching rain.”

 

                        At one point all the accounts agree that many of the unarmed members of the hunting party took to the trees, including the mayor of East Prairie.  It wasn’t as if the lions were clawing at the trunks of the trees…but you never know.

 

                       The “hunt” was almost anticlimactic.  The several accounts vary, agreeing only that the two lions wound up dead.  Nagel’s admiring account said, “Without warning or a moment’s notice he [the first lion] rushed forward directly at Wright, who was nearest to him.  Wright quickly dropped to one knee.  There was a shot.”  Wright winged the lion which fled, seriously wounded.  Wright’s son Charles “finished the lion with a well aimed shot in the head,” said Nagel

 

                    The Post-Dispatch was far less breathless.  “One of the animals, less willing than the other, was wounded when it arose from its recumbent position as Wright and his three riflemen got too close.  It was finished off by Wright’s 14-year-old son Charles who shot it through the head as it lay on the mud at the water’s edge, bleeding from two body wounds.”

 

                    That left one lion and in Nagel’s account it died in mid-air from simultaneous shots from the two Wrights as it sprang at boatman Indian Joe Putnam who was poking it with a long stick.  Considering that the hunters had been throwing rocks and sticks at the lions for two days, cornering them at the end of the island with no escape route except back through the hunters, it’s no wonder the last lion made a break for it. 

 

                      The P-D had it this way: “The other got on its feet after it had been prodded by one ‘Indian Joe,’ a member of the party, and was promptly dispatched by Wright, his son, Ted Bennett of Dorena, Mo., and John Cliffy of East Prairie, who riddled the animal with rifle fire.”  That account sounds more like the end of Bonnie and Clyde than Hemingway on safari.

 

                      Quickly after the second hunt an obvious fan, George Conrad Nagel, published “The True Story of America’s Strangest Safari,” a 15-page booklet (which today lists for $600 in the rare book world).  The booklet is complete with photos of Wright and all the major participants in the hunt.  On the back page is an advertisement for “The Lure of the Beast,” a movie “with sound effects” of the hunt which, according to the booklet is “being publicly shown in various Motion Picture Theatres.”  If so it has vanished into the dusty vaults of forgotten celluloid—a Google search comes up empty.  Perhaps somewhere in the holdings of a library, museum or other repository there is a copy of this priceless comedy—one can only hope it still exists.

 

                      Nagel’s booklet conveniently makes no mention of the Capone-style execution of the lionesses.  Nagel says he is not an apologist or defender of Wright, but he is: “Wright merely did the unusual and reaped the pioneer’s crop of adverse criticism.”  He compares Wright to Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, not to mention Abraham Lincoln, all sons of Kentucky as was Wright. 

 

                      Denver Wright died in March, 1975, secure in the knowledge that he had organized and carried out the only African lion hunt in the history of Missouri…and without a doubt the only one that ever will be held. 

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1 Comment

  1. Lissa Gaw-Orscheln

    April 5th, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    Reply

    My Mom told me about your blog. I love it and can’t wait to read more!



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