Miss Fancy

Miss Fancy Postcard Miss Fancy was an Indian elephant owned by the Avondale Zoo, located in the greater Birmingham area. Purchased in 1913, she resided at the zoo until its closure in 1934. A beloved, comical, and sometimes troublesome figure in the city, she often wandered the streets freely and occasionally destroyed property. Her fame spread beyond Avondale to the greater Birmingham area, and local newspapers wrote articles about her on a regular basis, with some reporters claiming to have "interviewed" Miss Fancy.

In 1912, the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County, opened its first zoo, located in Avondale Park. In large part, zoo animals comprised those found in North America, particularly from the southern United States. Zoo visitors desired more exotic animals as well, and with the help of local businesses and local government, a fundraising effort was initiated.

After the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus visited Birmingham in 1912, zoo officials inquired about the act's Indian elephant, named Miss Fancy. The financially strapped circus agreed to sell the elephant to the zoo, reportedly for around $2,000. In 1913, Miss Fancy traveled by train from Tuscaloosa, to Birmingham, along with her circus handler. Once in the Avondale Zoo, John Todd became her new trainer. Todd was, at that time, the only African American elephant handler in the United States.

Normally obedient and friendly, Miss Fancy succumbed to fits of madness as a captive animal at the zoo. Several times a year she was chained and only allowed Todd near her. He cared for her almost exclusively, and their bond became extremely strong. During World War I, however, Todd served in the military for approximately one year. Upon his return, Miss Fancy trumpeted repeatedly, glad to have her friend and trainer by her side again.

Miss Fancy and Visitors Miss Fancy and Todd entertained at the zoo and also enjoyed walks around the neighborhood, especially to visit schoolchildren during lunch breaks. Many children climbed on her back, thrilled with their short elephant ride. Often, children shared their lunches with a delighted Miss Fancy. Her existence in the neighborhood was in large part due to the children, as they had raised $500 toward her purchase through penny drives. During her time in the city, Miss Fancy would lead parades and serve as a mascot for Howard College (present-day Samford University).

With a diet of approximately 115 gallons of water a day in summer and favorite treats of popcorn, peanuts, apples, and especially watermelons, Miss Fancy mostly enjoyed her life at the zoo. Like many zoo animals, her weight and condition fluctuated a great deal. When first purchased, Miss Fancy weighed 1,800 pounds, and she dropped to only 1,100 pounds during Todd's military service, reflecting her sadness at his absence. In her last years at the zoo, she weighed more than 8,500 pounds.

Normally a healthy animal, Miss Fancy developed a digestive issue. To her aid, a local veterinarian suggested a regimen of alcohol. This became especially difficult during Prohibition. Alcohol confiscated during raids became part of Miss Fancy's treatment. However, on at least one instance, both Todd and Miss Fancy consumed the liquor together, resulting in Todd's arrest for drunkenness and unsuccessful attempts to arrest Miss Fancy. Miss Fancy also enjoyed escaping from the zoo and her handler to roam the streets on her own. The local press reported that Miss Fancy was especially drawn to watching people through windows. While frightening to some, one girl reported delight in waking up to see Miss Fancy looking back at her through her bedroom window.

As the Great Depression continued to drain state and local resources, municipal leaders decided in 1934 to close Avondale Zoo and sell Miss Fancy. Several groups, including the Park and Recreation Board, failed in their attempt to raise a one-mill tax to fund the construction of a modern zoo and keep Miss Fancy. The zoo had no choice but to sell Miss Fancy to the Cole Brothers Circus, along with several other animals. She toured under the name Bama with them until 1939, when she was sold to the zoo in Buffalo, New York, where she remained until her death in 1954.

Today Miss Fancy is remembered fondly in myriad forms. A statue was erected in her honor in 2012, but it was destroyed by a drunk driver. Miss Fancy is referenced in Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Author Irene Latham fictionalized the story of a Birmingham youth and Miss Fancy in her 2019 book Meet Miss Fancy. And the legacy of Miss Fancy lives on in the Avondale community, including the restaurant, Fancy's on Fifth, the popular mascot for Avondale Brewery, and in campaigns to further commemorate her memory.

Further Reading

  • Baggett, Jim. "Miss Fancy, Queen of the Avondale Zoo. Alabama Heritage 106: 56-58.
  • Childers, James Saxon. "Miss Fancy Decides to Tell All: Big Girl At Last Bares Her Life to Reporters." Birmingham News-Age Herald March 25, 1934.
  • Scott, Richard. Legends of Alabama Football. Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing, 2004.

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