There are all sorts of catch phrases in history, some born of the moment, such as "Don't shoot until you see the white of their eyes!" Others are creations of frustration: "Pike's Peak or Bust!" And still others mark the poignancy of tragedy: "Remember the Alamo!" The chronicles are full of such phrases, and in rare cases their origins are so cryptic as to defy solution. For instance, not a GI in World War II can explain the root beginnings of that mysterious declaration discovered in every theater of combat from Atlantic to Pacific: "Kilroy was here!"
There is a catch phrase that should intrigue Western history students and it, too, has escaped satisfactory explanation for the better part of a century and a half.
"Seeing the elephant!"
Anyone familiar with the California gold rush of 1849 has come across that puzzling statement at one time or another. Gold-seekers were off to "See the elephant." Successful fortune-hunters said they had "seen the elephant" or "tracked the elephant." Unsuccessful '49ers, down on their luck and flat-busted, complained of having "seen the elephant" and wanted no more of it.
For all of its turns of phrase, rare is the journal that explains the whys and wherefores of this fabled critter. Most of the theories are as lame as the excuses for not finding gold in El Dorado. Whatever else, the phrase came to signify some wild adventure or improbable escapade. But two seem to claim the most respect for reasonable logic.
The first was laid out for 1856 readers of The Deseret News who found this account--under the headline "Origin 'Seeing the Elephant'" in their November 19 edition: (Since the article was overwritten by half, what follows is a pruned and pared synopsis.)
Some years before 1856 (probably antedating the '48 discovery at Sutter's Mill), a pageant was in rehearsal at one of the Philadelphia theaters in which it was necessary to enroll an elephant. Alas, no elephant was to be had and the property man, stage managers and director had fits worrying about it. However, the article went on, Yankee ingenuity prevailed, as it always has, and a pachyderm was made to order from wood, skins, paint and varnish. So far, so good, but they failed to find a means of making the contraption travel.
But wait! The property man had an inspiration. He would hire two agile young knockabouts, two true and genuine "b'hoys" who could carry off the role without complaint. And so, the young men were installed as legs. Ned C-----, the article explained, was in charge of the forelegs and his cohort brought up the hinder most.
The role was a tedious one, as the elephant was obliged to be on stage about an hour, and young Ned was rather too fond of the bottle to remain so long without "wetting his whistle." So he set about calculating a way of providing himself with a wee drop. Because the eyes of the elephant were two port bottles with the necks turned in, Ned recognized an opportunity. He would fill the two bottles with the good stuff, and once accomplished, he willingly undertook to play the forelegs again.
Saturday night came on--the theater was packed with denizens of the Quaker city. The music was played in the sweetest strains--the curtain rose and the pageant began. Ned and the "hindlegs" marched out upon the stage. The elephant was greeted by round upon round of applause. The decorations and trappings were gorgeous. Again and again the "elephant" and the Prince seated upon his back were loudly cheered.
As the play proceeded, the pachyderm was marched round and round the stage. The forelegs got dry, withdrew one of the corks and treated the hindlegs--then he drank to the health of the audience with a bumper of genuine Elephant Eye whiskey, a brand, by the way, till then unknown. On went the play and on went Ned, toasting the music, the lights and the cheers.
The grand finale signal was given and forelegs staggered to the front of the stage. The conductor tugged the elephant's ears to the right--forelegs wobbled to the left--and with the footlights obstructing his view--stepped smack into the orchestra pit! Forelegs crashed onto the conductor's fiddle--and, of course, the elephant overturned, sending the Prince and hindlegs into the middle of the orchestral pandemonium.
Onstage, the managers stood horror struck--the Prince and hindlegs lay confounded--box seat patrons were in convulsions, the actors choked with laughter, and poor Ned, casting one look, a strange blend of drunkenness, grief and laughter at his predicament, fled hastily from the theater, with the conductor in close pursuit waving the wreckage of his fiddle and performing various cuts and thrusts in the air.
The curtain fell on the shambles. No more play, no more forelegs. Pit, boxes and gallery rushed from the theater shrieking between every breath: "Have you seen the elephant?" That, it is said, is how the phrase came to become associated with the bizarre and improbable.
In the years '49 and '50, it was not unusual to hear the phrases "the elephant's tracks" or "the elephant's tail" uttered by those who turned back; insisting that view was sufficient to satisfy their penchant for adventure. Many a wagon was decorated with the query: "Have you saw the elephant?"
There remains, however, another explanation. This one is preferred by most authorities, or so it seems. At a time when circus parades first featured elephants, a farmer hearing of such an event, loaded his wagon with vegetables for market in town. He had never seen an elephant and very much wished to.
On his way he encountered the circus parade led by the aforementioned beast. The farmer was thrilled but his horses terrified. Bolting, they overturned the wagon and ruined the vegetable harvest. "But I don't give a hang," he said, "for I have seen the elephant!" The same can be said for the gold rush of '49: Was it worth the trials, tribulations and hardship? Or was it enough just to have seen the elephant?