Friday, October 16, 2009

The Ghost and The Darkness, Spirit Killers of Tsavo

A number of years ago I read a book about the building of the railroad across Uganda in 1895-01. The book was called the Lunatic Express and it contained the story of the killer lions of Tsavo.

Aboard the Lunatic Express
What it will cost no words can express;
What is its object no brain can suppose;
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry there's none can define;
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.

So when the Movie The Ghost And The Darkness came out I renewed my interest in these two lions. So when I was in Chicago recently I just had to spend $19 for parking and $12 for admission to the Field Museum to see these two marauders in taxidermic reality.

"In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo (SAH-vo) River in East Africa. Over the next nine months, two large male lions killed and ate nearly 140 railway workers. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and thorn fences for protection, but to no avail. Hundreds of workers fled Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge.

Before work could resume, chief engineer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (1865-1947) had to eliminate the lions and their threat. After many near misses, he finally shot the first lion on December 9, 1898, and three weeks later brought down the second. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899."

Real Lions that were stranger than fiction.

The original book: The Man Eaters Of Tsavo (read it for free)

"The book has been adapted to film three times: a monochrome, British film of the 1950s, a 1952 3-D film titled Bwana Devil, and a 1996 color version called The Ghost and the Darkness, where Val Kilmer played the daring engineer who hunts down the lions of Tsavo."

The lions were so hard to kill, and killed so many people that they began to be considered as
spirits and not real lions. And so they were called the Ghost and the Darkness. Their favorite way to eat their victims was to lick their skin off and drink their blood as it oozed to the surface.

Lions don't attack humans unless provoked. These two did.
Male lions won't tolerate another male's presence much less hunt together. These two did.
Lions don't den in a cave. These two did.
Thus they became more than real.

Of course scientist can't stand a good legend especially one with supernatural connotations.
So here is the Field Museum's debunkment of the mystery.

"After speaking at The Field Museum in 1924, Patterson sold the museum the lion skins and skulls for the then-sizeable sum of $5,000. The skins arrived in less-than-perfect condition--old and dry, they had been cut down into rugs. (In real life the lions were even larger than they appear as taxidermy mounts.) The skins were also blemished by gunshot wounds and thorn scratches. Museum taxidermist Julius Friesser did an extraordinary job creating the life-like mounts you can see at The Field Museum."

Now the ultimate"insult" to the mystery and tingle of the lions' story. Yup, you guess'd it. Stuffed toys.