63 years later, Rifle residents recount the death of Bertha the elephant
Citizen Telegram Contributor
An advertisement in the September 11,1952 Rifle Telegram trumpeted “IT’S CIRCUS TIME in Rifle.” A picture of “Big Bertha” a 5-ton elephant set to visit the Rifle fairgrounds as part of the Cole and Walters Circus for an afternoon and evening performance on Tuesday, September 16, accompanied the ad.
The next week, the front page of The Telegram reported “Local Men Shoot Elephant North of Rifle Tuesday.” The article beneath the headline identifies “Big Bertha” as the elephant that was killed.
Almost exactly 63 years later, no one version of these events, be it published account or personal anecdote, completely jibes with another. Like the old childhood game of “telephone” in which a simple story travels by whisper from one ear unto the next and fracturing into something slightly different each time the story moves along, the facts surrounding Bertha’s death vary depending on who you ask.
Bill Moulton, an 86-year-old Silt resident, one of the men who shot the elephant, said, “I’ve read so many dang newspaper articles (about the elephant shooting) and ain’t a one of ‘em ever got it exactly right.”
Vicki Choate, 74, has lived in Rifle all of her life. “I was born here,” Choate said with no small amount of pride.
As Choate remembers the story: “The elephant truck tipped over on (the circus’) way out of town. The elephant was hurt, and mad. It was pissed off,” Choate said. “They knew that elephant had to be destroyed.”
Geri Jewell, 79, who has also resided in Rifle her whole life, said the truck carrying the elephant tipped over on its way into town.
“That circus come right down (Highway) 13 and the truck tipped over. … (The elephant) hit her head on something and was hurt bad. … I didn’t get to see the rampage,” Jewell said. “But the Wilcoxson’s wheat field was tore up pretty bad.”
In the article that appeared the week after the elephant’s death, The Telegram reported that there had been no truck crash near Rifle. According to the article, the Cole and Walters truck had burned out its brakes driving a load of elephants down the steep grade of Rio Blanco Hill, approximately 14 miles north of Rifle. The article goes on to say that “Bertha,” the slain elephant, had actually been injured in a truck accident several weeks before, in Montana. An unnamed circus trainer is quoted as saying, “Big Bertha had been nervous ever since,” that accident.
The Telegram also reported that the decision to destroy the elephant was made after the animal broke loose of an ankle chain and refused to board the replacement truck that had driven up from Rifle to collect her and the other elephants. The article did agree with Jewell that the elephant caused significant damage to the Wilcoxson’s farm.
There were only three Rifle police officers at the time, according to Choate. “None of them had a gun big enough to kill that elephant. Maybe they could have shot at it with a .22, but that just would’ve made it more mad.”
“Daddy was a police magistrate and a municipal judge and he had a British 303. Ralph McLearn was the Rifle police chief then. He knew Daddy had been a sharpshooter during the war. … I’m pretty sure it would’ve been McLearn that asked Daddy to shoot the elephant,” Choate said.
Choate’s father, Stanley Brooks, had been an Army sharp shooter during World War II but was paralyzed from the waste down after falling off of a tank and onto a grenade at Guam. Choate indicated that as a result of the injuries he sustained during the war, her father did not feel physically comfortable with the idea of shooting such a powerful weapon. Brooks would eventually succumb to his combat injuries and pass away at the age of 39, according to Choate.
“That sucker (the British .303) would bruise your arm,” Choate said. “Daddy sighted the rifle in. But it was Ernie Merrell, who worked at Collett’s Hardware (Collet’s Hardware was located right next door to Rifle Hardware, where the 12 year old Vicki Brooks-Choate worked at the time and where the present day Citizen Telegram office is located) that shot the elephant.”
Published accounts of the shooting ranging geographically from the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News to the Buffalo Courier-Express in Buffalo, New York, agree that Ernie Merrell was not alone when he drove up Highway 13 to euthanize the elephant. Merrell brought along his friend, 23-year-old ex Navy Capt. Bill Moulton, then owner of Moulton Sporting Goods in Rifle and an avid hunter who’d been around guns all his life, to help.
Moulton doesn’t remember Merrell bringing along a British .303. “Ernie had a .30-06 and I had a Winchester .33,” said Moulton, who added that the circus truck neither flipped over nor burned its brakes out. “They just had a flat tire.”
The story that appeared in The Telegram in the week following the shooting had a triumphant air to it, declaring Merrell and Moulton to be “the only two Rifle sportsmen who can claim to have shot a genuine elephant.”
“(The shooting) wasn’t really that exciting,” Moulton said. “We pulled up and the elephant was led over toward us. The circus trainer said that he’d been scared of the elephant ever since it had got hurt in a truck accident in Montana. That trainer said that he was scared of the elephant and that the elephant knew he was scared.”
The Telegram reported that there had been three shots fired to kill the elephant. Moulton contends only two shots were fired.
“The elephant was wearing some kind of heavy leather head gear. The circus trainer told us to aim for the head gear, but Ernie (Merrell) was one smart cookie. He knew that a shot behind the ear was deadly. Ernie fired and hit the elephant behind its ear and it went down,” Moulton said. “But it wasn’t dead. It started climbing back up on its front legs. … The circus trainer started yelling, ‘Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.’ … I shot the elephant through the forehead and it went down for good.”
After the elephant’s death, word quickly spread around Rifle that there was an elephant’s body laying next to Highway 13 up by Rio Blanco Hill.
Albert “Bill” VanArsdale, was a 1952 Rifle Union High School graduate who passed away this summer at 81. At VanArsdale’s memorial service at New Creation Church in New Castle on July 13, a faded black-and-white picture of an 18-year-old VanArsdale standing atop the elephant’s body holding his hunting rifle at high port, looking as though he had shot the animal, kept cycling through during the slideshow that paid tribute to his life.
Jewell drove up with her own family from Rifle to the Wilcoxson’s farm to have pictures taken with the dead elephant.
“I was 16 and had quit school to get married. … It got around town that they’d shot the elephant, so I took my mother, my brother and my sister out to see the body. … It was quite a big to-do, hunting elephants in the Rockies,” she said, adding that many townspeople took souvenirs from the elephant besides pictures.
“There were people cutting chunks of her hide off. It was horrible.”
Moulton said that many months after the shooting, Merrell, who accompanied Moulton to put the elephant down, asked him if he wanted the elephant’s tail.
Both Jewell and Choate believe that the rest of the elephant’s body was buried right where it was shot off the shoulder of Highway 13.
“There was a factory in Grand Junction that wanted to render the fat, but they couldn’t lift her. So, they dug a hole behind her with a back hoe and pushed the body right in,” Jewell said.
Moulton disagrees. He believes that the body was taken away and rendered at a plant in Delta and the only part of the elephant’s remains that stayed in Rifle was its tail, which Merrell buried somewhere near the American Legion Hall, where he lived at the time.
“I think somebody or the other over there made Ernie get rid of (the tail),” Moulton said.
Moutlon also is unsure if the elephant’s name really was “Bertha,” as was reported in the newspaper accounts at the time.
“I heard ‘Bertha’ but I also heard it called another name,” he said.
More than six decades later, all that is known for certain is that Ernie Merrell and Bill Moulton shot and killed an elephant near the old Wilcoxson’s farm at the bottom of Rio Blanco Hill north of Rifle.
Whether that elephant was actually named “Big Bertha” or whether the elephant’s bones are really buried off the shoulder of Highway 13 or were rendered at a factory long ago, may remain unknown for decades to come.
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