A circus unlike any other

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History of fateful day in 1929 gets an alternative account


  • Joseph Reginella in Battery Park, next to his monument to the “the biggest land mammal tragedy in the nation.” Photo: Mihika Agarwal

  • Joseph Reginella monument, which commemorates “the biggest land mammal tragedy in the nation, in Battery Park. Photo: Mihika Agarwal

Not many recall that somber autumn morning, 88 years ago, when a trio of African elephants, bound for the circus, trampled tens of innocent pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge: The tragedy would be dwarfed by the Great Crash of October 29, 1929, which occurred the same day.

The elephants, among them their star, Jumbo, were, on that doubly fateful day, being led across the bridge, a tradition inaugurated some 45 years before by P.T. Barnum as a way to demonstrate the span’s sturdiness. But that morning, someone or something disquieted Jumbo, and the parade of pachyderms panicked.

Some of the massacred were crushed under the elephants’ pillar-like limbs; others impaled by colossal tusks; and several done to death by jumping 300 feet into the depths of the East River. Ruffles the Clown, a popular circus figure, was among the casualties, as were several newspaper writers.

The stampede, which would come to be known as “the biggest land mammal tragedy in the nation,” was recently commemorated by a 6-foot-tall monument that documents, unvarnished, that darkest of dark days on the bridge.

Except that all of it — the account of a Brooklyn bridge elephant stampede, the backstory, even the monument — is a hoax, a tall tale, a fictional spin on history, crafted by Joseph Reginella, a 46-year old artist from Staten Island.

“I’m just creeping into these people’s brains,” said Reginella, who similarly and successfully tricked and treated the public last year with his account of a giant octopus that had attacked the Cornelius G. Kolff, a Staten Island ferry, on November 22, 1963, another infamous day in U.S. history.

“Even if you know it’s fake, it’s a piece of entertainment,” Reginella said in Battery Park on a bright, recent Sunday morning, untiringly amused by the range of reactions of passers-by at the monument.

“Look at that guy, he’s shaking his head, he can’t believe it,” he added, beaming.

But he doesn’t want the public to read too much into his creations, and certainly not as commentary on fake news. “My intention is to take to you to a fantasyland for a little while,” he said. “The more I think about it now, it’s really just for fun.”

Somewhat contrary to his Cornelius G. Kolff ruse, Jumbo the elephant and his friends were, if not heroes, then more sympathetic creatures, much like King Kong.

“I hated to see these beautiful creatures in the cage, so I wanted them to break free in my story,” said Reginella, an admitted animal lover.

In addition to the monument — a clay sculpture, oxidized to form a bronzish green hue, that Reginella wheels to Battery Park and to Brooklyn Bridge Park — Reginella created a website with accompanying video and voiceover of the “tragedy” as well as a site-by-site narrated tour of the day’s events by iconic New York rocker David Johansen.

The script for “Jumbo’s Journey,” which takes participants along the route taken by the elephants in their march towards freedom — from Brooklyn Bridge Park to Clinton Castle — was written by Ricky Roxburgh, the head writer of the Disney Channel show “Tangled: The Series.”

A 7-minute black and white documentary created by 21-year old filmmaker Melanie Juliano, is the ruse’s final component. Voiced-over by the actors of “Tangled,” the short film is heavy on dramatic visuals and footage. All told, the project took Reginella three months to complete. Which is pretty quick, given that he rewrote history.

As for Jumbo, he was last seen running through the Holland Tunnel, on his way to freedom.

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