How the most famous man-eaters in the history of Africa ended up in the city of Chicago.
The man-eaters of Tsavo, as they can be seen today on display in the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy of the Field Museum.
If you’ve read John Henry Patterson’s famous 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, or seen the 1996 movie starring Val Kilmer called The Ghost and the Darkness, then you’re familiar with the story of the Tsavo lions.
If you don’t know the story, here are the basics: In March 1898, the British were building a railway bridge over Kenya’s Tsavo River. The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. Over nine months of construction, two maneless male lions terrorized the camp, dragging workers from their tents and eating them. Patterson made repeated attempts to trap and kill the lions, but they outwitted him endlessly. Patterson finally succeeded in December of that year, killing first one and then, twenty days later, the other. No one knows exactly how many people succumbed to the lions in the meantime; there may have been as many as 135 victims.
What happened to the lions afterward, however, is not as well known. Patterson, who left Kenya some time later, had both lions made into rugs, with the skulls still inside the skins, and they spent twenty-five years on the floor of his London flat. In 1923, Patterson arrived in Chicago on a lecture tour. The then-president of the Field Museum in Chicago, who attended his talk, approached Patterson afterward and asked if he still had the skins. Patterson said yes, and a deal was struck: The museum bought both of them for the princely sum of $5,000 (the equivalent of $68,950 in 2014 dollars).
The skins had to be shipped from London, and when they arrived the taxidermist in charge of the project, Julius Friesser, must have been dismayed as they were in very poor condition. Still, he was able to remove the skulls from the skins. Then Friesser used the hides to create full-body mounts. Because of the terrible condition of the hides, he had to be creative. A large amount of the skin had been trimmed off to create the rugs, and that is probably why Friesser mounted one of the lions in a crouching position, since he didn’t have enough skin to cover the belly. The other lion appears to have been much larger in the original photograph than in its mounted form, which indicates the taxidermist also had missing or damaged skin to contend with on this animal.
Otherwise, the mounted lions appear remarkably similar to the photos shown in Patterson’s book. Both were completely maneless—they had only tiny tufts of hair where manes would have normally been.
In the 1920s, having the Tsavo lions on display was no doubt quite a coup for the museum, since nearly everyone at that time was familiar with the story of Patterson’s intrepid feat. Over the years, however, the tale of the Tsavo lions faded from the collective memory, and museum workers, who no doubt saw little value in the nearly hairless, unremarkable-looking old mounts, relegated the Tsavo lions to a far corner of the museum where they languished, forgotten, for more than fifty years.
Enter Bill Stanley, the current Director of Collections and Collection Manager of Mammals for the Field Museum. Stanley grew up in Kenya, where, he says, everyone knows the story of the Tsavo lions. No one, however, had any idea where the mounts were, or even that they still existed. When Stanley arrived at his new job at the Chicago museum in 1989, he was amazed to discover the mounts in a dusty glass case in a dark corner of the museum. He realized exactly what they were when he read the yellowed, typewritten label stuck to the case. Stanley tried to get others at the museum excited about what they had, but like their predecessors, most had never heard the story and were uninterested in the moth-eaten old mounts.
It was Stanley’s chance encounter with representatives from Paramount Pictures, who happened to be visiting the museum, that brought the Tsavo lions to the public’s attention once again. The studio representatives, looking at other lion displays, mentioned a movie they were working on. When Stanley realized the movie—The Ghost and the Darkness—was about the Tsavo lions, he showed them the old mounts, at last finding an interested party. At the end of the movie, director Stephen Hopkins included a mention that the lions were in the Field Museum.
As soon as the movie came out, museum patrons began clamoring to see the mounts. In no time, the Tsavo lions were cleaned up, placed in a diorama, and moved out of their dusty corner and into a prominent place in the museum.
Since their rediscovery, the Tsavo lions have been the subject of intensive study and DNA research. Some scientists have attempted to analyze tissue samples to determine how many humans the lions actually ate, and others have worked to develop theories regarding what may have caused the lions’ unusual predatory behavior.
“There is still a debate about why they were attacking,” said Stanley. “It’s possible that rinderpest [a cattle disease] killed all the buffalo in their area and they had to resort to a different prey. It’s also possible that because the railway line was built on an old slave trail where many people had died over the years, lions in that region had developed a taste for humans.”
The actual reasons may never be known, but the Tsavo lions and the many other preserved mammals in the Field Museum are helping scientists work toward a better understanding of wildlife and wildlife behavior. While museums don’t tend to use as much traditional taxidermy in their displays as they used to, Stanley says mounted animals, particularly older ones, are still crucial to the research process.
“I can’t even describe how valuable [having these older mounts] is for DNA research,” he said. “In reality, less than 1 percent of what is in the museum building is actually on public view. But it is all available for scientists to study, and what goes into our public displays and dioramas comes out of what we learn from those old skeletons and skins.”