The sale of alcohol was illegal in Alabama for almost all of Miss Fancy’s time in Birmingham, so her long-time keeper John Todd convinced city officials to give him bottles of confiscated illegal liquor to medicate Miss Fancy. But Todd consumed most of the alcohol himself and was arrested several times for public intoxication. This is probably the reason Miss Fancy was able to wander away from the zoo with such ease.
A crew from the circus arrived at Avondale Zoo on the morning of November 11, 1934. They came to take away Miss Fancy and some of the other remaining animals: a cow, a llama, six monkeys, and the bear. The park had been Miss Fancy’s home for twenty-one years, and children from Avondale School came to tell her goodbye. Miss Fancy, no doubt prompted by her trainer, bent her front knees and bowed to the children one final time. Then Miss Fancy and Todd took their last stroll through Birmingham, walking several blocks to the waiting train. At 1:30 in the afternoon she arrived at the train tracks and walked up the platform to the box car, but the door was too small. The circus men tried for two and a half hours but could not shove her into the car. Miss Fancy walked back down the platform and began nibbling grass along the tracks while the men searched for a bigger box car. An hour later one was found, Miss Fancy lumbered aboard, and at 7:00 in the evening the train left Birmingham. Todd rode with Miss Fancy to Peru, Indiana, winter quarters for the circus, where Miss Fancy was retrained as a circus performer. Todd returned to Birmingham and worked in the city greenhouse. Miss Fancy toured with Cole Brothers Circus in 1935, and her name was changed to Bama. She remained behind at the circus’s winter quarters in 1936, suggesting that she was either ill or exhibiting behavior problems. She toured again in 1937 and spent 1938 back at the winter quarters. In April 1939, she was sold to the Buffalo, New York, zoo and stayed there until her death in 1954.
Birmingham has not forgotten Miss Fancy. She appears as a character in Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, though not in the film. Avondale Brewing Company, one of Birmingham’s microbreweries, adopted her as its mascot, and the company’s logo features a drawing of Miss Fancy with a beer bottle hoisted in her trunk. A recent renovation of Avondale Park and revitalization of the Avondale business district has increased interest in the old elephant, and there are still people living in Birmingham who remember riding her as a child or seeing her wander the neighborhoods.
Miss Fancy’s story is both sweet and sad, a mix of fact and legend. She was an intelligent, complex creature, gentle and patient with Birmingham’s children, but dealt with the stresses of captivity and almost constant contact with humans. If the old girl occasionally felt the need to kick over a fire hydrant or demolish a small building, who would hold that against her?
James L. Baggett is head of the Birmingham Public Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts and archivist for the City of Birmingham.