by Angela Greenwood - National Fairground Archive
Celebration of the Falkendorf wedding.
One of the most popular and exciting performers at the Sheffield Jungle in the visit of 1910/11 was Herr Falkendorf, or "Fearless Falkendorf" as he was known, a brave trainer of lions and tigers.
Henry Falkendorf was born as Dietrich Berning in Hamburg, Germany in about 1875. He served with the German Uhlans and then transferred to a special corps, the Boxer Rebellion in the East Asiatic Cavalry; he said that it was during this time that he first acquired his exceptional fondness for animals:
"when I was time-expired and returned home I became interested in the purchase and shipment of wild beasts. I visited all manner of out of way places assisting in the purchase of wild animals and then escorting them to civilisation. The year 1904 found me at the World's Fair, St. Louis in charge with others of a menagerie. I always felt a desire to master tigers and with the idea to gratify that wish I then joined Mr Bostock, I asked him for tigers". World's Fair Newspaper, 11 February 1911
Interestingly, Carl Hagenbeck, the famous German animal trader and trainer and founder of the Hamburg Zoo is also a native of Hamburg. Hagenbeck was in Hamburg around the same time as Falkendorf and could well have been an inspiration.
In 1904, at the age of 29, Henry immigrated to the US and it was here that he began to find out what a dangerous occupation working with tigers would be. In 1908 Henry was injured at least three times by the big cats he was working with. In July and again in August while working for Frank Bostock in Coney Island, New York, he was attacked and injured by tigers. In September that year two of his tigers got into a fight and he was injured again. In July 1909 Henry was attacked by a lion and in August he got blood poisoning from a nasty scratch. He had rightfully earned the nickname "Fearless Falkendorf".
Wild animal training
Falkendorf with lions.
Wild animal taming or training first appeared as performance in the 1830's and most accounts begin with the American Isaac Van Amburgh. However, the lion tamer "Manchester Jack" has also been called the first modern wild beast performer. He was the "Lion King" in Wombwell's Menagerie and in about 1835 he appeared before the public, seated on the back of the lion 'Nero', and opening the lion's mouth. 'Nero' was a good tempered lion who had appeared in the notorious lion-baiting spectacle at Warwick in 1825. Van Amburgh made his debut in New York in 1833 and his first London appearance was at Astley's Circus. His performance with lions would demonstrate "his power over the animals", the lions were "ferocious" and he would use whips and pistol shots to keep them under control. Queen Victoria thought he was wonderful and commissioned a painting of Van Amburgh in 1839 surrounded by his big cats with a lamb at his breast.
This type of wild animal taming was popular with the crowds. The lion would not exactly perform but was a wild and ferocious beast that would be "tamed", often using whips and blank pistol shots until it was under control. Therefore, the more wild and fierce the big cat was the braver the tamer would look.
Towards the end of the 19th Century a new type of animal taming was introduced. Carl Hagenbeck and Frank Bostock were pioneers of the method of "training" rather than "taming". Hagenbeck and the "Animal King" Frank Bostock both promoted "gentle training" and "training with kindness".
Frank Bostock, in his book "The Training of Wild Animals" said that he would first get to know his animals and then it was through trust, patience and respect for the big cats that he could train them. These trainers insist that they do not hurt the animals to train them; they just had to convince them that the trainer was the leader of the pack. To the big cat the trainer is not only another big cat like them but the ultimate big cat, a "lion or tiger god" whose demands are law. Frank Bostock also realised whilst training big cats that they are afraid of the four legs on a chair. Apparently, big cats are very one track minded animals and they cannot concentrate on the four legs of a chair at the same time, they feel intimidated and back off.
However, even with gentle and kind training big cats are wild animals with killer instincts. The trainer needed to be exceptionally confident, ever vigilant and incredibly self-assured to make the big cats believe that he or she was all powerful and could not be hurt. The trainer needed to keep the "alpha" position at all times, the big cat must never know that he is stronger and could easily overpower their trainer.
The trainers would take possession and stake their claim of the space in the arena as their territory before they allowed the big cats out of their cages. The trainers would stay in the centre and the animal was then in an inferior position. The big cat believes that the trainer is the "alpha animal" and all orders are obeyed. However, trainers also know that control of these wild animals is tenuous at best and the fear of loss of control is ever present.
Big cat trainers say that if a big cat senses fear from the trainer in the voice or action it is more likely that they will attack, even drinking alcohol or suffering from a cold would affect the performance and the trainer would be in danger. The trainer therefore must always "act" like they are invincible even if they don't feel like it at the time.
In February 1910 Bostock's Arena and Jungle was in the Zoo buildings in Glasgow. During this time Henry Falkendorf was rehearsing a lion and two lionesses when Vendridi the lion attacked him, a young trainer called Martino rescued him and received the "Bostock Medal" for bravery. In October 1910 there were reports of a Royal Bengal tiger called "Mafu" escaping on SS Minnewaska, whilst at Tilbury Docks and Henry getting him under control. This incident happened during the journey that would eventually find Bostock's Jungle and Henry Falkendorf in Sheffield.
Falkendorf in Sheffield
Bostock's jungle arrived in Sheffield at the beginning of November 1910. The twenty-five trainers claimed to be the most famous in their respective nationalities which included American, British, German, French, Russian, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Cuban.
On 12 November the Yorkshire Telegraph & Star reported an incident that occurred whilst Falkendorf was practising for one of his performances with a lion. It describes the system of whistle signals that the jungle uses to keep the passage-ways between the cages and the arena area clear and to avoid the meeting of unfriendly animals. However, on this occasion there was a mistake, Falkendorf was given the all clear whistle that meant that the lion could return to its cage but as it rushed through the passageway it met a bear! Menelik the lion seized President the bear by the throat and it was killed as a result.
However, things got better and two particular occasions were highlighted in the local press later in November. On the 15th there was a "sensational performance of three magnificent man-eating tigers and two lions, who are by no means on friendly terms with each other, though well under the control of Herr Falkendorf their intrepid German trainer" and on the 22nd "the seating accommodation was taxed to its limit to witness the masterful handling of lions and tigers by Herr Falkendorf".
In the report of the Sheffield Jungle in the World's Fair Newspaper on Christmas Eve 1910 there was an incident when Falkendorf was said to have fired a blank cartridge to keep some of his lions and tigers in his performance in check. However, compared to what would happen a couple of weeks later this was relatively mild and painless.
Attacked by a tiger
Drawing of the tiger attack on Falkendorf.
On 11th January, two months after the Jungle opened in Sheffield, Henry was attacked during a live performance by "Mafu", the same Bengal tiger that had escaped during the crossing to the UK:
"Fearless Falkendorf, the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Teuton now lies in the Royal Hospital with a row of stitches on each side of his head and down his right cheek. He was attacked late yesterday afternoon at the Jungle by Mafu: one of the magnificent Royal Bengal tigers. The attack took place towards the end of the performance. Herr Falkendorf had six Bengal tigers on pedestals at the back of the great arena and was devoting his attention to Rajah on his extreme left. Mafu was on the next pedestal, and a momentary lack of watchfulness was responsible for the attack".
The onslaught was very sudden; Mafu sprang from the pedestal and attacked his trainer. Mafu's claws sank deep into Falkendorf's head, and the weight of the tiger's body knocked him down to the arena floor. The doors of the arena were flung open and several of the other trainers dashed forward discharging their revolvers which were full of blanks. Mafu then let go of Falkendorf and returned to his fellow tigers. The arena's audience were quickly cleared and the management told them "all was well".
Falkendorf was helped to his feet and taken to his room where he took the matter lightly, he wanted to be treated at the Jungle. However the manager of the Jungle Mr Tudor insisted that he went to the Royal Hospital where he was treated by Dr Morgan. Falkendorf had seventeen stitches and remained in hospital for over a week. Such injuries and the visible scars they leave behind have sometimes played a part in the heroic 'costume' and persona of the lion tamer. A reporter from the Sheffield Independent who visited him in hospital said, "Falkendorf has his head swathed in bandages but his moustache had not lost its aggressive tilt". The reporter described Henry as a spirited German who treats accidents of this kind as a schoolmaster would look upon the misbehaviour of one of his pupils.
It was very important for big cat trainers who had been injured to return to performing in the arena as quickly as possible. It was believed that "the animal knows for the time being that he has gained a temporary supremacy over his trainer" and it was vital that the trainer returned quickly to regain alpha position. This was important to Henry Falkendorf, he had a "constitution of iron" and would "scoff at crutches and convalescent homes".
Return to work for Falkendorf.
On the 19th of January it was reported that Falkendorf had recovered and would be leaving the Royal Hospital. His head was still in bandages and it would be a couple of weeks before he would perform again. When Falkendorf returned to the Jungle he visited "Mafu", the tiger that had inflicted the injuries, and the animal "hung his head in shame".
As a mark of the Jungle's appreciation of the care which Falkendorf received at the Royal Hospital Mr Tudor arranged a "Hospital Sunday" at the Jungle every day of the following week where money would be raised for the Royal Hospital Fund.
Three weeks later on the 11th of February Falkendorf made his return to the Jungle; the audience gave him a standing ovation when he entered the arena. It was also reported that:
"an interesting sidelight on Herr Falkendorf's reappearance is his forthcoming marriage to a young Sheffield lady who has captured the courageous Teutony's affections since the coming of the Jungle to Sheffield".
On Valentine's Day 1911 it was reported in the Sheffield Daily Independent that the next day would be "The last appearance of Herr Falkendorf in the arena as a bachelor and the following afternoon would be the first appearance of Herr Falkendorf in the arena as a Benedict". Henry would introduce his wife Fraulein Henry Falkendorf to the people of Sheffield in the jungle arena and then later would perform with his tigers, all on his wedding day.
At 10.30am on February 16th 1911 Henry Falkendorf married Theresa Smith at St. Marie's Catholic Church, Norfolk Row, Sheffield. Henry was 35 and Theresa, born in 1887 was 23. Theresa Smith lived at 463 Shoreham Street with her parents. Falkendorf was listed on the marriage record as Henry Berning with a profession of Wild Animal Trainer and prior to the marriage was living on Meadow Street. The service was conducted by the Rev. Father Hayes. Harry Tudor, the American General Manager of Bostock's Jungle was the Best Man and Miss Sophia Smith, the sister of the bride, was the bridesmaid.
This was before Elvis, The Beatles or the celebrity culture that we know today, but in 1911 it would seem that "Fearless Falkendorf" was a celebrity in Sheffield and this was the wedding to see. "Rude Women" and "Extraordinary Scenes!" at the church were reported in the Sheffield Daily Independent.
"The church was crowded with excited women who clamoured for a view of the scene. A strong force of policemen had the utmost difficulty in making these females behave themselves decently in a place of worship and several had to be ejected".
Extra police were drafted in when the crowd outside swelled to around three thousand and several friends of the bridal party were unable to enter the church. The people outside were better behaved apparently than the "rude women" inside:
"The women in the pews took advantage of being out of the reach of the police and promptly stood on the pew seats, they had no thought of the sacred character of their surroundings. They laughed and chatted in a disgusting fashion. The horde of curiosity mongers embraced all grades of society. Some females were smartly dressed and others had shawls over their heads. A few carried babies who loudly resented the rough treatment received in the crowd".
After the ceremony, when the newlyweds had escaped the crowds and Henry had finished his first performance as a married man with his tigers, it was time to celebrate. Around seventy guests attended the wedding breakfast which was held in the Sheffield Jungle arena. It was reported to have been at midnight when the evening public performance had finished. The bridal party and their guests sat in the spot where Falkendorf had been mauled by a tiger only a few weeks earlier and feasted on a sumptuous meal:
"Glasses were raised enthusiastically to the health of the bride and groom and a photographer standing on a stool upon which the pumas perform flashed the company in their curious surroundings".
The wedding couple - photograph from grand-daughter Michele Brule.
For more information on the back ground of this Falkendorf story see our Archival Insights article.
Click the link to see a World's Fair article on Falkendorf's attack in Glasgow.