Hyena Jim Terrorizes Chicago, 1897

Newspaper archives are full of odd stories about the Lincoln Park Zoo (which was, after all, built on top of the old City Cemetery). One particular story that amused me last week concerned a guy in the early 1920s who was devastated to hear that his pet monkey was the wrong kind of monkey to use for “gland transplants,” a then-in-vogue operation in which ape…parts…would be surgically attached onto one’s one in order to rejuvenate one’s youthful vigor. The article about the guy ended with him hopping a cab to the Lincoln Park Zoo to scope out the action at the monkey house to see if any of the apes had more suitable…glands…that he could use.

But few zoo stories stayed in the news quite as long as the tale of Jim, the hyena who escaped from the zoo in 1897, a story that lasted a good week and kept the north side in a state of panic.

Skeleton of a “cave hyena” from an 1880s issue of
Scientific American

Jim escaped from the zoo by gnawing a hole into his cage in June, 1897. Since hyenas can be deadly, mothers on the north side were told to keep their children indoors – as the Tribune put it, “the watchful mothers of Buen Park were kept in a constant tremor all day by the dear that their little ones should be picked out to supply the “piece de resistance” of a black Forest feast. Reporters noted that the north side ws awfully quiet; in an age when kids generally roamed free in the streets, scarcely any were allowed outdoors for fear that they might meet with Jim.

 Forty-eight hours after the escape, Jim had taken up residence in Graceland Cemetery, where he scared the crap out a night watchman – imagine being a night watchman patrolling a cemetery and have the shadowy, lanky figure of a hyena cross your path. By the time the zookeepers arrived, the whole north end of the cemetery was full of laborers who had stories to tell about “how narrowly he escaped from being devored alive.” One employee said that “Jim” was as big as any lion, and twice as vicious.

A storm came down and put a stop to the hunt, and Jim took the opportunity to flee the cemetery – workers continued to scour graceland, then expanded the search to Calvary cemetery, as well, figuring that perhaps Jim had decided that cemeteries were the place to be. The next day, he was found to be lurking around Edgewater, then apparently made his way out to the west suburbs, where he was finally shot outside of an old folks’ home near Forest Park.  By then, his reign of terror had lasted nearly a week.  His body was supposed to be stuffed and mounted, though I’ve no idea what became of it.

Even now, large animals still find refuge in Graceland now and then. Coyote sightings there are common.

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