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His wife didn't want him to do it. The ASPCA tried to dissuade him. Area sheriffs spoke out against the idea. But Denver M. Wright, a St. Louis leather manufacturer, went ahead with his ill-conceived plan for what he termed an African-style safari. Not once, but twice.

It's unfair, I know, to impose today's sensitivities on the attitudes and behavior of people who lived more than 80 years ago. The 1930s was a time when Ernest Hemingway was considered a man's man, and hunting big game was, for many, the ultimate sport.

However, what Denver M. Wright did was cruel, pathetic and just plain ridiculous. But apparently he did not break any laws in the process.

His first Missouri safari took place in October, 1932. Why and how he had acquired two ten-month-old female lions was never made quite clear by Wright, who altered his answer each time he was asked.

The story is a failing circus sold the two lions to Wright, who kept them for a while in his backyard in Brentwood, a St. Louis suburb. His idea was to sell tickets to men who wanted to participate in a lion hunt somewhere in southeast Missouri. Wright's uncertainty about where he'd release his lions was worrisome to a lot of people in that part of the state.

Wright then announced he'd hold the safari on an island in the Mississippi River, near the small town of Commerce, Missouri. The sheriff of nearby Mississippi County complained that he'd recently had to hunt an escaped circus lion, and didn't want to go through that again.

Stories about this "safari," and the one that was staged three months later, are confusing when it comes to location and the lawmen who spoke out against them. Some claimed the island actually was in Kentucky; the second safari may have strayed into Arkansas territory.

Also at issue is the age of this first pair of lions. A story written by Sam Blackwell for the Southeast Missourian not only sets the age at 10-months, which makes this a pair of juvenile lions, but also says they had names — Nellie and Bess. Which makes what happens next even more pitiful.

Feeling the heat, Wright told an Associated Press reporter he had offered the lions to the city of Cape Girardeau, but the city refused to take them. The mayor of Springfield asked for them, but Wright shrugged him off and began heading toward the island, attracting many curious onlookers in the process.

Albany Times Union, October 18, 1932
COMMERCE, Missouri (AP) — Deputy Sheriff Tom Hotchkiss, who killed two young lionesses marooned on a small island in the Mississippi River with a sub-machine gun, admitted he didn’t get much “kick” out of the shooting.

“Shucks,” said Hotchkiss, “it wasn’t any trouble at all to shoot ‘em. No more than pottin’ a squirrel out on the limb of a cottonwood. If this is lion huntin’, then I’ll stick to ‘possums and coons, where a man can have some excitement.”

Hotchkiss yesterday ended the long-planned “safari” of Denver M. Wright, St. Louis manufacturer, by killing the animals Wright had released on a “towhead” island near here.

Hotchkiss went to the island secretly in a motorboat, killed the lions by firing two shots at each of them, then removed the carcasses. Later Wright and his hunting party, which had left the island to give the two jungle beasts time to accustom themselves to their new freedom, returned and began beating the bush for the quarry. But they found no trace of the lions.

Nonplussed, Wright and the other hunters returned to Commerce. There they learned that Hotchkiss had killed the beasts an hour and a half after they had been released from the cage in which they were transported from St. Louis.

Wright protested angrily, but Hotchkiss contended he had done his official duty because the lions were a “menace to the peace and safety of the livestock and people of southeast Missouri.”

Sheriff Hotchkiss wasn't being completely honest. For one thing, the lions actually were killed by a man named Tom Wise, who accompanied the sheriff to the island, along with two newspaper reporters.

According to "The Great Commerce Lion Hunt," another story on the Southeast Missourian website, the sheriff's visit was intended to determine the actual danger presented by the lions. However, Wise said one of the lions dashed toward him, so he opened fire.

Maybe, but after reading several stories about this fiasco, and the even greater one to come, I tend to believe it was the intention of Sheriff Hotchkiss (spelled Hodgkiss in the online story) to put an end to the safari in a way that Wright couldn't arrange to re-scheduled it. Which is why Nellie and Bess had to be killed.

Wright and some who wrote about this event referred to the the sheriff's party as "interlopers," which wasn't true. If anything, the sheriff had more of a right to visit the island than did Wright's group.

The bodies of the two dead lions were given to Wright who had them stuffed and mounted for a place in his game den.

And while Wright had made it seem as though the two young lions originally had been forced upon him, he went out and purchased two more from a circus. This time they were full-grown males (see photo at the top of the page). Another "safari" soon was underway.

New York Sun, January 16, 1933
ST. LOUIS (AP) —Denver M. Wright left here today for his second synthetic lion hunt in southeast Missouri. The two lions purchased from a circus for the purpose were carried in a cage on a trailer behind Wright’s automobile.

Wright has not fully disclosed his program, but it is known the hunt will be held this week, probably tomorrow, on a Mississippi River island, near Commerce, Missouri, in the same region where the previous expedition ended in bitter disappointment for the hunter last October.

Wright said he would take ample precautions to avoid intrusion and that repetition of the previous anti-climax, when the two lionesses he had freed on the island were shot by interlopers while Wright and his party were eating a chicken dinner.

Profiting by his experience, Wright will guard the island from the time the lions are freed until, with guides acting as “gun bearers” and “beaters,” he can proceed to the kill in a way he imagines a lion hunt should be conducted.

A motion picture photographer accompanied the party to take pictures of the hunt. Wright said he would donate his profits from the picture to charity, thus answering critics who have deplored the considerable sum he has expended to realize his lion-hunting ambitions.

"Southeast Missouri's Strangest Hunt," a story by Allison Vaughn from March 11, 2007, might well be accurate, but several details do not agree with 1933 newspaper accounts.

Ms. Vaughn's story says that in December, 1932, Denver Wright set out to gather 18 hunters and about twenty "husky Negroes" to act as "beaters" on his safari, which he planned for Hog Island, somewhere in the Mississippi River.

Newspaper stories at the time made it appear only a small group participated in the second hunt, and the "beaters" were either rather-be hunters or curious people who paid for the privilege.

Reports about this sad affair were all datelined Wolf Island, Missouri, which is not an actual island, but a tiny community southeast of Cape Girardeau, a mile or so from the Mississippi River. Apparently there is an island by that name nearby, but an Associated Press story that ran in many newspapers on January 20, said that particular island was part of Kentucky, and C. R. Faulkner, sheriff of Hickman County in that state, said he would not permit the lion hunt to be held there. Stories say Wright set up camp on Hog Island, but I've yet to find such a place in that part of Missouri.

Where Wright actually took his two lions and how many men accompanied him is uncertain. Why anyone would tag along was puzzling because one of the conditions of the hunt was that Wright or his son would do the killing. Only one thing is sure: the folks who participated had a dreadful experience. It was, after all, the middle of winter, albeit in the southern half of the country. The weather did not cooperate.

Albany Times-Union, January 20, 1933
WOLF ISLAND, Missouri (AP) — Playful as a pair of milk-fed kittens, Denver M. Wright’s lions refused to leave his camp on Hog Island in the Mississippi River near here, when he opened the door of their cage today, preparatory to staging a synthetic lion hunt.

Wright himself released the lions from a position he had taken atop the cage. He said he planned to stage the hunt tomorrow or Sunday.

Neither animal showed the slightest intention of running away to the hunt might begin. One lazy lion eyed the member of the hunting party owlishly, but with no apparent viciousness. The other feline soon tired of his gambols and sat down, but after a few minutes arose and began to play again.

Measures were taken to make them go away. but no definite plan was adopted.

Before releasing the animals, Wright inspected all the firearms in the party to make sure they were no loaded.

After the inspection, members of the party were required to sign a document releasing Wright from liability in the event the lions should cause death or injury.

Within a few hours death seemed like a pleasant alternative. The lions quickly destroyed one barbed wire fence. Had they wanted to break through the one that separated them from the hunters and their tents, they could have done it easily. That's why there was not much sleeping on the night before the hunt, and perhaps the reason the hunt was not postponed until the rain stopped.

New York Sun, January 21, 1933
WOLF ISLAND, Missouri (AP) — Huddled miserably under leaky canvas while Denver M. Wright’s liberated lions roared and muttered just outside the barbed wire barricade, members of the “African hunt” party crawled out of their cots today with the fervent hope that Wright would kill the beasts and do it quickly.

There was little cheer on the island eight miles south of here in the Mississippi River, which Wright had selected as the place to gratify his fondest ambition — a hunt to the death with two full-grown lions as the quarry.

Some of the party, whose shins were bruised when they took to the trees during the release of the lions from their cage yesterday, professed to see little humor in their situation.

There has been no assurance the lions might not penetrate the wire barricade. With this in mind, several of the hunters complained of insomnia last night. When the lions were released yesterday, they dashed through a wire fence bordering on a runway designed to lead the animals to the underbrush. The fence was no different from that which protects the tents of the campers.

Wright had planned to hunt the animals in fair weather so
that moving pictures might be made of the event. With drizzling rain falling this morning, the probability of his ordering the hunt for today was remote.

Meanwhile, Denver M. Wright might well have wished he were traveling with the former king of Spain:

New York Sun, January 21, 1933
PARIS (UP) — Former King Alfonso XIII of Spain and the Duke of Miranda left on the Rome express today for Naples, where they plan to embark on a boat for Colombo, Ceylon, on a tiger-hunting expedition.

Wright decided to go ahead with his hunt, despite the weather and the reluctance of the doomed lions to go along with what seemed a very sick joke. It hard to imagine anyone getting pleasure from a hunt in which the prey is practically shouting, "Shoot! Just get done with it!"

Rome (NY) Daily Sentinel, January 21, 1933
WOLF ISLAND, Missouri (AP) — The playful lions of Denver M. Wright, St. Louis leather manufacturer, were killed ignominiously on a Mississippi River island eight miles south of here today after the animals had resolutely refused to leave the vicinity of Wright’s “African camp.”`

One of them was shot and wounded by Wright and another member of the party when the huge cat rushed the St. Louis manufacturer. The coup de grace was administered to the beast by Wright’s 14-year-old son, Charles, as the lion, too seriously wounded to move, lay in the grass.

The second, which retired a few feet to a hummock when its companion was shot, was killed a half-hour later, after it finally had been aroused from its lethargy and provoked to rage by a man known as “Indian Joe,” who prodded it in the ribs with a stick.

Four riflemen, including Wright, shot the beast down as it started to rush the party. The lions were killed less than 200 feet from the cage from which they were released yesterday morning.

The light was poor for recording the game hunt, so it was decided to forgo the motion pictures and kill the lions.
So Wright, his son, Charles, Ted Bennett of Dorena, Missouri, and John Clifft of East Prairie armed themselves with rifles. The other equipped ;themselves with pots, pans and sticks and set out for the task of trying to make the lions go away and hide.

The lions refused to co-operate, retreating no more than 50 yards, where the more lethargic of them sat down. Wright and his riflemen circled them as other members of the party shouted and beat on their pans.

Finally Wright and his riflemen approached to within about 25 feet from one. It flattened its ears and growled. Suddenly it sprang to its feet and Wright fired. The animal, wounded, turned and retreated.

Heading back toward the camp, the wounded animal was joined by the other. A hundred feet away,, the injured lion lay down and young Wright fired a shot through its head.

Going back to the second lion, the party attempted to scare it into flight. Finally, “Indian Joe” began prodding it gently in the ribs. The cat leaped to its feet and dashed toward its tormentor. Four rifles cracked and the lion fell dead.

Thus ended Wright’s second lion hunt. He plans to bring the carcasses back to his suburban home in Brentwood, where they will be mounted and placed beside the two young lionesses which were shot by interlopers on his previous hunt.

According to the story, there was no filming of the lions being killed, but two online stories say a movie exists, though it may include only footage from the previous day of the lions being released —and wandering around the vicinity of the cage. It certainly wouldn't have been good for Wright's image for a film to include scenes of someone poking the prey.

In 1935 Wright went into Mexico and killed deer, wild hogs and an ocelot. The next year he went after panthers and alligators in the Florida Everglades.

The last mention I found of him was from 1953 when the Eastman Kodak Company refused to deliver a movie Wright made of a South American tribe because its members did not wear clothes. Kodak was afraid of violating state and federal laws relating to obscenity.

Finally, a U. S. District Court judge in Chicago ruled the film should be turned over to the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, as Wright had intended. He said the film would be used to teach medical missionaries. The lawsuit had dragged on for two years.

According to "Southeast Missouri's Strangest Hunt," Wright wrote a book about killing his lions. Apparently it was written in the third person, and he sometimes referred to himself as "the courageous Wright."

That's not an adjective I would have chosen.

 
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