Nellie the Elephant or How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

Just before Christmas break my colleague Dara showed me this photo and asked if I knew anything about it:elephant_1924crop

I did not. I’d never seen it before. I was, though, arrested by the image and felt compelled to figure it out. I therefore spent many happy hours on the internet over vacation, going down some odd and twisty paths, most of which I’ll spare you but some of which are essential.

The only thing I was reasonably sure of when I began was that the photo was taken in 1924, the year that Rice beat Texas 19-6. At first I wasn’t even completely sure the picture was made on the Rice campus, as I’d never seen that scoreboard before. So naturally I first fixated on that, which only drew me into a huge red herring. Zoom in and look at the scoreboard and you’ll see that it says as plain as day “Next Game: Sewanee.” The problem here is that Rice didn’t play Sewanee in 1924 or any other year in this era. (Sadly, I’m now an expert on Sewanee’s football program in the ’20s.) I was at a bit of a loss.

But then I realized that I did know one other fact for certain: the name of the elephant was Nellie. It says so right on her banner! It didn’t seem like much to go on, but it turned out that there is an on-line database of circus and zoo elephants and there she was–acquired by the Houston zoo from Ringling Brothers in October 1924. The zoo had only recently moved from downtown out to Hermann Park and it all caused quite a stir among the Rice students, who immediately adopted Nellie as something of a mascot. This excited explanation is from the October 10 edition of the Thresher (Hans Nagel was the zookeeper, which might not be totally clear amidst all the undergraduate nonsense):

Nellie Thresher October 1924

Nellie seems to have attended several games that fall. I found several photos of her in the 1925 yearbook, although they are both blurry and very, very tiny (roughly an inch and a half) in the original. Just for the heck of it, here are a couple of them:

Nellie helps beat Texas 1924

Nellie at game 1924

A movement arose among the students to raise money to acquire a mate for Nellie who would also become an official mascot, but someone in authority wisely put the kibosh on this. (A male elephant–named Hans after the keeper–was indeed soon acquired, but without organized Rice participation.) Also wisely, it seems to me, Nellie’s trips across Main Street to watch football games ceased after the 1924 season.

There’s a bit more I could say about this but I think I’ll save it for later. Only one troubling thing remains: Sewanee!

Bonus: The new roses over between Sewall and Lovett Hall have begun to bloom. They are extremely pretty.

roses January2013

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18 Responses to Nellie the Elephant or How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

  1. Yeah, I’d like to see a bunch of Rice students today get permission to “borrow” an elephant from the Houston Zoo. As I recall, wasn’t there some kind of “coin drive” fundraiser among the elementary school kids of Houston to buy Nellie and/or Hans?

    Still want to know the explanation of Sewanee.

  2. marmer01 says:

    I’m going to take a crack at it. I’m going to postulate that the photo is from 1930 and Nellie came over especially for the Texas game. Nellie was presumably there in ’24 when the Owls beat Texas by the 19-6 score. However, for the next few years, Texas beat Rice handily, often by lopsided scores. In 1930 Rice pulled out a 6-0 squeaker against Texas. Maybe someone thought that Nellie would have been a good luck charm as she had been there for the previous Rice victory in ’24 and got special permission to bring her over. The banner was kind of an inspirational “See, we can beat Texas, we have!” sort of message. Wanna guess who Rice played in the next game after Texas in 1930? I’ll bet you can guess.

  3. Melissa Kean says:

    Seriously, Marty, that’s outstanding.

  4. marmer01 says:

    It had actually occurred to me to check the Thresher, but Mike beat me to it. Thanks! 😉

    • almadenmike says:

      You’re welcome Marty. I’d initially wondered if the photo had been taken at the old Fair Park field in Dallas during one of the All-College Circus events during the 1920s, when and where Sewanee played A&M for six consecutive years. But the circus was always the week AFTER the Sewanee game, not before it.

  5. almadenmike says:

    Marty — Your good-luck charm thesis also tracks well with Lindy Gready’s “Down the Line” column in the post-game Thresher (page 3 of http://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/65297/thr19301031.pdf). “Whether they know it or not, Hans and Nellie, the popular Houston elephants, are quite a jinx to Texas football teams. The last time Rice beat Texas the huge pachyderms were paraded. That was 1924. This year they again jinx the Steers and get a vote of thanks from Rice fans. Maybe it would be a good idea to take the big beasts to Austin when the Owls play there.”

  6. Doug Williams says:

    That also explains why there are two elephants in the photo.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      No, there aren’t.

      Oh wait.

      Yes, there are.

    • Good eye! Funny that the pachyderms would be lined up so exactly when the pic was taken that it’s hard to tell there’s one behind Nellie. You’d think that of all the things in the world, it would be really hard to miss seeing the (second) elephant in the room. Or on the field. Or whatever.

      • Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

        It might be easier to spot the second elephant if the style of pants on the men was less full. I know there are 2 elephants in the picture, but it’s really hard to distinguish the pachyderm legs from the collegiate ones.

  7. Karl Benson '62 says:

    The “undergraduate” who wrote the Thresher article was wrong on one count – Nellie was an Asian elephant (small ears), not a native of Africa. As far as I know, African elephants are rarely ridden; their heads are shaped wrong and they are too dangerous.

  8. Bill Allison says:

    Do you think we can bring an elephant when we play A&M next year, or does the mojo only work against UT?

  9. Pingback: “We will make them realize they are freshmen,” 1933 | Rice History Corner

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