Now You Know

Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

A rather strange discovery was made in the attic of MU’s Lefevre Hall in the early 1980s — an elephant skeleton.

This is the story of Emperor the elephant, as told by Megan Warner, an academic adviser at MU who researched the popular pachyderm. It begins in the late 1800s:

Emperor was a star in the Missouri Forepaugh Circus, a show that traveled the country. Emperor died in 1885 in an accident.

Samuel Spahr Laws, University of Missouri president at the time, decided to buy the elephant’s carcass with his own money and sell it to the university. It cost $1,685. The body, which was stuffed, and its skeleton were displayed separately in MU’s Natural History Museum of Academic Hall, along with other animals purchased by Laws.

In 1887, the Board of Curators made an unauthorized purchase of the elephant and requested $4,400 from the Missouri General Assembly for Emperor and other museum costs. The legislature agreed but decided to investigate the situation and concluded the purchase was not helpful in making the school a first-class university.

Laws was involved in other incidents with the legislature and, after being put under investigation, he left the university in 1889. Emperor stayed in the Academic Hall.

In 1892, Academic Hall burned to the ground. Students saved Emperor from the fire and stored the skeleton in a tent and then in Swallow Hall. The body eventually decomposed and was put in Lefevre Hall.

Emperor was forgotten until the early 1980s, when archives assistant Clara Williamsen decided to investigate its whereabouts after reading about the Academic Hall fire. Williamsen searched for three years before discovering the bones of Emperor in Lefevre Hall’s attic.

Today, two of Emperor’s bones can be found in a display case on the second floor of Stewart Hall.

— Andrea Fridley

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