I received the following email on October 2, 2009: “Dear Sir, I am sorry to trouble you in these busy times but I am trying to trace the history of my great grandfather Eph Thompson. An article in the Ypsilanti Daily Press Wednesday, June 6, 1906 seems to suggest that there was a write up about him running away from home at the age of 14 but I have not been able to find anything that connects Eph to the town of Ypsilanti and I was wondering if you would have anything in your archives that might throw some light upon him. Any information or indeed where I might write to would be gratefully received. Ray Perkin, England U.K.” Little did I realize that this request would lead to an amazing discovery? I would find the roots of one of the worlds greatest ELEPHANT TRAINERS right here in Ypsilanti! Not only did he turn out to be a world famous elephant trainer but he was black! This was an amazing feat for a black man of the 1870-1909 eras! From Ray I learned that he was said to have been born October 28, 1859 and died April 17, 1909 in Alexandria, Egypt. He is buried in Surrey, England. His father was Phillip Thompson. That was all that was known of the early years. Checking our archives proved discouraging as there were few black families by the name of Thompson in this area let alone one with a child named Eph. Internet searches produced vague remarks about Eph and little of his history or heritage. The Circus Historical Society produced little concrete information. Most bits of information were a few sentences long and referred to his color more than his abilities. However, we were able to find the announcement in the Ypsilanti Daily Press of June 2, 1906, page 2, under THE STAGE column which headlined: “Extraordinary Attraction Engaged by Manager Scott.” To summarize, the article stated that Eph Thompson left Ypsilanti at an early age having been caught up in the fever of joining a circus. He left Ypsilanti, circa 1873, with the Adam Forepaugh Circus, one of the biggest of the time. He learned his trade with this circus. When he left the Adam Forepaugh Circus he went into the circus business for himself owning four elephants and touring primarily Europe for some twenty years. A June 4, 1906, Ypsilanti Press article again repeated the appearance of Mr. Thompson, giving little of his Ypsilanti background. The article praises his work with elephants and reviews his shows in Germany. Mr. Thompson was present with a vaudeville show along with his elephant act. The elephants were famous in their own right. In the Ypsilanti Press of June 5, 1906, it indicated they were housed at the Hawkins House and guarded by the Council City Marshal Gage. Further, “…longing to show his home people what he has done he brings his troupe of four elephants to this city for three entertainments at the opera house…He carries with him four elephants which have traveled all over Europe with him and among which is the only somersault elephant in the world.” The show was presented at the local opera house and was, according to the Ypsilanti Daily Press of June 6-7, 1906, a smash hit. “The elephants were amazing and were named Rose, Tillie, Mary and Mina. Rose is the tallest and most powerful. Tillie is 19. She appeared as “soldier girl.” Mary is 13 and the only somersault elephant in the world. Mina, 11 years old will appear as a prize fighter for tonight’s show!” We still did not have any links to Ypsilanti other then brief reports in the papers. We did, after several reviews, come across the 1870 US Census of Ypsilanti. There listed was a Thompson family, black, of Ypsilanti. The parents Frances and Phillip Thompson were born in Kentucky and the children listed included George, Edward, and Moses Thompson as being born in Ontario, Canada, and two others Julia and Charles born locally. Again, searching the archives I came across a card, in pencil, which showed articles in 1906 and again in 1956! How can this be when I know that he died in Egypt in 1909? He was, so the story goes, listed as seriously ill with “white disease” in Philadelphia a year prior to his death. White disease was another name for TB. How could there be a story of him in 1956 some 50 years after his first and last appearance in Ypsilanti? The following is from the Ypsilanti Daily Press of May 18, 1956 which answered so many questions for Mr. Perkins and me: “That race or color is no bar to a person who has it in him and has the ambition to advance is well illustrated in the case of MOSES Thompson, perhaps the greatest elephant trainer in the world who is visiting his old home in the city. Better known as EPH, Thompson was born in this city of colored parents. At the age of 14 years he caught the circus fever and was employed with Adam Forepaugh’s (aka 4 PAWS) circus. His first job was carrying water for elephants and from that day on, his career was marked out; he was destined to become a great elephant trainer. He gradually climbed the ladder of fame, until he became the keeper of the heaviest and perhaps the ugliest elephant that ever remained in captivity. Bolivar, whose only rival for honors of being the largest elephant in the world was Jumbo, who was taller, but not as heavy. While with Forepaugh, he had charge of 32 elephants He entered vaudeville, going to Europe with his own elephants. While in the circus business he has travelled twice around the world and has touched nearly all the important cities of the United States, India, Europe, and Australia.” (Reprinted from Ypsilanti Daily Press of May 18, 1906) There, in that one article, Mr. Perkins found his long lost Great Grandfather and his connection to Ypsilanti. After 15 years it looks like EPH has given up the ghost. I have included in our archives family files and more information and stories of Moses “EPH” Thompson which will be used for later publications. Thanks Ray for sending me on a journey of discovery about one of the most fascinating citizens with ties to Ypsilanti that I have had the privilege to write of in three years of searching through Ypsilanti history. P.S. Ray: I have advertisements which show that the Adam Forepaugh circus did play in Ypsilanti in May of 1873 which could turn out to be the date Eph left town and started on the path of destiny. (George Ridenour is a volunteer in the YHS Archives, a research expert on family history, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.) Photo Captions: Photo 1: Moses “Eph” Thompson – Animal Trainer.
Photo 2: Poster featuring “Mary,” the only somersault elephant in the world at that time.
Photo 3: Ad in the New York Clipper on March 10, 1906. However, the elephants evidently did not sell. In the March 7, 1908 issue of Billboard a small article indicated the Ringlings had offered $50,000 for the four elephants.
Photo 4: Ad in Billboard from December 22, 1906.