BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — More than her towering size, Miss Fancy seemed larger than life.
At over 8,600 pounds, the Indian elephant was the main attraction at the Avondale Zoo between 1913 and 1934. However, her reputation was much larger, being the subject of many stories in local newspapers at the time and arguably one of the most popular personalities in Birmingham.
Recently, her statue that once stood in Avondale Park was rediscovered in storage at Legion Field.
But who was Miss Fancy?
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Miss Fancy first came to Birmingham in 1912 after the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came through town. Looking to add more animals to its new zoo, city officials made an offer to purchase the elephant. Hagenbeck-Wallace ended up selling her for $2,000 and by 1913, Miss Fancy had arrived in Birmingham.
During her time at the Avondale Zoo, many stories were written about the elephant. While some stories covered her birthday, others explored her trips outside the zoo–especially in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Twelve times during her sojourn here Miss Fancy has broken the two iron chains placed around her feet each night and escaped for a few hours tour of the surrounding countryside,” reporter Cecil Beasley wrote in 1930. “However, all is not country any longer and the inhabitants of Avondale, Woodlawn and even Birmingham proper have occasionally seen during the last 17 years a large elephant lumbering through the streets, minding her own business and troubling no one.”
James Baggett, head of the Birmingham Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts, wrote in Alabama Heritage how seeing Miss Fancy visiting with children at Avondale Elementary School was a common sight for those in the community.
In addition to peanuts, apples and hay, Miss Fancy reportedly had a penchant for whiskey in a time when Prohibition was in full force nationwide. However, according to Baggett, that may have been a way for her handler, John Todd, to get alcohol.
“The sale of alcohol was illegal in Alabama for almost all of Miss Fancy’s time in Birmingham, so her long-time keeper John Todd convinced city officials to give him bottles of confiscated illegal liquor to medicate Miss Fancy,” Baggett wrote. “But Todd consumed most of the alcohol himself and was arrested several times for public intoxication. This is probably the reason Miss Fancy was able to wander away from the zoo with such ease.”
At the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the city made the choice to close the Avondale Zoo. By 1934, Miss Fancy was sold to Cole Brothers-Clyde Beatty Circus and renamed “Bama.” In 1939, the circus sold her to the Buffalo Zoo in New York, where she remained until her death in 1954.
In the years since her death, Miss Fancy’s memory has lived on, whether appearing in Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” a pale ale from Avondale Brewing Company or the restaurant Fancy’s on 5th in Avondale. She’s even the main character in a children’s book called “Meeting Miss Fancy” by Irene Latham.