Aug. 11--On a broiling summer day four decades ago, a 4-ton circus elephant named Little Jennie dropped dead at what is now Summit Place Mall in Waterford.
She was not just any elephant, but an aging Hollywood star living out life in the traveling circus. The circumstances of her death required an impromptu burial on mall grounds.
Michigan's first enclosed mall, Summit Place is now its own retail graveyard of empty storefronts and weedy parking lot. Little Jennie's grave was never marked, and no one can recall where exactly the elephant has been resting since 1972.
Two reporters who were at the scene do remember the grief on the face of the elephant's trainer, who unshackled a larger elephant named Babe to push Jennie's lifeless body into a 9-foot-deep grave dug by a backhoe.
Such a tale could be the stuff of urban legend if not for living witnesses and a front-page photograph in a local newspaper. The elephant episode was once well-known history in Waterford. But memories have faded along with Summit Mall's own fortunes.
"Every once in awhile, people call and ask about it to see if it's true," said Sally Strait, president of the Waterford Historical Society.
The plot unfolded on a July 21 afternoon when the carnival-circus had set up outside what was then the Pontiac Mall. Little Jennie, 60, was the matriarch of the show.
Decades before, Little Jennie was one of the 10 pachyderms who terrorized Elizabeth Taylor in the 1954 jungle movie "Elephant Walk," stampeding across the set in what the film's trailer described as "a savage orgy of destruction."
But as the roles dried up, she took to the circus performer's life. By all accounts, she was a gentle and obedient creature when she arrived in town. She suddenly stopped eating on Tuesday of that week and died Friday.
Her burial was witnessed by two reporters for the Oakland Press, who were in the newsroom when calls came in about a dead elephant at the mall.
Police threatened to close down the circus if the body wasn't disposed of.
The reporters, Bill Felch and Kingsley Cotton, rushed to a scene that the men said last week they'll never forget.
There was Jennie, slumped to the ground near a freshly dug hole north of the mall.
Felch's obituary-style article, headlined "Waterford is Elephant Graveyard," tells how circus management wanted the elephant carried away, but Waterford police said there was no one in Oakland County who could lift the 60-year-old beast.
As the obituary states, a "toothless old circus hand" went to retrieve Babe.
Cotton, now 67 and a Southfield-based attorney, took a black-and-white photo for the paper as Babe maneuvered her head and trunk to push the body.
Felch wrote: "The elephant trainer Guy Gossing shouted in a heavy Belgium accent, 'Push, Babe. Push her, Babe.' And the huge elephant toppled Little Jennie into her grave."
The article described how the old circus hand was devastated to lose an animal he had fed and groomed for 14 years. Dehydration was one suspected cause of death, as was pneumonia and old age.
In a phone interview last week, Felch, now 65 and living in Stinson Beach, Calif., recalled how emotional the scene was.
"It was a heartrending event," he said. "I remember the (circus hand) and obviously his heart was broken. It was just very sad. It brings tears to my eyes even now thinking about it."
The event happened during an era when the mall was still thriving. Summit Place closed in 2009-10 and other witnesses to Little Jennie's burial have passed on.
Township resident Betty Seymour said it was her uncle, the late Herb Noskey, who donated the use of his company's backhoe to dig the grave.
Now 74, Seymour said she once worked in the mall's Montgomery Ward and fed popcorn and peanuts to the circus' baby elephants on lunch breaks and watched them get baths in the evening. She knew about Jennie's burial that day in 1972, but couldn't bring herself to go.
"I just couldn't watch something like that," Seymour said. "I cried for a week."
Forty-two years later, few people can say the precise location of the elephant's grave. Neither Felch nor Cotton, who visited the property with the Free Press last week, remember where it all happened.
Seymour said she and a cousin think the grave was behind a now-vanished billboard on the north end of the mall near the corner of Telegraph and Pontiac Lake roads. She believes the spot is vacant and was never concreted over.
In 1989, an elephant researcher offered to excavate Jennie's remains and mount an exhibit of her skeleton inside Summit Place. There's no public record on how the mall's ownership responded to the plan.
The researcher, Jeheskel (Hezy) Shoshani, was the founder of the Elephant Research Foundation Library and taught at Wayne State University and Oakland Community College. He was killed in a 2008 terrorist bombing in Ethiopia.
Summit Place's current owner, Los Angeles-based SR Capital, did not return a call for comment.
Richard Stamps, a former anthropology and archaeology professor at Oakland University, said it is his understanding the 1989 excavation never came to be and that Jennie remains in the ground.
"To the best of my knowledge no one dug her up," he said. "May the next developer keep their eyes open, so when indeed they encounter elephant bones they'll know what it was all about."
Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JCReindl.
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