A small-town pharmacist memorializes a larger-than-life performer who died entertaining America's heartland. The final resting place of this big star has become part of local lore in western Illinois.
This is a story about Norma Jean.
On the web, a location service tells me it has found her “current phone, address, age and & more.”
Don’t think so.
Nothing in this story about Norma Jean the Happy Feet penguin either.
And if you’re expecting to read about Marilyn Monroe, this is not the place.
This is a bittersweet tale about a 6,500-pound circus elephant, her final resting place, and her legacy. It is a story in which some see a grain of humor, perhaps something we all need to find when tragedy strikes under unusual circumstances and is recalled years later.
Stories like the one about Norma Jean are the lifeblood of small communities across the country, part of their traditions that shape what they are. In this case, the place is the Mississippi River town of Oquawka, Illinois. Maybe stories like this seem pale in their global significance, but they also can be parables.
Nowadays, you have to decide to go to Oquawka. It is the seat of Henderson County. No complaints here: Oquawka is a pleasant place with a good view of the river and a few small restaurants and bars, nothing fancy. As with so many Midwestern towns, the largest buildings by far are the grain elevators on the river.
Oquawka, founded in 1827 in the Western Illinois Military Tract, is just downstream from Delabar State Park and upstream from Oquawka State Wildlife Refuge. The nearest river crossing is at the U.S. 34 bridge to Burlington, Iowa, about 16 miles south via Illinois 164. During the winter months, this is bald-eagle-watching country, and all year long there is plenty of boating, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, and sight-seeing to go around.
Oquawka has had its ups and downs. It grew in the 1960s. The 1970 population, according to the U.S. Census, was 1,352, up from 1,090 in 1960. The population in 2010 was 1,371, about the same as it was 40 years before. The 2012 estimate shows a loss of about 50 residents.
Norma Jean the elephant came to Oquawka in July 1972. With a bit of imagination, you can picture the excitement in the town. Norma Jean was the main animal star of the Clark & Walters Circus, which dated back to about 1916 and mostly played small towns across the countryside. The circus must have been a huge event for the village, especially for children on summer vacation.
Shortly after dawn on July 17, a thunderstorm hit the village. Norma Jean was chained to a tree outside in the town park. Before her trainer, “Possum Red” could lead her to safety, lightning struck. Norma Jean was killed instantly, and Possum Red, who survived the blast, found himself 30 feet away.
Norma Jean’s death came just shy of her 30th birthday. The town faced an immediate problem of what to do with the huge creature. After receiving permission from the state, the elephant ended up being buried in a 12-foot hole. For a while, the grave was left unmarked.
The circus moved on, but for whatever reasons, Norma Jean’s spirit remained in the heart of retired druggist Wade Meloan. According to qconline.com, Meloan told The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus in 1995, “I would drive by the grave on my way home and I noticed that nothing had been done.”
So he did something. He put up a temporary marker and began to tend the site. By 1977, he had raised enough money to build a charming monument to the Norma Jean’s memory. A visiting circus elephant laid a wreath on the grave at the Memorial Day dedication that year. The actions of a kind man provided a legacy for an elephant that has become part of our regional lore in Western Illinois.
A 1988 documentary, Norma Jean: A Shocking True Story, directed by John Behnke, gives some perspective to the story through the words of some of Oquawka’s citizens. In part, it takes a light approach to Norma Jean’s demise, but it also provides a vignette of a small town that, over time, came to accept the legacy of Norma Jean’s death with a bit of humor and compassion.
While the spirit of Norma Jean may have remained with Oquawka, it did not stay with the circus, which apparently couldn’t afford to replace her. Clark & Walters went out of business in 1973.
According to The Circus Report, America’s favorite Circus Weekly, published February 11, 1974, “The Clark & Walters Circus, owned by the Silverlake family since 1967, was closed last year because of advance problems and a series of truck accidents. The show equipment was then placed in storage at Hugo, Okla., while the show’s personnel was merged into Fisher Bros. Circus.”
Norma Jean’s death was certainly one reason behind the closing of the Clark & Walters Circus. But times were already getting tough for circuses, especially the smaller ones, because of years of inflation. Rising fuel costs were just around the corner. If Norma Jean had not died, the oil crisis of late 1973 might well have shut the circus down.
Times were changing in other ways, too. Anyone who saw a circus as a child, or even as an adult, holds the event close to the heart. Circuses are spectacles of awe, wonder, and showmanship. Unfortunately, we have, in the years since the 1970s, learned about animal mistreatment by some circuses. This is the dark side of a beloved form of entertainment.
As for Norma Jean, let us hope she was treated well in life. She was the star of the show, after all.
In death, Norma Jean’s story endures, commemorated in a kindly way, although, sadly, the memorial has been vandalized at least two or three times.
Even so, her current statue shows her laughing. And that is as it should be.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.