24 November 2018

The Tiger Man of Brisbane

Charles Higgins, born in Ireland circa 1825, claimed to have come to Queensland after spending his youth in California, where he had a ‘pet’ grizzly bear, and he continued his interest in big fierce beasties after his arrival here. He had some land in Toombul where he kept ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Sammy’, two Bengal tigers that he obtained in early 1885 when they were three-month old cubs. A third tiger, their sister, died while still young. Higgins kept them chained to a stake in the paddock while he was home, but they were confined in cages while he was away. In April 1886 Higgins told a reporter from the Brisbane Courier that he had trained them carefully, and they were playful with him and sometimes lay around the house much like domestic cats. He also claimed that the tigers would follow him through the bush and respond to commands like dogs, and boys from the nearby school would also stop off on their way home to visit the tigers. This article alarmed local residents and prompted a police investigation, with a magistrate stating his belief that Higgins could be charged with murder if his tigers killed anybody while loose.

Higgins' paddock at Toombul, ca.1888 (John Oxley Library).
Two tigers lie on the ground behind behind these people.

Higgins obtained other tigers, including a female called Diana, and ‘Sir Roger’, billed as the ‘largest tiger in the Australian colonies’, and along with a range of other animals they formed part of ‘Higgins Great Menagerie of Wild Performing Animals’. By late 1887 this was based on the corner of Yundah Street and the Esplanade in Sandgate, and was open to the public. Higgins gave a daily tiger-taming performance there.

Brisbane Courier, 31 December 1887.

In August 1888 Higgins leased an allotment on the corner of George and Turbot Streets near the centre of Brisbane and kept his five tigers, five dingoes, a cheetah, a panther, a leopard, a bear, snakes and numerous monkeys there, to the despair of his new neighbour Arthur Jarvis. The wooden hoarding surrounding the allotment was insecure, the cages were not strong enough, and animals occasionally escaped, causing ‘great consternation and annoyance to the public’, especially Jarvis, who apparently lived with his family in a ‘continual state of terror’. On one occasion the workmen in Jarvis’ on-site Venetian-blind workshop ran for their lives after a tiger strolled into their workplace. Dingoes also roamed the area, and Jarvis once woke up to find a monkey in his bedroom. The Jarvis family also had to contend with large piles of rotting animal dung outside their home, making the general stench emitting from the menagerie even worse. After several months of this torture Jarvis took the matter to court and Higgins was required to move his animals to a safer place. By that time Higgins’ tigress Diana had given birth to a pair of cubs, which he separated from her and proudly exhibited. Unfortunately but perhaps not too surprisingly they died soon after, and became part of the collection at the Queensland Museum.

The most sensational incident to occur during that time was the near-escape of the tiger Jimmy, who got out of his cage while it was being cleaned one Wednesday afternoon in November 1888. Jimmy had been noted as one of the more dangerous of the tigers, and when Peter Bertram, one of the keepers, started to run away Jimmy knocked him to the ground. Panicked passers-by fled in terror, and Higgins later recalled what happened next:
“I heard... a scream and a roar, and looking round saw Jemmy after the man. The man was pulled down; got up again and managed to reach the middle of the street, and the tiger pulled him down again and opened its mouth to bite. A moment and the poor fellow’s head would have been cracked like a nut, but I jammed my arm between the jaws and shoved the man away with the other. Look at my arm.” Higgins bared his right arm and showed the healed wound, where the flesh had been cut out as though by a knife. “Jemmy held on to me for a bit, but I scolded him and he let me go. I felt sick, but got up and then started to try and get him inside. He walked about the street growling and licking the blood from his jaws. I walked after him, and regularly bundled him into the enclosure and shut the door. I hadn’t even my little whip, but at last got him to stand up with his feet against a fence; then I got his collar and chain and tied him up.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
Higgins steps in to rescue his employee.
(Queensland Figaro, 1 December 1888)

After leaving George Street the menagerie found a new home at the Queensport Aquarium in Hemmant (more about that here). This new resort had many attractions, and among them were tiger-taming performances by Higgins himself. It is not known how long the animals remained at Queensport, but when the tiger cages were blown into the river during a gale in 1892 they were reported as being empty. By this time Higgins was well into his 60s, and had retired to live at Browns Plains. He died in July 1894 after a cart he was driving along Ipswich Road overturned when his horse bolted at Chardon's Corner. Charles Higgins, tiger tamer extraordinaire, was buried in Nundah Cemetery.

He had provided an insight into his job in an interview he gave to the Brisbane Courier in July 1889, which probably took place at the soon-to-be-opened Queensport Aquarium:
“I feel... when I go into the cage with my little whip in my hand that I am the master. I feel myself stronger than ever, and as cool as I could ever be. I seem to regard the tigers as rats, and feel as if I could shake them like rats. Why, look at Jemmy and Sammy. You know they think I could thrash them both... You know Sammy is pretty quiet, but that Jemmy is very sly. When I’m in the cage I have to watch him closely. He is always trying to slip behind me to get at me. That’s when I have to keep him under my eye. It is not my eye he fears, and I don’t believe that the eye itself has any power over animals, except that they know when they’re watched. I was never nervous in my life. If I once got nervous they would be on to me like winking.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
Asked if he ever ‘anticipated a struggle’ with his tigers, he said:
“I don't drink, except perhaps a glass of beer. The people who are killed in cages either lose their nerve or are in drink. An animal knows at once if you are afraid of him, and - alluding to a terrible case in which a girl was torn to pieces by lions some time ago – that woman must have become nervous. A man sometimes under drink will go into the cage and send the animals flying round, but he forgets to be careful, and before he knows where he is a beast is on him. The great thing is to let them know you are watching them. When Jemmy tries to give me the slip I just shake the whip at him and say, ‘Ah, Jemmy, my boy, I'm watching you’.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
The tigers never did manage to get the better of Charles Higgins, but in the end it was the horse he should have been watching.

Local tiger attacks in recent years:
June 1994, Brisbane: A 20-month-old boy had one arm bitten off and the other badly mauled by a tiglon (a lion/tiger cross) at a circus. The boy’s father was an employee of the circus.

July 1998, Brisbane: During a show in front of 200 spectators, a tiger attacked his handler, picked him up, and carried him five metres.

September 2000 Brisbane: Two tiger handlers received stitches after they were attacked and bitten by a tiger prior to shooting a scene for the U.S. television series Beastmaster.

January 2009, Australia Zoo: A senior keeper was attacked by a male Bengal Tiger and required 18 stitches to a deep bite wound in his left calf.

May 2011, Dreamworld: An animal handler required stitches after being 'nipped' in the leg by a tiger.

November 2013, Australia Zoo: Tiger mauls zookeeper, causing 'crushed carotid artery, nicked jugular, paralysis to the left larynx and nerve damage to the left eye'.

January 2016, Australia Zoo: A tiger swatted a paw at a zookeeper, causing puncture wounds and scratches to his head and arm.