By Jack El-Hai (W&M Contributor)
When an elevator door slammed shut at the Minneapolis Auditorium on March 20, 1940, an era of American entertainment came to a bloody end. The door crushed the six-foot-long tail of Peter the Great, a famed boxing kangaroo, who was touring the U.S. and had just demonstrated his skills to a Minneapolis audience.
Peter’s owners and managers, Mr. and Mrs. Ted Elder, considered the injury minor and wrapped the marsupial’s tail with a bandage. They began driving Peter to his next engagement in Omaha, but it became obvious along the way that the kangaroo was in distress. The Elders rushed Peter back to the O.B. Morgan Dog and Cat Hospital in Minneapolis, and they were about to have the damaged body part amputated when the 160-pound kangaroo died.
Peter, a singularly famous boxing kangaroo, had made a notable impression on American popular culture. Less than a year before, he fought a boxing match with “Two Ton” Tony Galento, a pugilist who had once floored Joe Louis. During an exchange of blows, Peter dropped back on his tail and kicked Galento in the groin. The man-versus-beast match ended in a draw. A wave of publicity carried Peter to shows around the country.
If Peter had lived, he would have played a role in U.S. electoral politics. He was scheduled to appear with comedienne Gracie Allen and serve as the mascot for her 1940 mock run for the Presidency. Without Peter’s help, Allen’s Surprise Party never found traction, and Franklin Roosevelt won the 1940 election without a satirical opponent.
In a lawsuit they filed against the city of Minneapolis, the Elders claimed that Peter’s boxing and entertainment talents resulted from his special training. “Peter the Great,” Mrs. Elder testified, “was no ordinary kangaroo.” The city countered that swinging and kicking when threatened is instinctive behavior for his species. A jury sided with the city, and Peter’s owners did not receive the $75,000 they sought in compensation for their loss.
No other kangaroo rose to Peter’s level of fame after his death. As exploitations of stage animals began to smell of cruelty, boxing kangaroos disappeared except as cartoonish symbols of Australian resilience. Today we never encounter them in the flesh. Peter the Great’s fame and profession belong to the past.
“Jury Refuses Damages for Death of Kangaroo.” Milwaukee Journal, October 8, 1940.
“Peter, Boxing Kangaroo, Dies.” The New York Times, March 24, 1940.
Zahn, Thomas R. The Minneapolis Auditorium and Convention Center: The History. 1987.
Jack El-Hai is the author of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness and the forthcoming book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. He often writes about medicine and history.