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Massarti, The Lion Tamer

On Wednesday, 3 January 1872, Thomas Macarte gave his last performance as Massarti the Lion Tamer in front of a horrified crowd of about 500 people at the Manders’s Menagerie in the Bolton marketplace in Lancashire.

The menagerie had been in town since Friday, December 29 and Thomas Macarte had been one of the star attractions since he had joined Mander’s after the death of the famous lion tamer Maccomo the previous January. Macarte, who was never at ease when performing, had left home at about two o’clock in the afternoon that day and failed to return for his tea, according to his wife who testified at the inquest. One of the lions with whom the 33-year-old Macarte would be performing had bitten him on Monday that week and he had commented to his wife that he was afraid of it. Although Macarte had been sober when he left her, it was thought that he had gone for a few drinks prior to the evening’s performance, in order to shore up his courage. So it was that when he arrived dressed in his French uniform for the performance that evening, he was the worse for drink.

Lion Hunting

It was the end of the evening, at about 10:30 pm when the unthinkable happened. Macarte was in the den with five male lions, engaged in an act they called Lion Hunting. He was driving the animals from one end of the age to the other when one of them ran against his legs, throwing him down. He quickly regained his feet, however and drove the animals into the corner of the den. He walked to the centre of the cage and stamped his feet to signal the lions to run past him again. As he was doing so, the African lion creeped stealthily towards him and struck him with a paw, knocking him to his knees. As he turned to the lion and struck it with a sword, another lion placed its paw on his leg, holding him down, tearing his costume from his chest. The other four of the lions then attacked. Macarte kept his cool, striking at them with his sword to no avail. The lions knocked him to the other end of the caravan and he fired his revolver three times. The revolver, loaded with blanks, made an enormous noise.

The spectators, suddenly realising that this was not part of the act, began to panic. At the sight of Macarte lying in obvious agony, the women in the audience began to scream.

Macarte struggled to regain his feet but the lions kept on him. As he lay on his side, supported by the stump of his left arm, he lunged at the lions with the sword. The Asiatic lion with the black mane seized his arm, tearing the flesh and crunching through the bone, forcing him to drop the sword. Macarte’s performance with the lions had been unplanned, the last performance of the evening before the Menagerie left town. The hot irons, normally heated and kept on hand during a show, were not prepared, and it took some time to heat them. In the meantime, the men came forward with pitchforks and other weapons to try to beat the lions off but as one lion relinquished its hold, another would move in to take its place. By now, the lions had attacked Macarte’s legs and were tearing flesh from his thighs as a pool of blood formed beneath him. One man managed to bury a pitchfork in the neck of one lion and it finally fell away. A blow caught another lion on his massive shoulder and the weapon glanced off, doing little damage.

One of the men thrust a broom handle into the cage as another wedged a ladder between the bars but the black maned lion tore the head from the broom and easily vaulted over the ladder and began dragging Macarte across the cage. Finally the irons were hot, and the men entered the cage, brandishing the red-hot pokers and discharging blank shots and after considerable effort, managed to drive four of the lions back behind the partition. The fifth lion, the African one who had first attacked Macarte, was still on him and they concentrated their efforts on forcing him back. It wasn’t until they thrust the hot irons into his face burning his nose, that the lion finally relented and let go of Macarte, running behind the partition.

Before the partition could be slammed closed however, one of the lions ran out and grabbed Macarte by the foot, dragging him behind the screen and the other four lions fell on him again. Finally, using the hot pokers, the other performers were able to rescue Macarte, but by then it was already too late.

The back of his scalp had been torn away, large bites had been ripped from his thighs and his right arm was fractured in two places. Although he spoke briefly as they carried him to the infirmary, it was only to say that he ‘was done for’. He died on arrival at the infirmary.

Thomas Macarte

Thomas Macarte was born in about 1839 in Cork, Ireland and was married, but had no children. He had been employed in and around menageries for most of his life and before coming to Manders’ Menagerie, he had performed in a similar capacity with the circus of Messrs. Bell and Myers. Despite this lifetime of familiarity, Macarte was known for turning his back on the lions, although he had been frequently warned how dangerous it could be and it was believed that doing so contributed to his final accident and his horrible demise. As a lion tamer, Macarte was well paid, easily earning £4 a week, a sum four times greater than the average income at the time.

The First Attack – Liverpool 1862

While 22-year-old Thomas Macarte was engaged as a lion keeper in Liverpool, he lost one of his forearms when two lions attacked him and mauled him so terribly that amputation was the only alternative. The accident happened on Thursday, 20 November 1862 at the American Hippodrome Circus in Crosshall-street just off Dale-street. As Macarte, the assistant to Mr. Alfred Moffat, was walking past the lion cage, he was seized by one of the lionesses and his arm was severely lacerated. Mr. Batty, one of the other performers, heard Macarte’s screams and ran to his rescue, tearing him from the lioness’ grasp.

Rest in Peace

Thomas Macarte, alias Massarti was laid to rest in the Roman Catholic section of Bolton Cemetery on Saturday, January 6. In the July following, a monument dedicated to his memory was erected over his grave by Mrs. Manders, the owner of the Manders’ Menagerie. The monument in white marble and in the form of a cross, was nearly three feet high and rested on two larger blocks of granite.

  1. Glad you enjoyed it. I was doing some research for my book and doing a search in the British Newspaper Archive. I found an article related to this story just by accident on one of the pages I was reading. It sounded like such an interesting tale that I ended up down a rabbit hole again, researching the family and Macarte’s history. What a tragic ending though!

    He was a difficult man to track down and I’m sure I’ve missed something. It seemed as though every story I found about him said he came from a different place and I never did find more than a passing mention of his wife. I would love to know what happened to her.

  2. Thanks for this great write-up about my namesake! I’m glad I’m not the only one to find it a fascinating story.

    1. Hi Tom,
      Glad you enjoyed the article. Are you related to Massarti or do you just share the name?

      1. We’re unclear about that one. I’m descended from the circus family (the Macarte Sisters are my great aunts, if I remember correctly), but it’s unclear if Massarti was actually related. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, Macarte is a variation on McCarthy (one that’s now unique to my immediate family, I believe), but would’ve been more common. The other factor is the family’s prestige – they were renowned, especially for their equestrian skills, and it’s not unlikely that other circus performers would’ve adopted the variation for the association. (I think I’ve come across other variations attached to Massarti? Do forgive my lack of scholarly rigour here – it’s my uncle who’s the family historian!)

        1. From your family’s history, it certainly seems as though you must be related somehow. Will be fascinated to hear if you ever solve the mystery. And yes, I saw the name as Macarte, McCarthy, Macarty and several other variations. Spelling doesn’t seem to have been particular important until more recent years.

      2. Hi. Fantastic piece. I am related to Thomas & enjoyed stories that my Grandad used to tell us when we were little.Our family name has evolved over the years & we are now ‘McCarthys’.

        1. Hi Mick,
          Thanks for stopping by and reading. Glad you enjoyed. Would love to hear your Grandad’s stories!

  3. Think this is where my Great Grand father worked, early 1900s he was a lion taimer. His name was Ferdinhand Reiter.

    1. I wondered that too but was unable to find any mention in the news. In similar cases, the lions went on to perform again with other lion tamers so my guess is that is what happened here.

  4. My great grandfather was Colonel Batty, lion tamer near Burnley, Lancashire wonder if he worked with this merargerie, there is a mention of a mr Batty although that was only a stage name, have you any mention of him?

    1. There are a number of mentions of Mr. Batty, a lion tamer, in the newspapers including this one, a near miss: ‘Accident to Batty.—Batty, the lion-tamer, had narrow escape two evenings back, at the theatre of the Port St. Martin, where he appears with his animals in the representation of the Biche au Bois. One of the lionesses had produced four young ones during the day; and the lions in the same cage devoured three of them ; the mother hid the fourth behind her. The animal was dull and melancholy all day, but it went through its performances as usual in the evening. As Batty was leaving the cage he perceived the young hon, and fearing it might meet the same fate as the others, he stooped to take it away. At that moment the lioness sprang on him, bit him severely on the right thigh, and with a blow of her paw tore a piece of flesh from his back ; but with these injuries he succeeded in escaping from the cage. The incident caused immense emotion amongst the audience; many women fainted, and a great number of those present left the theatre, the curtain having dropped. Batty subsequently presented himself at the footlights, and was much applauded. His injuries, although serious, are not likely to prove dangerous.’ ~Western Daily Press – Monday 05 August 1867.
      Was your great-grandfather was Thomas Batty? I also see articles about a son of Thomas, George Batty, who apparently was involved in performing as well after his father suffered some financial losses, and a mention of W Batty from the 1840s, perhaps Thomas’ father.

  5. Hi Barbara, I am Sally’s cousin and I have some more information. Our Great Great Grandfather was called Eustace Henry Elfred Beasley, his stage name was Colonel Batty and he was an animal trainer. I think he had something to do with Tigers….Towneley Hall & park in Burnley have some artifacts that belonged to him, though they don’t think they have any photographs. Our family stories have always mentioned Lions however the curator mentioned a connection to tigers. On one of his daughters birth certificates it states animal trainer. In 1881 he was with a circus in France, possibly with Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. At some point during the 1880’s to 1920’s he was presented with a medal by the town of Bolton, “Bolton Admirer” Lancashire. The medal is in-scripted with the name Colonel Batty. I should get more information in the following days. I wonder if this extra bit of information would help you find him in your archives. All the best, Carla

    1. Hi Carla, Thank you for the additional information. I will have a look in the newspapers and see if I find any mention of your great-great-grandfather.

      1. Thank you Barbara, I have learned some more. Apparently, his last performance or training (I don’t know when or where) he was cornered by a Tiger that turned and had to be shot. He was given a claw of the said Tiger and it was mounted in gold. I have a photograph of it. If you email me, I’ll happily share the pictures I have including a photograph of his medal and whip. Many thanks Carla

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