Friday, September 27, 2013

Blood on the Water: Clubbing a Sea Lion on the Chemung

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I usually like my blog posts to highlight the quirky, light side of history, like gum chewing controversies or vanilla extract scandals.  However, this week’s post has a decidedly darker subject matter.  In addition to being a museum professional, I am a historian of human-animal interactions, which entails subject matter of both great levity and tales of human cruelty. Unfortunately, the story of Bob the sea lion falls into the latter category.  

In 1903, Bob the sea lion escaped from his home in Trout Park in Cortland, NY.  He swam via the Tioughnioga and Chenango Rivers to the Susquehanna River and then to the Chemung.  All along his route, people gathered to watch the animal poke his head out of the water and swim around in the local rivers.  Some fishermen tried to catch him (there was rumored to be up to a $300 prize for his capture), but Bob eluded them all.
(Use the interactive map below to trace his journey and learn about Bob sightings).

Everyone had sea lion-mania.  The newspapers reported his movements in Towanda, Tunkhannock, Sayre, Chemung, and Elmira.  Some locals noticed that the Susquehanna and Chemung were exhibiting a reddish color, a feat that they attributed to Bob.  In a bit of pseudoscience, the papers claimed that when chased, sea lions gave off a red “exudation,” thus turning the rivers red.  The theory that one sea lion and his mystery excretions were enough to color an entire river was not believed by all. The fine folks of Sayre went on the record saying “no one here” believes Bob was responsible.

Accusations of coloring the rivers red aside, Bob’s jaunt along the waterways was relatively uneventful until he reached Elmira.  In the city, he was met by adoring crowds, but also by people who were intent on capturing him.  One party, John “Stub” Appleton, his son, John Jr., and Charles Bucholtz had made it their mission to wrangle the rogue sea lion, even almost capturing him in their nets several times.  In the morning of July 25 the men cornered Bob in shallow water.  They tried to wrestle the 150 pound sea lion onto the boat, but Bob put up a fight, allegedly lunging at Stub.  In “self-defense,” the men clubbed Bob to death.  

Bob, or "The Sea Lion We Chased"

It is not my job as a historian to pass judgment on people in the past.  I am supposed to remain as objective as possible.  S0, I will let the newspapers from the time speak for me.  Upon hearing news of Bob’s death, the public and the press were outraged.  The Elmira Daily Gazette ran an interview with Bob’s trainer recalling how the animal had toured around the world with Ringling Brothers’ circus.  The trainer exclaimed, “I could not feel worse if someone pointed a gun at my heart and knew that they would pull the trigger.”  The people of Cortland condemned the killing as “stupid, brutal conduct” and lamented the heartbreak of Bob’s pregnant widow, Duchess.

Unfortunately, the indignities of Bob’s stories did not end with his death.  Stub Appleton mailed Bob on ice back to his owner, who lived in Syracuse.  Upon the corpse’s arrival, the owner refused to pay the $50 shipping charge claiming that the sea lion wasn’t worth that much dead or alive, so poor dead Bob was shipped back to Elmira. With his victim back in his possession, Stub announced his intentions to have Bob stuffed and put on display.  Allegedly, Bob was displayed in the window of Berner’s CafĂ© on East Water Street.      


  1. A sad tale indeed. By the way, I couldn't make the interactive map work...

    1. Hmm.. The map seems to be working for other people so I'm not sure what the problem might be. Perhaps its a browser setting issue. You should be able to click on the points to get the sighting information. Sorry it doesn't seem to be working for you.