This is a true story,
and a very serious one, even though it’s composed of many details that will seem ludicrous and impossible. Most of those details are irrefutable, though. And while I worked hard to verify the rest, doing so occasionally proved futile. I’d like to try and explain why.
This is a story about hippopotamuses, as advertised, but it’s also a story about two very complicated and exceptional men. These men were spies. They were also bitter enemies. Each wanted to kill the other and fully expected to feel really good about himself afterward. Eccentric circumstances—circumstances having to do with hippopotamuses—would join these men together as allies and even dear friends. But then, eventually, they’d be driven into opposition again.
Whatever strange bond these two men had, they were loyal to it. They were like repulsive magnets: Some fundamental property of each was perfectly opposed to the core of the other. And yet, somehow throughout their long lives—as several volatile phases of American history tumbled along in the background—they also had a way of continually snapping back together. One of these men was a humble patriot, known for his impeccable integrity. He tried to leave detailed, reliable accounts of what he did and thought and felt. The other, I discovered, was a megalomaniac and a pathological liar.
These two men will seem larger than life, but they lived at a time, a hundred years ago, when, I would argue, life in America seemed larger than life—when what was unimaginable still felt feasible and ideas that looked ridiculous could still come true.
That said, this is the story of one idea that looked ridiculous and didn’t come true. The idea was ridiculous. But it was completely reasonable, too.
All I can say is, try to keep that in mind.
The Most Complete Human Being Who Ever Lived
Frederick Russell Burnham didn’t like public speaking, but he arrived at the Maryland Hotel, in Pasadena, California, on the night of September 19, 1910, determined to communicate a few clear and uncontroversial truths.
Burnham was 49 years old—a frontiersman and soldier of fortune who’d spent his life leaping into conflicts with American Indians and colonial wars in Africa. He looked bronzed and weather-beaten, like a living monument to those campaigns, and though small—he was only about five foot four—his presence was imposing. He was a compact strongbox of a man. One admirer would describe him as “emphatically a man’s man: able, active, alert.” The impression he gave was immediately one of “force and self-control.”
Burnham had risen to fame as a scout—an esteemed breed of solitary wayfinder and spy with no exact analog in contemporary warfare. Scouts slinked into enemy territory to gather intelligence or cut supply lines, or roamed the no man’s land around camp to keep watch. They were disciplined, self-sufficient, preternaturally competent. Their proficiency in the wilderness seemed almost supernatural at times, and Burnham, who’d earned the nickname King of Scouts, exemplified their character and prowess.
“He has trained himself to endure the most appalling fatigues, hunger, thirst, and wounds; has subdued the brain to infinite patience, has learned to force every nerve in his body to absolute obedience, to still even the beating of his heart,” wrote the journalist Richard Harding Davis. “He reads ‘the face of Nature’ as you read your morning paper.” Another writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements.”
People who met Burnham tended to comment on the same disarming quality of his eyes. The novelist H. Rider Haggard called them “steady, grey blue eyes that have in them a far-away look such as those acquire whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains.” They were eyes that absorbed every inch of the periphery, even as they bored deep into your own—eyes, one woman noted, “of startling keenness and brilliancy, eyes that see everything without seeming to see.” She remembered sitting with friends under a great sycamore tree in California while Burnham spun tales of a certain African siege. The scout paused at one point and said casually, “We’ll kill that snake when I finish the story.” No one else had noticed the rattlesnake that had slithered in silently behind them as he spoke.
He was “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator,” one writer explained. He could go two and a half days without sleep. He could fix a pistol’s broken mainspring with a bit of buffalo bone. It was said he could smell water from afar, and very seldom drank alcohol and never smoked, for fear it would dull his senses. Commanding officers described him as half jackrabbit and half wolf, or as “a man totally without fear.” But ultimately, the most impressive thing about Burnham may have been his reticence to talk too much about his conspicuous impressiveness. (Years later he would prepare two versions of a prologue for his memoirs and label them “Boastful” and “Non-Boastful.” The “Boastful” version was hardly boastful, and the last paragraph of the “Non-Boastful” version began: “If mine seems a rather boastful recital, I shall apologize.”) One acquaintance would call him “the most complete human being who ever lived.”
Burnham had come to the hotel in Pasadena to address the Humane Association of California at its second annual convention, a banquet hall full of do-gooders, dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to animals. The Humane Association had quickly become one of California’s most powerful civic organizations, and Burnham—now part of an eccentric brain trust that was getting its own innovative animal project off the ground—knew that the philanthropists in the room might be valuable allies. He didn’t necessarily respect them, though. Privately, he mocked humane societies as small-minded and sentimental—full of romantics who’d rush to save flies from murderous spiders. It was foolish, Burnham felt, to “fritter away our money and time on silly, emotional things as proposed by so-called animal lovers” at a time when America roiled with so many substantial opportunities and terrors.
Burnham was here at the Maryland Hotel to call these animal lovers to a higher purpose, to gather them behind an idea. It was a grand and sparkling idea, an idea with momentum. The idea was already making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of a bill, introduced by one of Burnham’s partners, the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard. Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Burnham’s, had been so impressed with the idea a few years earlier that, newspapers reported, he’d pledged “his hearty approval and promise of cooperation.” Days before the speech in Pasadena, Burnham had gone to Denver to meet with the former president and secured his endorsement all over again. The New York Times called the idea “practical and timely.” Editorials around the country claimed that the idea’s time had come, or that it couldn’t come soon enough.
The idea was to import hippopotamuses from Africa, set them in the swamplands along the Gulf Coast, and raise them for food. The idea was to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.
The Meat Question
“I do not think this importation idea can be laughed down,” Congressman Broussard had insisted to the press. And truly, to anyone who appreciated common sense—who loved to see logic, like a bicycle chain, pushing a wheel smoothly forward—the idea was nothing short of gorgeous. Hippopotamuses, it turned out, could solve a number of problems for the country, all at once. For starters, they constituted a blubbery, elegant fix to what newspapers had taken to calling the Meat Question.
America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.
Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”
Apparently, the animals tasted pretty good, too, especially the fatty brisket part, which could be cured into a delicacy that a supportive New York Times editorial was calling, euphemistically, “lake cow bacon.” (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.) Congressman Broussard’s office was receiving laudatory letters from ordinary citizens, commending his initiative-taking and ingenuity. Several volunteered to be part of the expedition to bring the great beasts back.
In other words, in the encroaching malaise of 1910, it was easy to be gripped by the brilliance of the hippopotamus scheme, to feel hippopotamuses resonating not just as a way of sidestepping catastrophic famine, but as a symbol of American greatness being renewed. Burnham’s generation had seen the railroad get synched across the wild landscape like a bridle and the near solid swarms of buffalo and passenger pigeons get erased. America had dynamited fish out of rivers, dredged waterways, felled and burned forests, and peeled silver from the raw wreckage of what had once been mountains. The frontier was now closed. So much had been accomplished and so much taken. It was clear that a once boundless-seeming land did have boundaries, and with those limits revealed, you couldn’t help but feel like you were drifting listlessly between them. There was a sense in the country of: Now what? And, lurking beneath that: What have we done?
For Burnham, though, this moment was only a chance for the country to pause and regather itself, then start over, with more wisdom this time. “Let us not make the same mistakes again,” he would tell the Humane Association that night in Pasadena. “This nation has reached a stage in its development where we should take stock of our assets and make full use of them in an intelligent manner.” So much of the continent had been left “lonely, silent, devoid of life in any useful form,” and, Burnham believed, “the hour of time is at hand when we can make use of it. It is within our power to people it with useful and beautiful animals.”
In short, the same industriousness that had allowed America to snatch up the continent’s natural resources and snuff out its beauty could be deployed now, more pragmatically, to restock it. Yes, the hippo idea sounded crazy. But as a glowing editorial in Washington Post noted, “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar.” And if we’d learned to swallow raw oysters and suck the meat out of crabs, the paper argued, why couldn’t we also embrace “that plump and pulchritudinous beast which has a smile like an old-fashioned fireplace?” The reasons it might look impossible were fickle and foolish. Burnham understood that the most restrictive boundary America was running up against was psychological—a scarcity of courage and imagination, and not really just meat.
The introduction of hippos would signal an awakening, a kind of national maturation: proof that, as Burnham put it, “we have passed from the destructive to the constructive period of our national life.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine was even more stirred by their promise: “This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation,” it wrote. “Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami.”
The master of ceremonies at the Maryland Hotel that night was the Reverend Robert Jones Burdette, an avuncular Baptist minister known nationally for his early career as a newspaper humorist and touring performer. (Burdette, it was said, had delivered his comedic lecture “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache” more than 3,000 times.) All night he introduced speakers with poems and little jokes. But when announcing Burnham, all of Burdette’s corniness fell away. The reverend seemed suddenly stiffened, stilled—like the air before an electrical storm.
“I am going to introduce to you a man who knows the cruel edges of war,” he began. “Who has seen the keen blades sweep together as they clashed like the grim shears of Atropos, severing the throbbing threads of human life, smearing the golden sands and the emerald grasses with the darkest stains that ever discolored the pain-distorted face of God’s beautiful world. A soldier. A scout whose name has filled both hemispheres with stories of his daring and loyal service. The rider of the bad lands between the lines, who trusts his own knowledge some, providence a great deal, and the sound legs and good horse sense of his steed perhaps most of all in some blood-freezing emergencies.… I am honored, in being permitted to present, as our next speaker, the only man in America who [knows] the darkest shades of darkest Africa.… Major Frederick R. Burnham.”
The scout surveyed his audience. He readied himself to speak.
“I am by nature an optimist,” he said.