American Hippopotamus

A bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos.

By Jon Mooallem

The Atavist Magazine, No. 32

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2013. He lives in San Francisco.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Producers: Gray Beltran, Megan Detrie
Research: Kelsey Kudak
Illustrations: Mark Summers
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Soundtrack: “Across the Black Prairie” and
“Hero Theme” written and performed by Black Prairie
Images and Film:
Image MAH11087A, Smithsonian Institution Archives
R362.D92p, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library
AF-85.4.1, Smithsonian Institution, Human Studies Film Archives

Published in December 2013. Design updated 2021.

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.

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.

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.

Part One


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.



Frederick Russell Burnham was born in southern Minnesota in 1861. One night the following year, his parents watched from their isolated log cabin as the night sky turned red in the distance. The nearby town of New Ulm was burning. Chief Little Crow was leading the Lakota on a raid, killing hundreds of people, including children, during a conflict known as the Dakota War. Burnham’s father, Edwin, a Presbyterian minister, rushed off to the town of Mankato to gather powder and bullets to protect the family.

One evening while Edwin was away, Burnham’s mother, Rebecca, was brushing her hair in the doorway when she saw a band of Lakota slip out of the forest. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to evade them with her child in tow, she hid the boy—not yet two years old—in a heap of newly shucked corn, too green to catch fire. She told him to keep perfectly still. Then she took off, vanishing into the cottonwoods toward a neighbor’s house six miles away. At dawn she came back to find that the Indians had burned the cabin, but her son was still alive. He’d stayed motionless in the corn—stashed away, like baby Moses in his basket, as a river of violence rushed past. “I had faithfully carried out my first orders of silent obedience,” the scout later wrote.

Seven years later, Edwin was injured when a log he was carrying slipped and fell on him, puncturing a lung. The family relocated to Los Angeles, a town materializing out of the sagebrush and dust, where he could find some relief in the warmer climate. But Edwin would pass away only a few years after they arrived. Burnham’s mother took out a loan and bought two train tickets, for herself and Burnham’s young brother, to return east, where they could be with family. Fred stayed behind, deciding to strike out on his own in California. He got a job delivering telegrams as a mounted messenger for Western Union and excelled at the job, riding hard over precarious terrain day and night, switching to a second horse when he wore out the first, then a third horse, and a fourth. In no time, he’d repaid his mother’s loan, racing between Los Angeles and Anaheim, out to Santa Monica, and through the hinterlands that would become Pasadena. He was often alone for days at a time. He was 13 years old.

When he was 14, religious family members in the small town of Clinton, Iowa, concerned about his soul, summoned Burnham to live with them—to try life as a regular townie kid. But the regularness of Clinton didn’t suit him. He resented his relatives for trying to impose a prefabricated existence on him. He wanted to live in a world that unfolded, little by little, on the trail ahead of him. Playing games—ordinary kid games, with sticks and balls—seemed strange to him; he couldn’t get his head around it. “I felt an urge to do bigger things,” he said. He lasted a year. Then one night he stole a canoe, slipped off down the Mississippi, and never came back.

Burnham reached Texas, where he encountered the grizzled characters of a fading West. Many of these old frontiersmen had wound up as alone at the end of their lives as Burnham was at the outset of his, and they’d sit with him for hours, unspooling their stories. An old scout named Holmes had lost his family in the Indian Wars and, without any heirs to pass his knowledge on to, began teaching Burnham the old ways of scouting. He led Burnham through the desert for six months, forging the boy’s grit and courage into actual skills.

These adventures were exhilarating but often unpleasant. Holmes could be a curmudgeon, especially at the end of a long, hot day, and would pick apart everything Burnham did. Watching the boy sling a saddle off his horse, the old man would bark: “Oh my God, I never can teach you anything! You are a little ass. In the morning you can go back home.” But then the sun would come up and all would seem forgiven.

From Holmes and the other high priests of scouting he encountered, Burnham learned to read the air like a river and pull the scent of a campfire out of the warmer currents floating along high ridges; how to build up his internal compass and rely on it even in total darkness; how to hone a photographic memory for the tracks of individual horses; how to improvise and conceal booby traps; how to carry a gallon or two of water in a saddle blanket, then wring it out over a concave rock; how never to ride a straight line into camp, in case someone had detected you and was plotting an ambush. One of the old men would use corncobs and sand to demonstrate how forts were built, or how to decipher the movements of troops. More than anything, Burnham learned that, as he later put it, “we should be learning something always, no matter how long we live, or how long we play the game.”

Soon he began spending all his money on ammunition. He practiced trick shots, trained himself to be ambidextrous. He’d set up oilcans in the brush and fire at them from a gallop, or place a cork in a puddle and shoot underneath it to make it hop, then try to hit it again in midair—practicing, again and again, until he could nail them three times out of five. But he also learned to treat his gun as a luxury and a lifeline, not an appendage. (The old scouts had taught him that reliance on a firearm decayed a man’s courage and made him worthless in hand-to-hand combat.)

The most grueling lessons were psychological—learning to weather the loneliness, fear, and deprivation amid which those physical skills would be deployed. Scouts, after all, worked alone. “The darkness of night is his best friend,” Burnham wrote, “for it will hide his secret movements—although it is at night that physical exhaustion is most apt to breed the cowardice that comes creeping into the bones of every man at times.” One of the most pernicious forces a scout needed to suppress was hunger. It could be just as powerful a disincentive as exhaustion or fear—often more powerful. In a way, Burnham came to see the stomach, paradoxically, as the weakest and most persuasive part of a man. It messed with you mentally, tried to order you around. A scout couldn’t afford to humor his stomach; it was hard enough to make sure his horse was properly fed. And when Burnham ended his years of apprenticeship and began working out in the world—protecting mining camps from raids or guarding prospectors as they transported their gold back to town—he found that eating conventional food on these missions was often impossible. (Hunting can be a problem, for example, because cooking over a fire creates light and smoke, and butchered carcasses attract conspicuous circles of buzzards.) So he adapted. He’d hammer deer jerky into a powder, mix the powder with flour, and bake the mixture into a saddle-bag-shaped loaf. Then he’d eat off that block of deer cake for the duration of his travels, one pound per day.

This flexibility—the fierce epicurean stoicism that Burnham cultivated—would be a subtle hallmark of all of Burnham’s future adventures. In East Africa, he’d do as the local tribesmen did, eating no vegetables for months at a time, instead consuming a mixture of three parts milk and one part fresh blood, drawn from a vein in the neck of a living ox the way syrup makers tap the trunk of a maple. (After ten days, Burnham claimed, his system had adjusted.) During conflicts in Africa, he’d steal rank-smelling, partially fermented corn that had been buried in the ground by the locals and live off that for a while. During one stakeout, he subsisted wholly on a ration of uncooked corn, grinding away at the stuff until his jaw was sore and his starchy, thickened tongue made his speech unintelligible.

“The man of one diet is hopelessly handicapped,” he wrote, “for nature has made it possible for a well organized human being to wrest sustenance out of a thousand foods.… Man’s stomach, like his hand, can be trained to adapt itself to many strange uses.” In other words, the stomach wanted what it wanted, but appetite, like all desire, was a liability. And with enough discipline, you could disregard it and fill the stomach with drab blocks of pure common sense instead.

It was only because Burnham had had this epiphany, and proved his hypothesis in the growling laboratory of his own gut, that he could consider hippopotamus steaks such an obvious solution to America’s meat shortage 30 years later.

For all his self-control, Burnham was susceptible to gold fever and spent years during his young adulthood rashly chasing rumors of lost mines around the American Southwest. He had only one small strike, at age 22. It brought him just enough money to send back to the town in Iowa he’d long ago escaped, for a girl he’d met there, Blanche Blick, and make her his wife. He bought them a house in an orange grove in Pasadena and settled into a more conventional life as an upstart Californian citrus grower.

But somehow the man with an alchemical ability to turn crud into food couldn’t manage to produce oranges from orange trees. The economics of his operation quickly bottomed out, and the sedentary lifestyle he’d carved out for himself and Blanche left him restless. The whole project had been a serious miscalculation. Burnham spent his time reading books about Africa and dreaming.

Burnham’s infatuation with Africa had started as a child in Minnesota. An older girl named Katy Boardman, charged with babysitting him for a few days, had read Burnham adventure stories about young boys trekking into the wilds of a southern territory known as the Orange Free State—one of the republics founded by the descendants of Dutch settlers called Boers. (In the mid-1800s, Boers living in the British-controlled Cape Colony, in present-day South Africa, had undertaken a large-scale migration known as the Great Trek, seeking autonomy.) The stories Katy read each evening brought Burnham his only moments of calm and focus during his stay at the Boardman home. Otherwise, he and Katy’s four younger brothers were running riot through the place, at one point shaving the family’s pig with Mr. Boardman’s only razor. But at bedtime every night, all five boys would sit still, beguiled by those stories from Africa, and Burnham had gone on reading similar ones ever since. Even as he wandered the Southwest as a young man, he tried to stay up on the developments in the region, following along as longstanding strife between the British and the Boers even sparked a brief war in 1881.

Burnham was particularly enthralled by the Cape Colony’s prime minister, Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was a shrewd and aggressive imperialist—a “superbrain,” Burnham called him. Burnham was swept up by Rhodes’s vision for remaking the African continent. Like many people of his time, Burnham earnestly believed that the transformation of Africa was a noble and even perversely humanitarian goal, never recognizing the hubris and vile racism that underlay it. “Rhodes saw Africa as a vast unkempt field, calling to him to be cleared,” Burnham wrote. He was striving to plant “the flower of civilization” there.

Frontiers like this were Burnham’s natural habitat. It’s why he’d been drawn to the Southwest in his youth. “It is the constructive side of frontier life that most appeals to me, the building up of a country,” he explained to a friend. “When the place is finally settled I don’t seem to enjoy it very long.” But the Southwest had been tamed, wrestled from the Indians and demystified. And as deflating as it was to admit, Burnham had only truly participated in the tail end of that conquest.

Now he was transposing all those same boyish ambitions to southern Africa, where the deserts happened to look remarkably like the ones he’d spent a decade traveling. Sitting in his orange grove in Pasadena, something about the blank slate he perceived in Africa and the industriousness of Rhodes seduced him. “I was as one summoned by an irresistible call,” he wrote. He figured Rhodes would need a good scout, one who knew how to operate in daunting desert terrain. He left for Africa with his wife and young son, Roderick, on January 1, 1893.


The Human Epitome of Sin and Deception

In late January 1900, the novelist and war correspondent Richard Harding Davis was sailing from England to Cape Town on a ship called the SS Scot. The journey lasted 17 days, and every night, Davis noticed, the men on deck would gather around the same small, reserved man with piercing blue eyes. The crowd consisted of big-game hunters and career soldiers, many of whom had held command in British wars in India or Sudan—roughneck, capable survivors, in other words, with their own yarns to spin and advice to give. But they all sat like schoolkids, Davis later wrote, pelting the quiet man with questions.

The man explained to them how to tell a column of dust raised by a cavalry from one kicked up by a wagon train; how to read the speed of a horse from its prints; how to conceal a campfire. The crowd was impressed with the quickness and clarity of the man’s answers, but more impressed that, in the couple of instances when he wasn’t able to answer, he told them so—it was a unique combination of mastery and humility. This man was Frederick Russell Burnham, of course, on his way back to Africa seven years after that first impulsive trip. He had made his name fighting for Rhodes’s Cape Colony and gained a reputation as a scout. A series of conflicts had flared up almost as soon as Burnham and his family arrived in South Africa in 1893. Rhodes’s forces were pressing into Matabeleland, in present day Zimbabwe, and struggling to suppress the Ndebele tribe there. Burnham leaped right into the battle. It felt like the Indian wars of his youth all over again. Before long, Matabeleland had been occupied and rechristened Rhodesia.

Three years later, when the Ndebele staged an uprising and the so-called Second Matabele War erupted, Burnham and his family were living outside the city of Bulawayo. There was a second child now, a two-year-old girl named Nada. As the conflict intensified and the Ndebele advanced, the Burnhams were moved into Bulawayo for their protection. The city was being hastily locked down and fortified with homemade defenses; the Burnhams and another family were stuffed into a three-room shack, with their livestock milling outside.

Soon, a virus ripped through the colonists’ oxen. Thousands of animals died in the course of three weeks. “The scavenging hyenas and vultures could make no impression on the thousands of huge, swollen carcasses that blocked the roads for miles,” Burnham remembered. Bulawayo was 500 miles from the nearest railroad—it was with oxen carts that the colonists brought in food and supplies. Soon, thousands of people began dying, too. “For weeks,” Burnham wrote, “there was an unremitting stench.” The colonists couldn’t spare the fuel to cremate the bodies, and the men—going out at night to defend Bulawayo against raids by the Ndebele, who had put the crippled city under siege—were simply too exhausted during the day to bury them.           

Eventually, Nada came down with a fever. By that point, the remaining livestock had been eaten. So had the pets, including Nada’s three ostriches, which she’d been given as chicks. Ultimately, Nada was one of many children who could not outlast the siege. Burnham was off fighting when she died, and it was up to Blanche to enlist some friends to bury her daughter in a shallow grave outside town. Burnham was devastated, obsessing over a series of painful and unanswerable question—questions, he later wrote, that started with If only…, and even more wrenching questions that started with Why…. That June, he received a critical bit of intelligence, locating a man believed to be the Ndebele’s religious leader and commander, or Mlimo, in a secret cave. Burnham was sent to assassinate him. Sneaking into the cave, he paused a second to watch the holy man. “Constantly before my enraged vision rose the picture of my wife vainly holding to her breast our dying Nada,” he later wrote. Then he shot the Mlimo under the heart and ran out of the cave ahead of the commander’s men, lighting villages on fire as he went. 

The following year, at age 36, Burnham left Africa for Alaska. Gold had been discovered, and he was again determined to be part of the beginning of something big. But the gold still evaded him. He kept up on the news from South Africa: the antipathy between the British and the Dutch-descended Boers was escalating again. Burnham wrote to his friend, H. Rider Haggard, explaining that he now spent six hours a day in Alaska traversing a map of southern Africa in his mind, seeing all the trails and streams that led out of the city of Pretoria; picking the right spots to camp, obtain fuel, and stage the animals if there was another war. By now everyone felt one coming. “I fear I will miss it,” Burnham wrote glumly.         

He was mining quartz north of Juneau when, on January 4, 1900, a telegram arrived from the new British commander in South Africa, who had heard about Burnham’s service during the previous conflicts. It read: “Lord Roberts appoints you on his personal staff. All expenses paid if you accept. Start shortest way Cape Town and report yourself to him.” Burnham was en route to Africa two and a half hours later, aboard the same ship the telegram had come in on. Once in England, he transferred to the SS Scot, where Richard Harding Davis found him, reluctantly mesmerizing his fellow passengers night after night.

The Second Boer War was not going well for the British when Burnham received the call. The Boers had surprised the colonists, shattering their imperial confidence with a string of shocking and decisive victories right after combat had started the previous fall. 

In truth, the entire conflict was saturated with feelings of bewilderment and disarray. Two modern historians describe the Second Boer War as a clash characterized by a “capacity to produce confusion and ambivalence” and a “wide variety of half-truths.” (Even the war’s immediate causes are hard to pull from the slop of competing propaganda; in part, the British were simply seeking control of the Transvaal, a Boer territory rich in gold.) And for the British, “the scale of [the war’s] embarrassments and traumas were not merely shocking,” but relayed back home, vividly, by a new kind of popular press. (Both Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle covered the war.) By December of 1899, England was determined to change tactics. Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts of Kandahar was installed as the new commander in South Africa. Roberts began assembling his team, summoning Burnham as his chief of scouts and Major-General Lord Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum and Aspall as his chief of staff. Kitchener was a particularly merciless strategist, and helped steer the British through a series of barreling offensives. Within months, the tide had turned completely. Soon the Boer government in the Transvaal would be shattered, and its leadership would flee to Europe. But the Boers kept fighting tenaciously as guerrillas—a decentralized and lethal swarm. Burnham’s job was to gallop around inside this fractured conflict, undetected.

Like a lot of freelance adventurers involved in the war, and even many British citizens, Burnham felt great respect for the other side. He was awed by the Boers, in fact. He believed that they were uniquely menacing adversaries because, like the best scouts of the American Southwest, they’d somehow retained the instincts and senses of more primitive men. In a way, Burnham considered himself a Boer at heart, trapped in the wrong nation or time. His entire life, he’d felt people nudging him toward a world of “soft carpets, soft food, soft life, soft men and women,” he wrote. But “sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization or religion; for then I might have been outwardly, as I am now at heart, a thorough savage, nothing more.” For years after the war was over, he would carry on about the virtuosity of two of his enemies in particular: the Boer’s lead scout, Danie Theron, and a more enigmatic figure working underneath Theron. The man was known as the Black Panther of the Veld. “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met,” Burnham would tell an interviewer 30 years later. He was “a man of extraordinary power.”

The Black Panther’s name was Fritz Duquesne. Burnham had heard that he’d adopted the nom de guerre as a boy, after watching a wild panther stalk its prey at a watering hole. Duquesne noticed how efficient the animal was—how it always waited to attack, intent and totally untroubled, until the other animal was compromised. The boy vowed to emulate the panther and made it his totem. The panther, Burnham wrote, was a wild predator that no one had ever succeeded in taming. By the Second Boer War, Duquesne had become just as cunning and sinister.

Duquesne would spend the conflict trying to kill Burnham, and Burnham was assigned to kill Duquesne. Burnham called him the “human epitome of sin and deception.” Another writer described him as a “walking living breathing searing killing destroying torch of hate.”

Captain Fritz Duquesne
Captain Fritz Duquesne

Duquesne was only one of countless threats Burnham had to dodge during the war, as his commanders sent him to infiltrate and sabotage the scurrying, deadly remnants of the Boer army. Burnham’s exploits were numerous and bizarre. Once, he hid for two days and nights inside an aardvark hole. Another time, he floated down a river disguised as a dead cow, drifting under a fresh, fleshy hide with two eyeholes cut out of it, to size up an enemy camp downstream.

In the spring of 1900, he was captured by Boer scouts but managed to conceal his identity. The Boers had been given index cards describing the famous Frederick Russell Burnham—a supposedly ruthless, godless, illiterate rogue from the American West. Realizing this, Burnham sparked an erudite theological debate with one of his captors—was baptism by immersion the one true route to salvation, or was it baptism by sprinkling?—then followed that up by reciting some poetry. Eventually, he slipped away from the Boers’ wagon train in the dark. As day broke, he hunkered in a fallow field, hidden just barely by four inches of vegetation, and resigned himself to lie there in the heat, with his hat over his head for camouflage, until the sun set again and it was safe to move on. Stuck in the brush, he became fixated on a thick ear of corn he’d jammed in his breast pocket before escaping, worried it was sticking up just enough beneath his shirt to give him away. He was already carrying one whole biscuit and a fragment of a second; the corn suddenly seemed to him like a horrible indulgence. “What a fool to be such a glutton for food!” he later remembered thinking. “I was not living up to the traditions of the American scout.” But a Boer patrol came and went. Burnham had waited them out, invisibly.

Eventually, he made it back to a campsite and from there was sent on a series of missions to cut supply lines. He spent his 39th birthday, in May of 1900, hiding in enemy territory, preparing to blow up some bridges, feasting on a ration of chocolate and condensed soup. Then, in early June, he was given 25 pounds of explosives and sent to cut the railway connecting Pretoria to the Indian Ocean.

After setting out, Burnham encountered a group of Boers in the distance, and his horse, Stembok, was shot. The animal fell on him. His spine burned. He assumed his back was broken. But he managed to reach his target anyway—a specific point on the railway, beside a distillery—traveling the rest of the way on foot, vomiting blood and compressing his abdomen with both hands to lessen the pain slightly, as though he were holding his guts together manually. (At one point, he wrote a farewell note to his wife, Blanche, and dropped it on the ground, hoping British soldiers would eventually pass by and find it.) Then, after rigging his explosives and detonating them, he hauled his busted body into a grove of eucalyptus and hid, trying to make himself invisible yet again as a unit of Boers fired systematically into the trees to flush him out. At one point, a commander sat on horseback less than 20 yards away from where Burnham was hiding, chastising his men for their ineptitude. Eventually, the troops gave up and moved on.

Hours later, Burnham heard the voices of British soldiers approaching. He was rushed to a field hospital, where doctors determined that, though his spine was not damaged, his internal injuries were severe. Lord Roberts promoted him to major and sent him to recuperate in England. On the ship back, he chatted with a young British newspaperman named Winston Churchill who had also been captured by the Boers and escaped. The two men swapped stories and, though Churchill’s involved taking many risks which Burnham, as a scout, could not condone, the scout ultimately understood that the writer had done the best he could. “His moves were restricted by the handicap of physical weakness,” Burnham wrote, “which made a twenty mile run at night”—what Burnham judged to be the most straightforward move in those circumstances—“entirely beyond his power.”

In England, Burnham was invited to dine with Queen Victoria and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, a high honor for heroism during wartime, by King Edward VII. Burnham, with his characteristic stoicism, described the award as so humbling and unnecessary that it was “almost humiliating.” “I felt of no more importance than a grain of sand on the shore of the mighty sea,” he wrote.

Slowly, Burnham’s injuries healed. The darkness of Nada’s death was dissipating, too. Blanche had given birth to another child—a son named Bruce—and they joined Fred in England. By 1905, the couple were hatching a plan to return their family to Rhodesia and restart their lives.

The Burnhams’ oldest child, Roderick, was now 19 years old and in school back in California, living with his grandmother. One night that October, he woke and ran to her, shrieking from a nightmare. He claimed that he had watched his little brother chase a toy boat into deep water and sink to his death. The next day, a telegram arrived from England. It was from Blanche and Fred, and it read: “Bruce drowned. Coming soon.” Bruce was seven years old. He’d been swept away in the Thames.

The Burnhams returned to California, wrecked. They spent a lot of their time at home, overlooking a picturesque arroyo, in a secluded area of Pasadena called San Rafael Heights. Burnham tried his best to console his wife. It was a time of recovery and repose. “The wild quail, the meadow larks and mocking birds still drown [out] the ding dong of the American locomotive,” he wrote to a friend the following February, “and the squeak of the trolley car is still very faint. Nature has kindly softened the acute sorrow of my wife. So all in all, this year of 1906 can not be such a dreary and painful one as 1905.”

It was during this time that Burnham started to think seriously, and ambitiously, about an idea he’d had many years earlier. Maybe it was because Bruce’s death had made the horror of Nada’s slow starvation feel fresh again. Or maybe it was because Burnham was marooned at home, glaring at the arid and relatively lifeless landscape around him—a place, he knew, that had already been drained of so much of its wild, edible game by short-sighted hunters. Eventually, he sat down to write an article about this idea of his, hoping one of the major magazines back east might be talked into publishing it.

“There is in Africa a wonderfully varied range of interesting animals,” he wrote. “Most of the desirable ones could easily be introduced into our own Southwest.”

Part Two

Four years later.


We Ought to Have More Creatures

“Transplanting African Animals,” by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, was published in New York’s Independent magazine in January 1910. Before long, a chain of serendipitous connections were made and Burnham was invited to share his ideas in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture. It would be a long afternoon of testimony, but at the very start a federal researcher named W.N. Irwin summed up the matter nicely: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee,” he told the congressmen, “in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.”

It was March 24, 1910. Under discussion was H.R. 23261, a bill to appropriate $250,000 for the importation of useful new animals into the United States—the hippo bill, as the public would come to understand it. H.R. 23261 had been introduced by the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard, who had limited himself to a very short statement at the start of the hearing, not wanting to detract from the impressive roster of experts he’d assembled—“three gentlemen,” he explained, “who probably have devoted more time than almost anyone else to this matter.”

Ceding the spotlight was not in Broussard’s nature. Then 45 years old, Robert Foligny Broussard was a raucous and charismatic Democrat from New Iberia, Louisiana. He was the son of a Cajun planter and had lived in the district he represented for most of his life. He loved speechifying and glad-handing and generally addressed himself to the job of campaigning the way a gourmand addresses himself to a platter of oysters—despite having never encountered any real opposition in his seven successive reelections. A native French speaker, he sometimes traveled to give campaign speeches for colleagues in close races in Maine or Massachusetts, parachuting in to charm any French-Canadian constituents in their mother tongue.

Robert Foligny Broussar
Robert Foligny Broussar

Louisianans knew Broussard affectionately as Cousin Bob. He claimed to be related to a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish—sometimes to a full half of them. “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins,” one Saturday Evening Post profile noted. “That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.” A company in New Orleans named a cigar after him.

Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. Launching a national effort to import foreign animals that could benefit American society, especially hippos, had been percolating on Broussard’s legislative agenda for some time, and he had been referred to Burnham by mutual friends in Washington who knew the major would gladly advocate for any bill he introduced to fund that work. It was a stroke of symbiotic political matchmaking. Four years earlier, after returning to Pasadena from England following his son Bruce’s death, Burnham had tried to jump-start his own African animal project in Washington. He had called for 30 varieties of edible antelope—klipspringers, gemsboks, waterbucks—as well as other animals, including giraffes, to be imported from Africa and plopped down in the American Southwest. The pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot, then head of the forestry service under President Theodore Roosevelt, had been scrambling to claim and protect more land as federal reserves, and Burnham had imagined those areas as ideal incubators for the transplanted creatures. New populations could be built up under the government’s protection, then dispersed. Formerly vacant, unproductive landscapes could be converted into wonderlands for sportsmen and new storehouses for the nation’s food supply. Burnham and several wealthy friends had even raised $50,000 to pay for the first wave of importations. They’d had a successful meeting with President Roosevelt. Pinchot had written to Burnham, “I have talked with a good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.”

But the proposition had eventually broken apart in the churning, acidic stomach of Washington politics. An enemy of Roosevelt’s in Congress had lumped the president’s support for the plan into a broader, petty attack. Importing antelopes and giraffes suddenly became politically impossible. The experience had left Burnham angry—mostly at himself. He’d been naive enough to believe that America made decisions about its future in a more commonsensical way.

This time around, though, Burnham was partnering with an insider. He and Broussard were like Darwinian finches—the same species of capable specialist evolved to thrive within two parallel environments. As adeptly as Burnham maneuvered through the African desert, Broussard seemed to maneuver through the disorienting wilderness of Washington, reading the landscape, performing what could only seem like magic to outsiders. In Broussard, Burnham saw new hope now that his gorgeous idea for America might actually become a reality. He called the congressman “a tower of strength for the movement.”     

Broussard, for his part, had locked onto the potential of African animals for his own idiosyncratic reasons—and they did not, initially, have anything to do with food. Cousin Bob had actually set out to solve a different crisis for his constituents. The crisis was a flower.

Water hyacinths had been brought to New Orleans in 1884, distributed as gifts by the Japanese delegation to an international cotton exposition. New Orleanians loved the frilly, pale lavender flowers and gradually planted them as decorations around the city in garden ponds. The hyacinths multiplied rapidly. (The plant reproduces asexually.) Soon they were spreading through local waterways, clotting into impenetrable mats, then drifting toward the mouth of the Mississippi like big, menacing hairballs toward a drain.

By 1910, when Broussard introduced his bill, the flowers had been plaguing his state for at least a decade. They’d clogged up streams and made shipping routes that had previously moved millions of tons of freight unnavigable. They’d blanketed rivers and wetlands, hogging the oxygen and killing fish. The hyacinth had destroyed fishermen’s livelihoods and transformed some of the state’s greatest resources into a chain of stinking dead zones. The War Department was staging an all-out offensive against the flower, “[b]ut they have only been partially successful,” Broussard said. “They clean a stream today, and in a month it is covered all over again with the same plant.” They’d even tried throwing oil on the hyacinth, but the plant would just sink to the bottom, wait out the disturbance, then send out another bulb and rise again.

Broussard was not the sort of man who could abide such defeat. He liked to plug up problems with big solutions; he was “a large operator,” one reporter wrote, who “goes in for broad effects.” It occurred to him that perhaps some animal could be brought to Louisiana to swallow this particular problem up, and he seems to have hit on the hippopotamus after encountering the curious, aging bureaucrat he’d now called to brief the House Agricultural Committee just before Burnham.

William Newton “W. N.” Irwin was a veteran researcher at the pomological branch of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an apple guy, basically—“one of the foremost fruit experts in the country,” according to The Washington Post. Irwin appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre. (Another of his crusades was trying to convert Americans from eating chicken eggs to eating turkey eggs. The advantages of turkey eggs were just so obvious to Irwin: they were richer, larger, and more nutritious and had thicker shells and membranes, so they stayed fresh longer. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat a bunch of turkey eggs until six months after he’d purchased them. And still, he bragged, “the yolks would drop out round and plump, and the white, or albumen, would be perfectly normal.”) He had first laid out the case for hippopotamuses while delivering a paper at a conference in Missouri the previous year. He reviewed the causes of America’s gathering meat crisis and noted that, in the past, the country had sidestepped these kinds of Malthusian forecasts by expanding just a little farther west. There had always been more land to put into production. But now the great prairies had all been overgrazed or carved into farms; there was little suitable rangeland left to occupy. The only way forward, Irwin concluded, was to find ways of wringing nourishment out of land that now seemed barren or worthless—for example, the vast marshes along the Gulf Coast. Extracting the energy embedded there would require assembling a new set of tools—new technologies. The hippopotamus was one such technology.         

Hippopotamuses eat aquatic vegetation, like water hyacinths—loads of it, Irwin learned. Deposit some hippos in a hyacinth-choked stream, he argued, and they’d suck it clean in no time. That is, hippos could solve Louisiana’s problem with the flower while simultaneously converting that problem into the solution to another—an answer to the Meat Question. The animal, Irwin now told the committee, would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” The hippopotamus was a perversely elegant win-win.

Of course, it could be hard to see that logic through all the lavish weirdness of the proposal. But for Irwin—and Burnham—any resistance to their idea came down to simple small-mindedness. The only reason Americans didn’t already eat hippopotamuses, Irwin claimed, was “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Like Burnham, he saw the Meat Question as a test of American ingenuity and resolve: To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them. And, also like Burnham, Irwin seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to let any emotional objections or queasiness detract from the divine common sense of their plan. At times he seems to have gotten a little pissy about it, actually. A few months earlier, Irwin had invited a Washington Post reporter to his office, fed him a stick of hippo jerky while showing him a photograph of five East African men skinning the very beast he was now digesting, and whined: “I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths. Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail.” In one scientific paper, Irwin compared himself to Christopher Columbus, being laughed at as he sailed toward what looked like the edge of the earth but was, in reality, a new and nutritionally superior world of turkey eggs and hippopotamus brisket.

When it was Burnham’s turn to testify, he echoed Irwin’s arguments but tried to imbue the bureaucrat’s geeky reasoning with his own firsthand experiences and gravitas. Burnham challenged the committee to consider how bizarre it is that we eat only cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry—just four types of animals, basically all of which had themselves been imported by Europeans centuries ago. Why, somewhere along the line, had we stopped feeling entitled to improve our country’s food stocks by infusing them with animals from the great global pantry abroad? “I think we are allowing one of our greatest assets to lie idle,” Burnham told the committee. It was only the passage of time that had made a pork chop or a bowl of chicken soup feel American—not their actual origins. Time would make hippo roasts just as familiar.

Burnham also noted that hippopotamuses would be only a few shades stranger than other animals recently brought into the country. Twenty-five years earlier, for example, an Englishman named George Cawston had started an ostrich farm near Pasadena, where Burnham lived. Cawston had been made fun of initially, caricatured as a crazy man riding ostriches—he offered ostrich rides at the farm—but he was now making a fortune selling ostrichplumes for pillows and ladies’ accessories. More recently, the federal government had introduced Russian reindeer as a food source in Alaska. And in the 1850s, Burnham noted, the nation’s Secretary of War and eventual president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had brought African camels to the deserts of the American Southwest, convinced that they would outperform horses as pack animals on that terrain. And they did—the camels’ endurance impressed everyone, just as Davis smugly insisted they would. But in that case, too, it was explained to the committee, silly emotions had gotten in the way of good sense. The soldiers on horseback made fun of the soldiers asked to ride camels; the camel riders began refusing to ride their camels. Eventually, the experiment was discontinued, and many of the camels were left to scatter in the desert.

Burnham told the committee that he’d actually stumbled onto one of the feral descendants of these camels while traveling through the region with a cowboy friend in his youth. “We were five days chasing one of those animals with the best horses we could get in Arizona,” he explained. Eventually, they caught the camel, and though it took days of roping and fighting they were able to tame it. Burnham and his friend started concocting plans, thinking maybe there’d be a market for camels if they rounded enough of them up. It never happened. As Burnham explained, “one of the Apache Wars broke out at that time, which was more interesting than breaking camels, and we both went off to that.” But he’d seen firsthand how well a foreign animal could adapt to America—how well it could serve us. His dream of importing useful new animals was born then and there, he told the congressmen. “And it has clung to me ever since.”

It was an impassioned, impressive testimony. But Congressman Broussard had invited another speaker that afternoon, one who would wind up being the star attraction. Broussard introduced this man to the committee as a “hunter of great note” in Africa who happened to be touring America now, lecturing on the African continent’s wild animals. “I now desire to present to the committee,” Broussard announced, “Captain Fritz Duquesne.”

It was him, the Black Panther of the Veld. Two of Broussard’s three expert witnesses—these men seated in the hearing room, graciously educating the 61st Congress of the United States about the usefulness and deliciousness of hippopotamuses—were, in fact, arch enemies who had vowed to assassinate each other.

Duquesne took the floor and sought immediately to establish his singular credibility on the subject at hand. “I am as much one of the African animals as the hippopotamus,” he began.


A Unit of Hate

The details of Fritz Duquesne’s life dart around in a deep pool of uncertainty. Partly this is because the journalists of his day who assembled them were unscrupulous, but mainly it’s because Duquesne would dramatically reinvent himself again and again.

Frederick L’Huguenot Joubert Duquesne (pronounced du-cain) was born in the Cape Colony on December 21, 1877—according to one suspect source, at least; friends would claim that even Duquesne did not know his own age. He was a lean and alluring man with a youthful, clean-shaven look. He was said to be a champion womanizer, with an unflappable confidence that seemed drawn from some mysterious wellspring. His hair was black, or else it was brown. His eyes were brown, hazel, or blue. He spoke with a clipped British accent, which may have been fake.

Duquesne grew up on a farm among other Boer families. His father was a hunter and trader who was constantly traveling, and so Fritz was raised by his mother and his Uncle Jan, who’d been blinded when an elephant gun backfired on him during a hunt. As a boy, Duquesne would watch the adults return from the river with a hippopotamus—they were among the easiest animals to hunt—then butcher its massive carcass and divide the meat among their families. It was up to Duquesne and the other kids to collect the fat and sell it to the French soap manufacturers who came around to claim it.

As a teenager he was sent to school in Europe. He was studying at a military academy in Belgium, learning about weaponry and explosives, when a letter arrived from his father, calling him back to fight for his people against the overbearing British. It was 1899; the Second Boer War was underway.

Duquesne arrived at Boer headquarters in Pretoria, a city in the Transvaal republic, northeast of the Cape Colony, just before the British aggressively revised their strategy and the war turned uglier and more unruly. Over the next year, Roberts and Kitchener would funnel the Boers into concentration camps and scorch the earth behind them. There were as many as 160,000 Boer prisoners in the camps at one time; 25,000 would die there by the end of the conflict in 1902.

Boer soldiers like Duquesne began roving the land in small guerrilla squadrons, without the security or support of a formal army. Duquesne was captured and escaped at least twice. (In one failed attempt, he painstakingly dug through the grout of the prison wall with a spoon, pushing the resulting dust out the window to blow away in the wind. It took weeks and ultimately came to nothing: When Duquesne finally tried to wriggle through the hole he’d opened, the stone wall—which he’d rendered structurally unsound—partially collapsed on him. A guard found him pinned and unconscious the next morning.) At one point, he was shipped all the way to a prison in Lisbon. But he escaped easily, first finding the time to seduce his jailer’s daughter. He then made his way to England, claimed to be a Boer defector, enlisted as a British soldier, hitched a ride back to the front in Africa, and took off on his own again.

Duquesne became a military courier, delivering messages between Boer commandos. Traveling around, he saw the devastation of Kitchener’s scorched-earth policy—the fires, the horses sprayed with bullets so the Boers could not use them, the crops burned and the livestock shot up and clubbed. He was sickened by how much the British had obliterated, how desolate they’d left the land. There was virtually no one left, except for the occasional pockets of women and children who fed Duquesne in his travels.

During this time, Duquesne found an opportunity to visit his family’s homestead, north of Pretoria, after 11 years away—according to the writer Clement Wood, who in 1932 published a detailed but extremely romanticized and journalistically tenuous account of Duquesne’s life. Duquesne knew that his father had died shortly after calling him back to fight but had no other news of his family. Wood writes that it wasn’t until Duquesne had gotten off his horse, and touched the blackened stone that had once been the corner of his house’s foundation, that he knew where he was; the British had so totally destroyed the place, it was unrecognizable. Duquesne found a servant there who had worked for his family since he was a child. The old man, Kanya, was living in a primitive shelter he’d dug for himself in the ruins. Hunched over and demoralized, Kanya explained that the British soldiers had hung Duquesne’s blind uncle Jan from a telegraph pole with a cow rope, then jabbed at his body with their bayonets. They’d taken turns raping Duquesne’s sister Elsbet, then shot her. Then they’d tied his mother’s hands, raped her, and carried her off.

Duquesne assumed that his mother had been taken to the nearest concentration camp, a few days away on horseback. He sped there and, disguising himself in the British uniform he’d been given as a supposed defector, entered the camp and tried to track her down. He found her in a barbed-wire paddock clutching a seven-month-old baby, both of them starving and dying of syphilis—essentially dead already.           

Before leaving, Duquesne pledged to his mother that he would kill 100 Englishmen for every drop of blood in her body. But he felt nothing for the baby—it was his half-sibling, but it was also half-British, the evidence of his mother’s rape. Riding away from the camp, still in uniform, Duquesne saw two captains in the British army approaching. He saluted them. Once they’d passed, he turned in his saddle and shot both men in the back. Then he got off his horse and kicked each in the face.

Any number of these details that Wood relays could be wrong—possibly all of them. But at the very least, the story was as an attempt to explain one unmistakably true thing about Fritz Duquesne: that at some point in Africa, he became radicalized, consumed with searing rage for the British and for Lord Kitchener personally.

“Something happened inside of him that had fused him into a unit,” Wood wrote, “a unit of hate.”

Duquesne was captured one last time, late in the Boer War, while plotting a sensational symphony of explosions around Cape Town. The British shipped him to a prison camp on Tucker’s Island, in Bermuda, with his wrists and ankles bound so tightly that he’d be scarred for the rest of his life.

He wasted no time in escaping. In one version of the story, Duquesne coordinated a jailbreak with two other prisoners, banging out their plans in Morse code from their cells. They slipped past the guards and dove into the sea with their clothes and boots tied to their bodies as bullets whizzed around them. They spent three weeks on the lam, subsisting mostly on onions pilfered from people’s gardens at night. Eventually, Duquesne reached the port town of Hamilton, where, according to a 1995 biography by Art Ronnie, Counterfeit Hero, he established himself as a pimp for a prostitute named Vera.

It was a strategic job placement; in the course of her nightly business, Vera acquired detailed information about the ships moving in and out of the port. Duquesne had been her pimp for only a week when he managed to get one of Vera’s clients drunk and learned he was a crew member on a private yacht about to sail for Baltimore. While Vera serviced the sailor, Duquesne stole his uniform and snuck onto the ship in his place, huddling into one of the holds, pretending to be drunk. He was eventually discovered, but he hit it off so well with the yacht’s owner, a middle-aged inventor of a powdered headache remedy, that he was ultimately invited to ride along. Duquesne set foot on American soil on July 4, 1902. Unless, according to another account, it was on December 16.

There was peace now in southern Africa—the Boer territories had been subdued and claimed by the British. But, given his sinister machinations during the war, Duquesne believed he would not be welcome there. He was on his own now. With the help of a network of Boer sympathizers on the East Coast, he slowly began constructing a life for himself in America. He went to New York and got a job selling subscriptions for the New York Sun. Soon, after proving himself and deploying enough of his charm, he was bumped up to reporter. Duquesne was an immigrant, in other words, living his own lonely version of the classic American immigrant story—reinventing himself, hustling. And it was working. Seven years later, Fritz Duquesne found himself sitting in the White House with the President of the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt, preparing to leave office in early 1909, began enthusiastically plotting a stunning first act to his retirement: a big-game-hunting expedition to East Africa, undertaken in conjunction with the Smithsonian. Roosevelt spent months studying up, writing letters to men who’d hunted in the region, figuring out which caliber firearm to use on which species and how exactly to topple a lion or rhino. Somehow, Duquesne, with his native’s knowledge of the continent and its wildlife, had inserted himself into this informal committee of experts and was invited to meet with the president that January. They talked for more than two hours. Duquesne was impressed with the President. He told the press, “He seems to have mastered all the details.”

Over the next year, Roosevelt’s journey through Africa would unfold in the newspapers back home in daily, time-delayed dispatches. It became a national fascination. (By the end of 1909, for example, there were two separate children’s games called With Teddy in Africa, featuring a miniaturized Roosevelt and his local guides to skin and field-dress miniaturized giraffes, hippopotamuses, and warthogs.) Duquesne had been dropped into the center of that excitement, briefly, during their meeting at the White House. Now he’d do his best to capitalize on it.

He wrote a series of syndicated columns called “Hunting Ahead of Roosevelt,” in which he drew on his own adventures in Africa to speculate about the kinds of animals and adventures the president was now encountering. When that momentum seemed exhausted, Duquesne went negative, keeping his name in the papers by mocking Roosevelt, denigrating him as nothing more than a dandy tourist blustering across the continent with a team of Africans to do the real hunting for him. He offered his own unflattering translation of the honorific reportedly given to Roosevelt by his African guides. (“Bwana Tumbo,” Duquesne told the press, meant “Mr. Unusually Large Stomach.”) And as Roosevelt readied to return in early 1910, Duquesne announced that he believed the former president might have contracted a deadly, still-dormant disease and should not be allowed back into the country.

By then, Duquesne had adapted his hunting stories into a theatrical lecture called “East Africa—the Wonderland of Roosevelt’s Hunt” and taken the show on tour. It featured moving pictures and stereopticon slides of “hunting scenes and savage life in darkest Africa,” all narrated by “Captain Fritz Duquesne,” as he’d taken to calling himself: “a man who knows and feels what he tells because it is what he has lived.” As it happened, he was booked for two shows at the Columbia Theatre, in Washington, just as Broussard was gathering experts for his hippo hearing.

In a sense, then, Duquesne’s appearance at the committee hearing was both an advertisement for his performances and performance in itself. The man wanted attention, and he knew how to work his audience when he got it.

Duquesne affably walked the congressmen through his knowledge of hippos and parried their skeptical questions with composed and charming assurances. He described how easy it was to domesticate a hippo; how you can feed a young one milk from a bottle, “like a baby,” and lead it on a leash like a pudgy hound. “It is absolutely not dangerous,” he said of the animal and described the meat—especially from young, castrated males—as a delicious, satisfying, and sustaining meal. (“Splendid food,” Duquesne insisted, “excellent food.”) As proof, he pointed proudly to how well his own people, the Boers, had performed in the recent imperial wars, despite being outnumbered. “There was nothing mentally or physically defective about them,” he explained, “and they lived on hippopotamus.”

Duquesne was not finished, however. He recommended elands, a kind of brutish antelope, as another phenomenal addition to American wildlife. Also giraffes. And what about elephants? Hannibal’s army crossed the Pyrenees on elephants, Duquesne reminded the congressmen, so this should give us all some inkling of the animal’s usefulness and stamina. “It went right around the Pyrenees,” he said, “backward and forward.”       

It was a fetching, whip-smart whirlwind of a performance, and it seemed to sweep up everyone. Before it was over, one congressman had invited him out to Bethesda to have a look at some captive zebras being bred there and offer an expert opinion.

“I think I have about exhausted the proposition,” Duquesne finally told the committee. “I have finished.” Although, he added, if the congressmen wanted him to perform his lecture right then and there, he’d be glad to. He happened to have all his transparencies with him.


The New Food Supply Society

The hearing was followed by a surge of excited publicity. “Hippopotami for Dixie,” one headline read. The Chicago Tribune covered the proceedings right above news that Delmonico’s, the famous steakhouse, had been forced to raise the price of everything on its menu due to dwindling meat supplies. Another story speculated that, because full-grown hippopotamuses would be too large to profitably ship to the stockyards in Chicago, smaller slaughterhouses would have to be built on-site, creating a constellation of local food systems, and breaking the monopoly lording over American meat production. (Only four years earlier, in The Jungle, Upton Sinclair had exposed the horrendous abuses of that monopoly—the way, for example, workers sometimes slipped into rendering tanks, then were churned together with scraps and sold as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.) Most newspapers led their coverage with splashy quotes from Fritz Duquesne, but even the torturously uncharismatic W. N. Irwin got called on occasionally. (“I like to say ‘hippo’ instead of the full name, because it is shorter and somewhat more euphonious,” Irwin paused to explain to one reporter.) The momentum felt unstoppable. According to The Washington Post, it was “a question of only a very few years now when large shipments of hippos will be made to America.”

It wasn’t likely that Congress would be able to act on Broussard’s appropriation bill before the end of its session, but Broussard, Burnham, and Duquesne believed that, with the right legwork, a reintroduced version would breeze through the next one. And so they decided to build a new organization to leverage their position and keep the pressure on—a lobbying firm, essentially, that they would call the New Food Supply Society. Shortly after the hearing, the congressman invited Duquesne and Burnham down to his plantation in Louisiana to hash out some preliminary plans.

It’s unclear what, if any, contact the two enemies had had in the nine years since they’d fought against each other in Africa. The evidence suggests that Burnham and Duquesne never actually crossed paths during the war—just loomed heavily, and terribly, in each other’s minds. Theirs was an old-fashioned kind of rivalry. What adhered them to one another was a dismaying and unshakable respect, nothing as vulgar as hatred. It involved a bizarre kind of honor; Duquesne remembered that he had once “tossed coins with a brother scout for the privilege of having first shot [at Burnham,] of splitting his body with a bullet,” but had never managed to track the great scout down. Now their inadvertent partnership on the hippopotamus project gave them an opportunity to finally know one another at close range. They’d fought on different sides but were still soldiers—part primitives, deep down—and they were presumably far more comfortable with each other than with the genteel politicians surrounding them.

Burnham was impressed by his old rival. “Duquesne was clever, educated and resourceful,” he would recall. He knew all about the sins in his past, but chose to force them out of his mind. He wanted to help the Boer. Duquesne was free-floating in permanent exile and, nearly a decade after being cast out of Africa, still struggling to set a new trajectory for himself in the United States. Burnham believed that this noble attempt they were making to answer the nation’s Meat Question would show his former adversary, firsthand, the sort of hard work, imagination, and values that made America great. It might finally steer Duquesne’s talents in a productive direction. The hippo project was a way to convert Duquesne, to cleanse him.

Burnham was ambivalent about playing the reformer. He remembered his own experience as a kid, suffering through life with his pious relatives in Iowa. But he believed that if he could understand what “had transformed this strong and remarkable man into a being abnormal and terrible” and “conquer the cruel darkness” that had infected Duquesne somewhere along the way, there was a chance that the wily Boer could “become one of the world’s noblest figures.” And so, Burnham later wrote, “I set out to win over to genuine Americanism one of the most remarkable men I had ever met.” Duquesne could be assimilated, made useful—just like the hippopotamus.

 As Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham began plotting the formation of the New Food Supply Society in the spring of 1910, each man was being driven by different levels of idealism and opportunism, and by different semi-secret motives. Letters began flying between the three men, and then also—all of a sudden—to and from a fourth man as well, a New York City–based writer and inventor named Eliot Lord.

It’s possible someone may have actually asked Lord to participate in the fledgling New Food Supply Society, or he may have just barged his way in, but within two days of the hearing he was writing to Burnham, claiming to already have rounded up some of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives for the group’s organizing committee and detailing what his own duties in the organization should be. There was a slipperiness to the man, not unlike Duquesne’s, but Lord’s slipperiness was clumsier and less convincing. His rapid-fire updates to the other partners came on a series of mysterious and seemingly random letterheads: John A. Stewart, president of the Carbonating Company of America, or Huff & Coryell Underwritten Securities, or the Republican League of Clubs. Repeatedly, he nagged Burnham to ask a mining magnate he knew from his Africa days to bankroll the organization.

Burnham was suspicious of Lord. He’d gone about everything in his life with caution and poise, and he found Lord’s rashness and moneygrubbing irritating. He described Lord to a friend as “flighty and without any financial balance.” Burnham was ready to forward the society’s goals, to ask friends for financing and give speeches to groups of influential sportsmen and naturalists he had access to. But he wanted to see a real plan in place first. He imagined the New Food Supply Society becoming a “permanent and valuable branch” of the nation’s new conservation movement, but so far it felt pretty wishy-washy. He wrote to Broussard: “I do not wish to go among my friends and ask for their names for a society that is soon to go the way of so many abortive congresses and federations and high sounding things mentioned about twice in a Sunday paper and then forgotten.”

Broussard agreed. “Like you,” he told Burnham, “I am adverse to organizing any movement unless energy, spirit and intelligent management are to follow the organization.” But Broussard was also becoming busy with higher-profile projects. He was journeying back and forth to Central America all summer, part of a delegation trying to bring an upcoming World’s Fair to New Orleans. And he’d spend August traveling his district, shaking the hands of his many Louisianan cousins and wringing all the available joy from another reelection campaign, even though he was once again running unopposed. Still, he told Burnham that he hoped to schedule a meeting with the would-be New Food Supply Society at some point soon—to sit down, all of them, and talk things out face-to-face.

Lord did not relent. He kept claiming, throughout the summer, to have an increasingly impressive roster of dignitaries ready to become charter members of the New Food Supply Society. He unilaterally announced plans to send Duquesne, as an “agent of the Society,” on a lecture tour of Ivy League colleges and then the leading seaside and mountain hotels. Of course, the New Food Supply Society still did not technically exist, and so, again and again, in letters to Broussard and Burnham, Lord begged them to finally incorporate it. He even went so far as to compose one of these letters to Broussard on a sheet of New Food Supply Society letterhead. In the upper left corner, Lord listed Broussard as chairman of the society and himself as secretary. “My compensation can be arranged for after the Society is in funds,” he informed the congressman.

Duquesne, meanwhile, seems to have been the only one doing any concrete work. Not long after the hearing, the society had sent him on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana, and he hoped that his role as freelance hippo expert might soon turn into a legitimate job. Lord was farming out articles Duquesne wrote about African animals to newspapers, which in the interim was a nice bump for his career, and Duquesne kept making sure that the other members of the would-be society saw his clips.

In short, Duquesne wanted credit. He made it clear that he was doing this work at his own expense and that the newspapers seldom paid him for his articles. In a letter to Burnham, he described writing African animal essays all day until his hand cramped and his handwriting became illegible, at which point he’d switch to using a typewriter, which carried its own costs—ribbons, maintenance, and so on. Burnham tried to buck him up. (“My dear Captain,” he wrote. “You certainly are pushing your part of the society in advance of the rest of us.”) He told him he would try to get Lord and Broussard to finally hammer out some financial arrangement and employ Duquesne properly. Duquesne replied to Burnham that he didn’t appreciate being left in the dark and was getting fed up with Lord’s “glowing promises.” “I do not want this movement to die through undue satisfaction or dry rot,” he said.

Months passed like this. Burnham tried to keep his optimism up, writing to pitch new acquaintances about the idea and scheduling public appearances, including his speech to the Humane Association of California in Pasadena that fall. At one point, he sent Lord $25 to keep the operation running. But the time between the men’s letters grew longer and longer. In September of 1910, Duquesne wrote to Broussard: “What have you that is new or valuable in the way of suggestion? If any make them and I shall act.” Broussard replied: “There is no news to communicate.”

The following month, the New York World published an article about the importation of African animals which apparently credited the idea to Charles Frederick Holder of Santa Catalina Island in California, a well-known fisherman of exceptionally large tuna. Duquesne was irate. He sent copies of the article to both Burnham and Broussard, seething, and demanded that Broussard issue some sort of universal correction to the press.

It was a momentary outburst; soon, the slow and painful birthing process of the New Food Supply Society would quietly resume. But something in Duquesne had snapped. He may have believed, deep in his gut like Burnham did, that importing hippopotamuses was the right and necessary thing for America—that the animal, if transplanted properly, would thrive here. But it was clear by now that he was working primarily for the prosperity of his favorite transplanted African animal: himself.

“It seems every day I hear of someone else, not Duquesne, being the man who brought this matter before the people,” Duquesne wrote to the congressman. “I am working day in and day out to keep this matter before the people, at some expense too.” But now, he explained, there were half a dozen other writers wandering around New York, all cribbing from Duquesne’s published work to sell stories about their supposed plans to import African animals.

“The thing was never heard of in DC till I spoke to you,” Duquesne insisted to Broussard. “No one else, mind you. Only Duquesne.” 

Part Three

Seven years later.


Captain Claude Stoughton

Around Thanksgiving in 1917, the head of the New York City Police Department’s bomb squad, Thomas J. Tunney, asked two of his detectives to begin investigating a certain Captain Claude Stoughton, a British officer who had served in the West Australian Light Horse division and was now stationed for a time in New York.

It’s unclear why exactly Tunney had taken an interest in Stoughton, though his suspicions seem to have grown out of an ongoing investigation of a recent explosion at a warehouse in Brooklyn. City authorities had also been approached about Captain Stoughton by a widow on Riverside Drive. America had entered World War I that April, and the woman was troubled by sympathetic comments about the Germans which she’d heard a slightly inebriated Stoughton make at parties, and even more so by the style of his mustache. He wore it “trained upward in imitation of the well known style affected by the German emperor,” she explained.

Tunney’s detectives began digging up what they could on the man. They obtained a photograph of him, a slender and handsome man in uniform, and learned that he lived in a second-floor apartment at 137 West 75th St. But an eventual search of the apartment produced photos of Stoughton dressed in other countries’ uniforms, too. Another photograph identified him as a war correspondent for a Belgian newspaper and showed him wearing his hair in florid curls. In another, he sat in tall grass and wore a thick black beard. Another pictured him with ammunition slung over his torso, standing over a dead white rhinoceros. (Clearly, Tunney wrote, the man “fancied photographs of himself, as he made up rather dashingly.”)

The trove of paperwork the detectives recovered was similarly fragmented and irreconcilable. There was an insurance policy for a staggering $80,000 worth of motion-picture film, taken out five years earlier, protecting against “fires, pirates, rovers, assailing thieves, jettison, barratry of the master and mariners and all other perils, losses and misfortunes.” There were newspaper articles—piles of them, which, according to The New York Times, detailed “practically every bomb explosion since the war began,” with a special focus on a ship called the SS Tennyson, which had blown up a year earlier, after leaving Brazil for New York. One of the clippings described an investigation into the Tennyson explosion that had led to a British safe-deposit box, where police seized $6,740 in cash in an envelope addressed to someone with the virtually unpronounceable name Piet Niacud.

Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet
Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet

The men had also obtained a program for a theatrical lecture staged seven years earlier. The cover featured a very small circular photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt in safari gear, and a much larger studio portrait of Captain Stoughton. The captain was wearing khakis and clutching the holster of his sidearm, while glaring dramatically into the middle distance as though he were stalking a lion. He was identified here by another name, one that had appeared in several other documents as well—including, most troublingly, a letter of introduction from a diplomat in Nicaragua, describing him as a man who had “in many circumstances rendered notable services to our good German cause.” The name was Fritz Duquesne.

“A thousand questions sprang up in our minds about the man,” Tunney remembered. They started following whatever leads they had. At some point, they reached out to a well-known adventurer in California who, according to a magazine clipping they’d found, had once appeared alongside Duquesne at a congressional hearing about hippopotamuses in March of 1910.



In 1917, Frederick Burnham was living in relative seclusion. Shortly before the First World War started, he’d sold the house in Pasadena and moved his family and in-laws to a ranch in Tulare County, California, backed up against Sequoia National Park. He felt that Pasadena had swollen into a stifling and crowded suburb. The ranch, which the Burnhams called La Cuesta, offered them privacy, space, and some very well-deserved peace.

The phase of Burnham’s life that had included the hippo hearing, seven years earlier, had been busy and stressful. While the New Food Supply Society was struggling to get off the ground, he was also traveling back and forth between Mexico and California, establishing copper mines and irrigation projects in the Yaqui Valley for a number of financiers, including the Guggenheim family, J. P. Morgan, and John Hays Hammond, a mining baron he befriended during his days in Rhodesia. Burnham considered Mexico “the most active region left in the world”—the next unruly frontier, rich with opportunities—and he was drawn to it just as he’d been drawn to the Southwest as a boy and Africa as a young man. But Mexico, too, eventually burst into violence. And when the Mexican Revolution began, in 1910, Burnham was called down to watch over Hammond’s interests; at one point, he would command an encampment of 500 armed men on the banks of the Yaqui.

The move to La Cuesta ranch presented him with yet another empty frontier to master and improve—but a tranquil one, on a smaller scale, far removed from any geopolitical violence. He imported white-tailed deer from Mexico and took pride in how they prospered. He introduced wild turkeys, peccaries, pheasants, and game bantams. The Burnhams were part of a small community of settlers living deep in the Sierras, widely dispersed—people who worked hard and made do on their own. Burnham thought of them as a “lost white tribe.”

“When the World War broke,” he remembered, “it was some time before the reality of it penetrated into our deep canyon.” But when it did, the lost tribe sprang into action. Young men filed out of the mountains to enlist and fight. “Elderly women walked four miles in the heat of summer over dusty mountain roads to knit and sew for soldiers over seas,” he wrote. This determination reassured Burnham. Otherwise, he was unsettled by the war. The new technological mode of warfare—the gassing, machine guns, and trenches—had “turned us all into military robots,” he wrote. He argued that the traditional skills and ethos of self-reliance that those old scouts had taught him as a boy remained as important as ever, and he worried that they were being lost.

Self-reliance was becoming an obsession of Burnham’s—the only sensible response to the growing disorder of the world. In the run-up to the war, he’d been extremely sympathetic to the so-called Preparedness Movement in America—the belief that conflict was inevitable and that President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t building a sufficiently large and capable military to handle it. Burnham and his friends traded letters about “Preparedness,” extolling it as an ideal, griping about the glaring unpreparedness of those around them. And in July of 1916, Burnham was listed as a grand marshal’s assistant in San Francisco’s Preparedness Day Parade.

The parade would be a stunning display of civic preparedness, featuring more than 50,000 marchers: 200 nurses in uniform; 500 physicians and surgeons; 200 optometrists and opticians, prepared to help the nation’s eyes; a vaudevillian actress, dressed as the Goddess of Preparedness; and a Division of Six-Footers, which was essentially a few rows of very tall people organized by a six-foot-four gentleman named J. R. Martin. But the day was disrupted by a terrorist attack. Antiwar, anti-preparedness radicals detonated a suitcase bomb shortly after the start of the parade, killing 10 and injuring 40. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the insolence that had begun churning in the world—the audacity it took to try and catch a Preparedness Day Parade by surprise.

Burnham kept preparing, however. In fact, he prepared more vigorously now. In early 1917, he enlisted as one of 18 lieutenants in a battalion of aging, able-bodied men from around the West that his friend Theodore Roosevelt had begun zealously organizing and was threatening to lead into battle himself if President Wilson continued to keep the nation’s military on the sidelines. By now, American writers had related Burnham’s feats in Africa, making him a famous war hero. But it gnawed at him that he’d never actually fought for his own country. He thought, at age 55, that he’d finally get his chance. But Roosevelt’s army never shipped out. It wasn’t until America finally joined the Great War in April 1917 that Burnham found an idiosyncratic opportunity to serve.

Manganese, a mineral used to make steel, had suddenly become invaluable during the war: a scarcity developed after shipments that the U.S. relied on, including German exports, were compromised or cut off. America scrambled after new exports from Brazil and other South American countries, but also took a hard look at its own potential reserves. The mineral had not been worth much during the gold and silver rushes, and engineers now began poring over old U.S. Geological Survey documents and historical maps, looking for any sign of deposits that the miners had skipped over.

Burnham attacked the problem differently. He began rounding up prospectors he’d encountered in his youth. They were wizened old nomads now, but, Burnham would remember, they’d retained an “indescribable spiritual quality” and “perennial optimism” that allowed them to “wander vaguely over the desert wastes with the patience of the burro and the imperturbability of the Sphinx.” Burnham began roaming the desert with these men, hunting for manganese. Many of them were able to lead Burnham back to deposits they remembered stumbling across years ago. Soon they were pulling manganese out of the hills in Nevada, from the sides of Mount Diablo, outside San Francisco, and from the belly of Southwestern deserts, and sending it off to be bolted into the flanks of the modern war machine. It was the only inheritance this nearly extinct species of American frontiersman could manage to leave: “the desert people’s best tribute to the nation,” as Burnham put it. For him, it was reassuring proof that old skills could still contribute in a new kind of war.

In other words, Burnham spent the years after Broussard’s congressional hearing essentially championing the same ideals he’d fought for in Washington: self-sufficiency and industriousness powered by an underlying optimism. As a young scout, he’d taught himself to stay awake for longer than seemed humanly possible by thwacking the back of his head with his fist if he started to nod off. Now, at the outset of the 20th century, America clearly had problems—horrible and frightening ones. But they seemed solvable to Burnham if the nation would only rap itself on the head with enough determination and force, if it would shout at itself to wake the hell up. His loyalty to this belief was unwavering. And in this way he was the perfect foil to his old nemesis, Fritz Duquesne—who during those same years, the New York City police detectives were now learning, had been slowly shedding his belief in everything. 


Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition 

Duquesne had worked hard to cobble together a small amount of notoriety and influence by the time he appeared at Broussard’s hippopotamus hearing, and as the New Food Supply Society bumped along, he was determined not to let any of it go. He branched off on his own, marshaling all his entrepreneurial energy to stay in the limelight. He wound up spiraling into darkness instead.

At first, Duquesne simply took the hippopotamus idea and built on it, eccentrically. In the spring of 1911, he organized a series of banquets in Washington and New York, likely as showcases for a potential animal-importing venture he was considering launching on his own. He served guests a menu of imported African springbok soup, dik-dik, and hippo croquettes. Next, he explored bringing elephants to Central and South America and selling them as beasts of burden. And after that, he came improbably close to staging an incomprehensible publicity stunt for an American matchstick manufacturer, wherein Duquesne would bring over a band of indigenous Peruvians and have them drive a herd of imported llamas across the eastern United States, from New York City to the company’s headquarters in Ohio.

 In 1913, however, Duquesne began planning a more promising business venture—one that apparently had started in earnest but would gradually contort into an ambitious and deadly con. Theodore Roosevelt was now organizing a follow-up to his African expedition: a long, daring journey to trace one of the Amazon’s tributaries through the Brazilian jungle. Duquesne saw another chance to capitalize on the public’s fascination with Roosevelt’s adventures, just as he’d done with his lectures during Roosevelt’s safari.

He started canvassing acquaintances, and then acquaintances of acquaintances, for money to produce Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition. It would be part movie, part lecture; he’d travel through the jungle with his wife Alice, filming the same sorts of things that Roosevelt would encounter, then narrate his footage live on stage. (Duquesne first encountered Alice while locked up in the British prison camp in Bermuda—she was the daughter of an American bureaucrat stationed there. It was a classic meet cute: he was resting under a tree, taking a break from his chain gang, when a ball from her tennis game came rolling toward him.) Duquesne eventually secured funding from the Thanhouser Film Corporation and the Goodyear tire company—he’d apparently agreed to do some rubber hunting in South America on the side—and agreed to deliver the finished travelogue in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, in 1915. He bought 20,000 feet of film, at four dollars a foot, and insured the lot of it before sailing out of New York, thereby generating the policy that Tunney’s detectives would discover in his apartment four years later.

Apparently, not one foot of the film was ever used. World War I began shortly after the Duquesnes left New York, in the summer of 1914. The details are foggy, but President Wilson’s initial insistence that the United States remain neutral seems to have disillusioned and enraged the Black Panther. Duquesne’s contempt for England, forged during the Second Boer War, was so overpowering that, in his mind, the only conscionable response to the outbreak of the Great War was for America to team up with Germany and crush the British Empire. In short, he hated Britain so much that he would hate any nation that refused to hate it, too. According to his biographer Clement Wood, Duquesne’s attitude became: “There are no good Americans except the anti-English ones.”

Duquesne sent Alice back home on a ship from Brazil, then went to the German consulate and offered up his services as a spy and saboteur. He started hanging around the docks in disguise. From then on, Duquesne would move through life in a cloud of aliases. These included Frederick Barron, Colonel Bezin, F. Crabbs, Colonel Marquis Duquesne, Fred Buquesne, J. Q. Farn, Berthold Szabo, Von Goutard, Vam Dam, Fritters, Worthy, and Jim. Some people knew him as the Handsomest Man in Europe.

But now, on the docks, Duquesne morphed into a frumpy and feeble middle-aged botanist from the Netherlands who walked wrenched over in a stoop and wore thick, unflattering glasses. He called himself Frederick Fredericks.

As Fredericks, Duquesne hung out in bars, sidling up to drunk English sailors and offering them bribes to carry rare orchid bulbs to his friends and relatives abroad. But the packages contained explosives; Duquesne would later claim to have sunk 22 ships and started 100 dock fires during this time.

Most famously, Duquesne would claim responsibility for the destruction of the HMS Hampshire, a British ship that sank west of the Orkney Islands, in northern Scotland, in 1916, killing more than 600 men aboard, including Duquesne’s old nemesis Lord Kitchener, now Britain’s secretary of war. (Clement Wood’s 1932 biography, titled The Man Who Killed Kitchener, relays as truth Duquesne’s totally fabricated account of how he supposedly infiltrated the Hampshire, posing as a young Russian count named Boris Zakrevsky, then signaled a German U-boat to take the ship down.) But, as Frederick Burnham later pointed out, much of what Duquesne actually accomplished during his time in South America was likely to disrupt outgoing shipments of manganese—exacerbating the problem that Burnham and his tribe of prospectors would file into the desert to solve. That is, the two adversaries still somehow managed to lock themselves in an oblique, intercontinental standoff—Frederick Burnham versus Frederick Fredericks, with one man racing to rebuild what the other was breaking apart.

In February 1916, Duquesne packed the film from his aborted motion-picture project into a trunk and registered it as cargo aboard the SS Tennyson, a British ship heading for New York. Then he went about engineering the ship’s destruction.

Maybe there was no film in the trunk; maybe it was filled with explosives instead. Or maybe they were in the six boxes labeled “Minerals,” which, investigators came to believe, Duquesne had also stashed aboard the Tennyson. But something on the ship exploded as it approached the equator. Three sailors were killed in the fire. Before long, a clerk who claimed to be a co-conspirator was captured by British intelligence and gave up Duquesne’s name. He also led authorities to the safety-deposit box and the envelope full of money waiting for “Piet Niacud.” “Niacud” was “Duquesne” spelled backward phonetically.

Duquesne was now wanted for murder by the British. But before long, on April 27, word came in The New York Times that Duquesne had himself been murdered. He was traveling through the Bolivian frontier when his party was raided by “hostile Indians.” Then, two weeks after that, a second dispatch in the Times reported that he was, in fact, alive—that, though badly wounded, he’d heroically fought off the vicious Bolivian raiders and escaped. The world, it seemed, had underestimated the tenacity of Fritz Duquesne.

But the truth was, there were no Bolivians and there was no attack. Duquesne seems to have faked his own death, then regretted the decision and miraculously resurrected himself. According to Inspector Tunney’s account, police eventually discovered that the first wire report from Buenos Aires, telling the Times of Duquesne’s death, had been filed with the byline “Frederick Fredericks.” 




By the beginning of 1917, Duquesne was a suspected murderer and a fugitive, a fake film producer and a formerly dead botanist, and likely still a German spy. But it was taking American authorities time to piece all this together, and Duquesne was either audacious or reckless enough not to care if they did. That summer, he resurfaced in Washington, D.C., and was very quietly puttering around under his own name, trying desperately to latch onto some kind of living.

Duquesne connected with Horace Ashton, an old friend whose photographs had illustrated some of his hunting articles. Ashton did his best to help Duquesne, even putting him up for a job as a U.S. censor and propagandist for the war effort. Ashton later explained to police that he’d only learned Duquesne was back in the country by chance. During a visit to Washington from New York, Ashton had taken a beautiful young secretary to dinner. The woman later wrote to him: “You may be interested to know that Captain Duquesne is in Washington, but does not want it to be known.” She was Robert Broussard’s secretary—the former congressman, now senator, from Louisiana. Apparently, Duquesne had reached out to his old comrade from the New Food Supply Society, too. And Broussard, presumably in the dark about Duquesne’s recent activities, had also tried to help, coming close to getting him hired doing low-level clerical work under the “acting quarter-master general and director of purchases, storage and traffic” of the U.S. Army.

After a while, however, Duquesne must have started to seem like a lost cause—broke and unemployable. Ashton brought him back to New York and let him crash at his apartment—the second-floor flat on West 75th Street. There, Duquesne attempted to get back on the lecture circuit. But the zeitgeist had changed. His old material was irrelevant now—the public wasn’t interested in learning about African safaris, only in hearing Allied war heroes tell battle yarns. And so Duquesne transformed himself into Captain Claude Stoughton, a nervy and debonair military man who had, his promotional materials claimed, “perhaps seen more of the war than any man at present before the public.” Stoughton had been bayoneted three times, gassed four times, and stuck once with a hook.

Captain Stoughton’s career took off. His talks made decent money, his heroism earned him respect, and ladies found him alluring. Interesting people invited him to parties. Duquesne was wrenching his way back into society. His invented persona had such magnetism and such possibility, in fact, that he began deploying his alter-ego in a wide variety of personal appearances. Claude Stoughton was a gifted booster, brimming with pep and dynamism, and he seemed willing to promote any cause if it kept the admiration and affection flowing. This even included making speeches to pull in donations for the Red Cross and to sell Liberty Bonds. Stoughton would appear uniformed, before crowds of devoted American patriots, and belt out slogans like, “We must have dollars as well as men in the fight for freedom!” The irascible Black Panther, whose contempt for England had metastasized so completely that he’d gone to work blowing up ships for the Germans, was now raising money for the Allied war machine.

The biographer Art Ronnie writes, “It is difficult to explain the paradox of Fritz Duquesne at this time.” This is an almost preposterous understatement, but also, ultimately, as truthful and illuminating as one can be. There’s a cynical way to read Duquesne’s activities in New York: that he was up to no good, running some diabolical con that would eventually throw the world he’d infiltrated into chaos, just as it always did. But it’s also possible that Duquesne simply liked the attention, the performance. And maybe he liked it so much that he wouldn’t allow even his deepest and most sinister principles to break him out of character—because his character’s life was so much more gratifying than the remnants of his own.

Ronnie describes him as “an arrogant prisoner of his own ego.” He had stopped caring about anything except his own glorification. The Black Panther was an adrenaline junkie and a nihilist now. There was nothing he wouldn’t get behind, and there was nothing he wouldn’t destroy.

Duquesne was arrested in New York on December 8, 1917. He was charged with insurance fraud. Investigators alleged that, aside from orchestrating a scheme to claim the insurance money for the film he blew up on the Tennyson, he was also running a similar, parallel fraud—one that accounted for Inspector Tunney’s original arson case in Brooklyn. While in South America, Duquesne apparently agreed to produce educational movies for an Argentine board of education, bought $24,000 worth of film on his return to New York, insured it, stashed it in the Brooklyn warehouse, then set off an explosion that burned the building down.

Duquesne was held in a city jail for months as the fraud charges knotted into complicated legal cases, and the British haggled for his extradition for the explosion aboard the Tennyson. He started behaving erratically. His appearance changed. The alluring glint in his eye turned into something wilder. So did his hair. He started blathering nonsensically.

This transformation was met with skepticism, of course. In May 1918, a judge ordered a three-person “lunacy commission” to assess his condition and issue a “lunacy report.” Duquesne appeared at the commission’s hearing ranting and unhinged, shouting orders at the doctors who’d come to testify as though he were commanding them in battle. The lunacy commission sent him to a state mental hospital in Beacon, New York, exiling him alongside a man who whistled constantly, believing he was a train, and another man who, Ronnie writes, “said he was not Napoleon but Napoleon’s tomb.” At some point, Duquesne’s wife, Alice, visited, shook his hand through the bars, then divorced him. It was “obvious he had gone German,” she said.

Soon, Duquesne’s body stopped working as well. In court one day, he collapsed and claimed to be suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. This elicited even more cynicism from the government, but when doctors stuck pins in his legs and under his toenails—torturing him, in short, to prove he was malingering—Duquesne never once wriggled or winced.

And so he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital on a stretcher and installed in the very last bed of a long, secure ward. He had a view of First Avenue through a window with three iron bars. He slept with his blanket over his face and every day asked to be set by the window in a wheelchair so he could watch the birds. The nurses adored him and would lift his slack body wherever it needed to go. He got lighter and lighter. He read the newspaper with a pair of pinhole glasses he improvised out of cardboard. The birds started eating out of his hand. He wasn’t an old man, but he seemed like one. Then one night he escaped.

Duquesne had managed to acquire two small hacksaw blades and had been quietly going at the window bars day after day as he sat in his wheelchair. Eventually, he got all the way through two of them and, just past midnight on Tuesday, May 27, 1919, four days before he would finally have been extradited to England, Duquesne squeezed out.

He’d been faking paralysis for seven months. (Later he claimed to have been vigorously massaging his legs, to keep his muscles conditioned, during his twice-daily visits to the bathroom.) After wiggling through the window, he leaped six feet onto the roof of a neighboring ice house, or perhaps shimmied down using a blanket as a rope. Then he leaped again from there to the ground. And still “even this display of agility,” reported The New York Times, “did not give him his liberty.” Duquesne was then “forced to climb a brick wall about six feet high and an iron fence with menacing spikes, about eight feet high.” Then, after he’d done all that, he lurched down 27th Street toward the Hudson River, hopped a ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey, and disappeared.

The wiliness and determination of it all was jaw dropping. Duquesne had waited patiently until he’d receded to near invisibility, then pounced. It was a classic Black Panther performance. It must have killed him that no one was around to see it.

A month later, in fact, Duquesne messengered a letter to a friend in New York, purporting to lay out the dramatic mechanics of his escape. The operation involved two swashbuckling, fictitious accomplices and a foreign sports car zooming away in the night. The letter was a kind of press release; Duquesne wanted his friend to get the story published. “Nota bene,” he wrote. “As many papers as possible. Keep clippings.”


Taking Chances

There are no herds of hippopotamuses in Louisiana. As far as I can tell, not one ever set foot in the bayous of the Gulf Coast. The idea was never exactly defeated but seems merely to have evaporated unspectacularly over a very long period of time.

In March 1911, a full year after the committee hearing, Frederick Russell Burnham traveled to Washington to meet with Congressman Broussard again about the hippo idea. They decided that Broussard would reintroduce his bill that spring, and in the meantime Burnham would lead an exploratory trip to Africa, scouting out other good candidate species for importation to strengthen their case. He would leave as soon as possible.

“We are serious in the movement, and I am confident of the success of the project,” Burnham told the Washington Herald. A year earlier, the New Food Supply Society had seemed awash in goodwill from the public and the press. But America had apparently turned more skeptical now; as Burnham gave interviews around Washington and New York that week, he sounded increasingly pained to stress the sincerity and value of their vision. He kept trotting out his imported-reindeer and ostrich-farm examples as proof of concept. Finally, he just told one reporter: “I have spent 11 years in Africa, and I have had two years of experience in British East Africa and have traveled about and led expeditions into the interior, so I know the lay of the land pretty well, and I think I know what we are doing,” and left it at that.

Burnham never sailed for Africa, however. He was forced to cancel his expedition at the last minute, when the revolution in Mexico escalated and his business partners called on him to protect their investments along the Yaqui River. Even so, he kept sending Broussard encouragement and information: tips he’d elicited from a famous German circus master for shipping wild animals long distances; photos of the ostriches at Cawston’s Ostrich Farms in Pasadena, with an assurance that “if that strange and erratic bird can be handled and domesticated,” then the other “magnificent animals of Africa” could be, too. Broussard, meanwhile, made one set of meticulous political calculations after another about the society’s next move, postponing the introduction of his bill from one upcoming session of Congress to the next. But he’d soon leave the House for the Senate. Then, in 1918, he passed away.

W. N. Irwin, the Agriculture Department bureaucrat—the old man who had told The Washington Post, “I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”—died within a year of his appearance at Broussard’s congressional hearing. Scientific papers that Irwin had written continued to appear long after his death, drifting into journals like whispers from a particularly petulant ghost. One, published in 1914, proposed importing a breed of pygmy hippo instead of the larger variety, because it would be easier to control. Another made the case for turkey eggs, which even in death, apparently, Irwin found to be superior.

Eventually, officials at the Department of Agriculture contradicted Irwin’s reasoning in the press, insisting that hippos were a terrible idea and that America ought to work instead to turn those useless-seeming marshes into grassy pastures, then give the South beef cattle to raise on that reclaimed land. Because people ate beef. Because beef was a normal meat to eat.

And that’s essentially how America did choose to break through the Malthusian barrier that the New Food Supply Society saw coming in 1910. Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times—an overblown, reeking grotesque of the exact conditions the water hyacinth was creating there, far more modestly, in Broussard’s time. Meanwhile, the flower continues to cause problems. The state of Louisiana alone spends $2 million a year spraying herbicides at it.

These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen—consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.

I’m not arguing that America would be a better or more beautiful place if it had imported hippopotamuses in 1910. But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident in its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much about how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places where there were no hippopotamuses.

Somewhere along the way, our politics, and maybe our psyches, too, became stunted by a certain insecurity—by the fear that someone is quietly sneering at us, just waiting to skewer and betray us if we take a bold chance. Who knows how we became so guarded. And maybe it’s naive to think that we weren’t back then. But the fact is, Robert Broussard’s bill did exist. It was discussed and debated. There was a window when anything was possible. Then the window closed. In retrospect, it’s hard to even pinpoint a moment when America said no to hippopotamuses. There were just too many moments when it failed to say yes.

In the end, Frederick Burnham and Fritz Duquesne stood at either end of a spectrum—a spectrum where optimism shaded slowly into cynicism. The petering out of the hippo scheme, and the horrible reality of world war that arose on its heels, may have been a point when America took a step away from Burnham and toward Duquesne; when we became just a little more convinced that modern life would be governed by the sinister logic of a Black Panther and not the lucid vision of a scout. Some orchid bulbs are actually explosives. Some paralyzed people can secretly walk.

Summarizing the whole episode at the end of his life, Burnham wrote that, in his memory, the difficulty with the animal-importation plan started with one particular congressman’s objection. The man had argued that, if exotic species like the hippo were introduced for the common good, wealthy, self-interested hunters would simply sneak in and kill the animals for trophies. It was inevitable, the congressman said—betraying a conviction that people are basically sly and opportunistic, and should never be trusted.

You can call that cynicism or you can call it realism. But it’s the attitude that’s given us a hundred years of hippopotamuslessness in America.

In the summer of 1943, a man named Mart Bushnell visited Frederick Burnham at his home in California. Burnham was 82, still four years away from his death, and accustomed to visitors. Men who had read about his exploits as boys kept turning up to meet the old scout before he died. They were never disappointed. Bushnell, after his own pilgrimage, wrote: “Frequently, these almost legendary characters fail to measure up to expectations—but not Major Burnham. He surpassed even the highly colorful adventurer he has become in my own imagination.” Burnham still had a thick head of hair, nearly all his teeth, and a mind that was as quick and focused as ever. Most of all, Bushnell was taken by the same enduring quality of Burnham’s eyes: “clear, steady, and almost magnetic in their probing,” he called them.

Bushnell was visiting on business from the Boy Scouts of America. Burnham was not only a longtime member of the group’s National Council but a model for the entire organization—the original Boy Scout. The group’s founder, the Englishman Lord Robert Baden-Powell, had been one of Burnham’s commanders in Africa and was so impressed by his friend’s integrity and ability that he aspired to build an institution to raise generations of similarly capable men. The Boy Scouts wore neckerchiefs because Burnham had always worn one in the desert. Their motto, “Be Prepared,” couldn’t have been a clearer distillation of his beliefs.

Bushnell had come to discuss the creation of a Major Frederick Burnham Medal for Frontiering and Scouting Skills. And, he’d learn, Burnham had very strong opinions about what should be required to earn such an honor: Boys, he felt, should demonstrate mastery of everything from “stalking and evasion” to “axemanship,” and should have to hike in isolation for two days and nights with almost no food, foraging for wild vegetables. In short, Bushnell reported back to headquarters, Burnham was disappointed that the Boy Scouts weren’t doing more to put America’s youth through the kind of intensive training that the old scouts like Holmes had put him through in the deserts of Arizona as a kid nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Major Burnham, Bushnell explained, was “vitally concerned with the virility of the country’s future man power.”

America was now in the throes of a second, gruesome world war—“war to the nth degree,” Burnham called it. “It is beyond shallow emotion, beyond good and evil as commonly reckoned.” And yet, he argued, “not even the world-wide harvest of death need dismay us.… In spite of war’s present black-out, the future is certain to be brighter than all the ages past.” Somehow his optimism was still unflinching, and he projected it, almost tangibly, into the space around him. Bushnell told his superiors that his visit with Burnham was “one of the most stirring experiences of my life. How I wish every boy in America could feel the impact of this wonderful fellow’s personality!”

Burnham was also a wealthy man now. Twenty-five years earlier, he and his son Roderick had struck oil on an overlooked piece of land between Los Angeles and Long Beach. He used the money to buy three adjacent houses in a new neighborhood being built on the bucolic fringes of Los Angeles. Roderick and his oldest daughter’s family moved into two of the houses, and Burnham and Blanche took the third. Directly above it, on a scrubby, mostly desolate hillside that Burnham said reminded him of the landscapes of Rhodesia, was propped a tremendous white “O”—part of a sign to advertise the new real estate. The developers were calling the area “Hollywoodland.”

Burnham built a study for himself on the first floor and filled one wall with dozens of framed portraits of the friends and mentors who had influenced his life: Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes with his dog, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the forward-thinking forester and conservationist in Roosevelt’s administration who’d championed Burnham’s animal-importation scheme since he took his first crack at it in Washington. The New York Times had once claimed that Burnham’s story was one “no novelist could write because of its seeming incredibility.” (Ernest Hemingway and Cecil B. DeMille, however, would later both be working on screenplays about Burnham at the time of their deaths.) But now Burnham committed to setting it all down himself, and would spend much of his last years at his desk, a large ornate map of Africa behind him, writing simple essays and remembrances. In 1943, he collected these pieces into a book, printed a few hundred copies, inscribed each, and distributed them personally to friends. “Dear Pinchot,” he wrote in one. “Once upon a time we took an active part in trying to save this nation from starvation. Hippo meat would now be welcome.”

Burnham called the book Taking Chances. The title came from an Ohio senator who had said: “It is the spirit of venture, of taking chances, that has built America. Without it we cannot go forward, with it we cannot fail.” One of the chapters in Taking Chances, “The Totem of the Black Panther,” was about Fritz Duquesne. Duquesne was now in his late sixties and had just begun serving a 20-year sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. The Black Panther had reappeared briefly after his hospital escape, posing as a New York City vaudeville critic named Major Fred Craven, but subsequently disappeared again. Then, in 1941, after two years of FBI surveillance—of tailing Duquesne on the streets of Manhattan and orchestrating meetings between him and a double-agent in a bugged office in Times Square—the government arrested Duquesne as the alleged leader of a 33-person Nazi spy syndicate. The so-called Duquesne Spy Ring included a thuggish Gestapo operative trying to foment strikes among American workers, an aging male librarian, and a seductive figure skater named Lilly Barbara Carola Stein. The Bureau accused Duquesne of coordinating the syndicate’s communications with Germany, sending the Third Reich technical information about military gas masks, fuel tanks, airplanes, and munitions, and plotting to start fires at American industrial sites. Prosecutors produced his communiqués as evidence: the Black Panther had stamped each with an inky, attacking cat.

J. Edgar Hoover bragged that the operation that led to Duquesne’s arrest was the most ambitious and well-executed spy roundup in American history, and it produced what is still considered the nation’s largest espionage case. In the arc of Duquesne’s life, however, it amounted to just another con—a final, eccentric, and ham-fisted epic. His FBI file described him this way: “Excellent talker with captivating personality. Inveterate liar. Sexual pervert.”

“His doom fills me with sadness,” Burnham wrote of his old adversary in Taking Chances. He had tried to redeem Duquesne, and was still hopeful that some empathetic and perceptive historian might one day absolve the Boer by showing he was merely “a product of the extreme hate to which we have all contributed, and for which we continue to pay the price.” Burnham still kept a letter from Duquesne in his desk in the Hollywoodland study: “To my friendly enemy,” it read, “the greatest scout in the world, whose eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.” And among those portraits on the wall, he’d hung an old, framed picture of the Panther, too—just a reedy, awkward boy in his first military uniform, looking sideways.

Burnham was organizing his papers at the time, as well—preparing them, and the singular life they chronicled, for posterity in archives at Stanford and Yale. One day in 1944, he came across a typescript of the speech he had given to the Humane Association at the hotel in Pasadena, 34 years earlier, while advocating for Broussard’s bill. There in the text was his younger self, ardently challenging his audience to recognize that the “complacent belief in the unending plenty of our natural wealth” had now been obviously disproven, but also unveiling an idea that could restore that feeling of promise in America—one that just made so much sense but would require working against “overwhelming difficulties and the loud guffaws of the ignorant” to make a reality.

Burnham read the speech over. His hand shook with age, but he pressed hard and scrawled a note across the top:

“The facts are still unrefuted” signed, “FRB – 1944.”


Note on Sources

All events described and dialogue quoted in American Hippopotamus are drawn from congressional transcripts, first-person accounts, personal letters, contemporaneous newspaper and magazine stories, scientific journals, and published biographies of the subjects. These include the books Scouting on Two Continents and Taking Chances, by Frederick Russell Burnham; Counterfeit Hero: Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy, by Art Ronnie; The Man Who Killed Kitchener, by Clement Wood; Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis; He-Who-Sees-In-the-Dark: The Boys’ Story of Frederick Burnham, the American Scout, by James E. West and Peter O. Lamb; In Meat We Trust, by Maureen Ogle; and The Boer War: A History, by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge.

Much material was also drawn from the Robert F. Broussard papers, at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Frederick Russell Burnham Papers, split between the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Thanks to I. Bruce Turner for his research assistance in Lafayette and to Caitlin Verboon for her research assistance in New Haven.

Finally, personal communications with Rod Atkinson, a great-grandson of Frederick Russell Burnham’s, and documents he provided were invaluable. Thanks to Rod for his help and enthusiasm for the project, as well as to Captain Russell Burnham of the U.S. Army, another great-grandson of “The Major.”