ALDERSON, W.Va. (WTRF) — Many towns in West Virginia have a notable figure that everyone knows and lives on through tales and legends for years to come. One town in particular had a four-legged resident who is still remembered 130 years later.
In Alderson, West Virginia, that resident was a rare African Lion that stole the hearts of the community.
It all started on Oct. 4, 1890, when, according to e-WV, the traveling circus “French & Company’s Gret Railroad Show” arrived in Alderson. While the troupe was stopped, a lioness traveling with the show gave birth to three cubs. Mr. French, the owner, did not want to waste time or money to raise them and ordered an employee to drown them in the river.
According to the story, Susan Bebout, the town’s blacksmith’s wife, saw the worker and offered to take the cubs, taking one and giving the others to women in the village. She named the cub French after the circus owner, wrapped him in a red flannel, and stuck him with her housecat.
French was the only cub to survive the separation from their mother and weighed over 150 lbs by summer. French did not like being confined and would frequently escape to roam the town of Alderson. He would silently walk up to people, surprising them with head boops.
Even though French did not hurt anyone, e-WV says that residents complained, prompting the city to pass an ordinance that stated all lions in town must be leashed. Bebout would face fines if French wandered the streets alone.
Because French could not be contained on the Bebout’s property, they sold him to the new National Zoological Park in Washington for $300, where he became the zoo’s first African lion. He was a popular feature at the zoo but was traded to the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1894, where he spent the rest of his life.
The town has not forgotten the legend of French, the African Lion. Throughout the small city, you can see lion statues proudly displayed on the properties of residents, and a metal sculpture was commissioned by Michael Loop in 2017.
The site even became the first site for a Legends & Lore marker in West Virginia.