AMONG the graves of Wearsiders who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars stands a memorial to a very different fighter – Martini Maccomo.
African-born Martini didn’t fight in the trenches of France, nor did he take to the air in the Battle of Britain, but he did spend most of his days defying death.
For week after week, month after month and year after year, the showman risked his life to battle lions and tigers – all in the name of entertainment.
When his end finally came, however, it wasn’t at the paws of ferocious beasts. Instead, he succumbed to rheumatic fever and died at the Palatine Hotel in Sunderland.
An inscription on his memorial stone at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, which stands within the Commonwealth Graves area of the site, reads: “This stone is erected by Mr William Manders, proprietor of the Grand National Star Menageries, as a tribute of regard for an old friend and faithful servant.”
Legend has it that Martini Maccomo was born in Angola in around 1835/6, although it has been claimed by some historians that he was actually a Liverpool-born sailor.
Whatever his early history, however, it is known that he was recruited by showman William Manders in the 1850s, going on to perform with the Grand National Mammoth Menagerie.
Manders was a master of entertainment, bringing exotic animals such as camels, elks, elephants and monkeys to the British public for the first time – to great delight.
But it was the chance to see a real-life lion tamer at work which really brought in the crowds, especially as it seemed that at any moment Martini could become pet food.
Thousands flocked to watch the “African Lion King” in action as he toured the country. Within months, his daredevil actions had made Martini a household name.
But his act, which involved chasing 20 angry tigers and lions around a ring with a whip – while shooting a gun – was not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, bites were a hazard of the job.
During two shows in Norwich in January 1860 ,Martini was attacked by one of the lions. Just a few months later, while performing in Liverpool, he was mauled by a tiger.
Such was his professionalism, however, it was at first thought to be part of the act. Finally, after four minutes with his head stuck in the tiger’s mouth, Martini was freed.
Over the next decade, the lion tamer was repeatedly attacked in pursuit of entertainment. Indeed, his lions and tigers proved so dangerous that they even killed among themselves.
But so legendary was Martini’s control over the animals that he was presented with wilder and wilder beasts to tame, including a Bengal tiger – given to him in Scotland in 1866.
The Bengal immediately launched itself at another of Martini’s animals after arriving in Dalkeith, fastening its teeth around the throat of a tiger which had been performing for years.
But, according to the Nottinghamshire Guardian of June 1866, the “arrival of Maccomo on the scene quickly altered the aspect of affairs.
“Without a moment’s hesitation – except to load a revolver and arm himself with Yankee knuckle-dusters – the intrepid African stepped in to separate the bloodthirsty combatants.
“Immediately, the Bengal made towards Maccomo and, with a terrific roar, sprang upon him. Maccomo fired his revolver, the ball cartridge taking effect in the right forefront of the tiger.
“It appeared to recover quickly and, with eyes like flaming balls of fire, again sprang at Maccomo – who this time caught him full in the face with the knuckle-dusters.”
The tiger was down, but not out. After a moment or so, it hurled itself at Martini again, knocking him to the ground with a “crushing blow”.
“It was suspected that it was all over for the African, and that his being torn to pieces would only be a few minutes’ work on the part of the tiger,” added the Nottinghamshire Guardian.
“However, one of the other tigers – a great favourite of Maccomo’s – seeing the African helpless, at once fastened on to his assailant and a desperate combat ensued.”
Martini lived to see another day – but the attacks kept coming. Indeed, in 1868, the showman was mauled by a lion called Wallace while playing to packed houses in Sunderland.
“Martini survived the attack, but Sunderland proved to be an unlucky place for him. In 1871, he caught a fever and died in the Palatine Hotel,” said local historian Carol Robertson.
“Wallace lived on until 1875, when he died at the age of 13. He was bought by the museum in 1879 and has been standing guard there ever since. He is now a well-loved institution.”