Maccomo the lion tamer: the daredevil whose luck ran out in Sunderland

It’s reasonable to say that lion taming is something of a dissipating trade. You’re unlikely to become acquainted with such a professional during a random chat with a stranger down the pub.

Sunday, 19th September 2021, 5:00 am

The use of wild animals in circuses was banned in the UK in 2019, after it finally dawned there was not even a partially cogent argument in favour of continuing it.

But in the 19th century, before any thought was given to how miserable life might be for the creatures in question, lion tamers were big stars.

One of the most famous, as well as being the first known black person to tame lions to provide entertainment, died in Sunderland where he is also buried, thousands of miles from his African home.

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The famous lion tamer died in Sunderland and is, for some reason, buried in the Commonwealth war graves section of Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

Maccomo’s sketchy early life

At least, he might have had an African home. Martini Maccomo, best remembered by his stage name Maccomo, was probably born in Angola at some point in the 1830s, although he may have been a sailor from the West Indies.

He may also have been born in Liverpool with the real name Arthur Williams. This is hopefully untrue. The exotic and glamorous veneer of this daring young man would be seriously compromised if it was firmly established he was really a Scouser called Arthur.

Still, at the very least he must have travelled considerably, as opportunities undergo lion taming training were severely limited in 19th century Merseyside.

The great Maccomo - lion tamer extraordinaire.

According to the 1875 book The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs by Thomas Frost, Maccomo turned up at Greenwich Fair in London one day.

He: “Accosted one of the musicians, saying that he was a sailor just returned from a voyage, and would like a berth in the show.

“His appearance and confident manner impressed the showman favourably, and, on his being allowed to enter the lion's cage, at his own request, he displayed so much address and ability to control the animals that he was engaged at once.”

Engaging the services of a lion tamer would eventually require a more meticulous recruitment procedure.

Wallace the lion attacked Maccomo in 1868.

Maccomo becomes a big star

Maccomo was an instant hit. The Victorians enjoyed nothing more than seeing someone provoking ferocious animals, thereby risking a horrifying yet thoroughly entertaining death; so the Angolan / West Indian / Liverpudlian daredevil went down a storm.

His boss at the Grand National Mammoth Menagerie, William Manders, gave him a little respite from strenuous mortal combat with lions. He was asked to provoke tigers instead.

Two tigers, one of which had form for taking human life, were fighting in a cage: “Upon which Maccomo entered the cage, armed only with a riding-whip, and attempted to separate them.

For some reason, Maccomo lies in the Commonwealth war graves section of Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

“His efforts caused both the tigers to turn their fury upon him, and they severely lacerated him.”

This must have smarted a bit, but: “Covered with blood as he was, he continued the struggle for supremacy until the beasts cowered before him, and he was able, with the assistance of the keepers, to separate them.”

Thus did his fame spread. Among his showbiz titles was “The African Wild Beast Tamer”. He had a few other descriptions on posters too which pertained to ethnicity and were, let’s say, deemed acceptable 150 years ago.

Wallace the lion takes exception

Maccomo was a teetotaller. Some may have preferred Dutch courage, but surely he was right to be as compos mentis as possible in his line of work.

This didn’t prevent further attacks. In Liverpool in 1861 a Bengal tigress became reluctant to release his hand from her mouth. After five minutes a keeper saved him by pressing a hot iron bar against the animal’s teeth.

A poster for Maccomo during his lion taming heyday.

The following year Maccomo lost part of a finger in Norwich when a lion dragged him by the hand across the floor.

But his most memorable difference of opinion with a big cat came in Sunderland in 1868, when he performed alongside the famous Wallace the lion. Wallace took exception to the whip and attacked Maccomo, leaving him badly mauled.

Although Maccomo recovered, the lion would outlive him by three years. However, Wallace was eventually consigned to spend eternity standing guard over a 1986 Nissan Bluebird in Sunderland Museum.

Maccomo was to die in Sunderland. Perhaps surprisingly, no lions were present when it happened.

Death and burial in Sunderland

He was a guest at the Palatine Hotel, where the Mowbray Apartments now stand and had reportedly been suffering from rheumatic fever, although he may have died from epilepsy. His headstone gives his age as 32, but that seems to be little more than an educated guess.

That headstone, upon which he is described as “The Lion Hunter”, was paid for by his boss, William Manders, a fact we cannot doubt.

The delightful menagerie owner had his own name engraved on the stone with equal prominence to Maccomo’s. The lower half of the epitaph is tantamount to an advert.

Nor did Mr Manders waste any time in replacing his stricken star. An Irishman called Thomas Macarte stepped in. Macarte had already donated his left arm to a lion, but was undeterred. He too would be dead within a year, lacerated to death by the beasts during a performance in Bolton.

Maccomo is buried in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. What’s unusual about his final resting place is that it’s in the Commonwealth war graves section, beautifully tended and in the perfectly straight lines we expect at such sites.

He lies next to young servicemen who lost their lives in World War Two, 70 years or so after the lion tamer’s death. We have yet to establish why this should be. No one seems to have an issue with it, but it does seem very strange.

Which is perhaps fitting. Martini Maccomo must be one of the least ordinary people in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

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