200 Years of Illinois: Goodbye Norma Jean

On July 17, 1972, disaster struck in Oquawka, for on that day a bolt from dark skies struck down a 6,500-lb. elephant named Norma Jean.

The star of the Clark & Walters Circus, Norma Jean had journeyed to the little Mississippi River town as part of a showbiz institution that went back over fifty years. A roustabout named Possum Red cared for the elephant and was leading her away when the lightning bolt struck. Possum Red awakened on the ground thirty feet away, according to the stories.

Norma Jean did not survive. Neither did the Clark & Walters Circus. The circus business was a hard enough dollar, what with rising transport costs, and then the business lost its star.

You might wonder: just what do you do with a 6,500-lb. elephant carcass that’s laying there in your town? It sounds like Oquawkans wondered, too. Soon they laid the elephant to rest in a large grave where the pachyderm had died. But the memory lingered on. I think we would agree that any elephant struck by lightning in your town was destined to become a part of local history. Wade Meloan, a local pharmacist, often drove by the grave, then put up a marker commemorating the event. In time he raised enough money to purchase the a Norma Jean monument that, after some repairs, remains an Oquawka landmark.