EDITOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to the office of Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (4th District, Missouri) for providing the legislative history on the American Hippo Bill.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good ol’ slab of hippo bacon? What could be better than a Sunday slow-cooker hippo roast? Isn’t your mouth watering right now for some charcoal-roasted hippo steaks?
OK, perhaps the flesh of hippos isn’t at the top of your list of culinary favorites. The mere prospect seems a bit too odd to even comprehend. That may be the way it is now, but things could have been quite a bit different. Once upon a time, public sentiment called for the creation of vast herds of hippopotamuses to populate America’s wilderness. Had it not been for a peculiar twist of fate, your next visit to a McDonald’s might have gotten you a McHippo Burger.
Take a look at the American Hippo Bill and how close we came to having hippos take over the southeastern United States.
Meat Scarcity and Growing Anxiety
The first decade of the twentieth century was marked by perplexing problems and grandiose thinking. One of the biggest problems was a meat shortage. The population of the United States was exploding, with the cities leading the way in growth. Providing a steady supply of meat for more and more mouths preoccupied government planners. In the past, shortages in resources could always be overcome by opening new frontiers. As far as North America was concerned, new frontiers were disappearing. Prognosticators sounded the alarm that the country would soon reach the point where there would not be enough open land to support sufficient livestock to feed the nation.
At this critical moment in U.S. history, two larger-than-life figures appeared on the stage. If the best Hollywood scriptwriters had attempted to come up with the leading characters for this drama, they would not have been able to outdo the men who embodied the American Hippo Movement.
“The Most Complete Human Being Who Ever Lived”
Nearly everyone who met Frederick Russell Burnham was impressed by him. The man was dashing in appearance, charismatic in personality, and adventurous in spirit. Robert Baden-Powell was so taken by Burnham that he modeled the Boy Scouts after him, even adopting Burnham’s Stetson hat and neckerchief as part of the Boy Scout uniform. When Henry Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines, he modeled the protagonist, Allan Quartermain, on Burnham. When George Lucas decided to write the ultimate adventure film, he based his hero, Indiana Jones, on Allan Quartermain. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that Burnham was the real-life Indiana Jones of his day.
Once called “the most complete human being who ever lived,” Burnham earned his reputation while fighting for the British in Africa during the Boer War. It was not solely for military heroics that he was adored. He seemed to simultaneously be at one with nature and reign over it. Once, while in California, Burnham was sitting under a tree, recounting for spellbound listeners the stories of his African adventures. He paused his tale momentarily 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.
“The Human Epitome of Sin and Deception”
The other key figure in the American Hippo Movement couldn’t have been more unlike Burnham. Fritz Duquesne fought in the Boer War but against the British. In fact, he and Burnham were assigned to kill each other during the war. Neither was successful in this task.
Where Burnham was Duquesne was known for his modesty, Duquesne had a reputation for self-aggrandizement. Burnham preferred direct military confrontation; Duquesne opted for espionage, providing his services to the highest bidder. More than rivalry separated these two men. Burnham once called Duquesne the “human epitome of sin and deception.”
Burnham’s assessment of Duquesne would prove to be far more prescient than anyone could have imagined at the time.
Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows
The arch-rivals Burnham and Duquesne should never have had anything to do with one another. In all likelihood, they would have ended their days, forever on opposite sides of everything, except for the one force that brings the most unlikely teams together: politics.
Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard was keenly aware of the looming meat shortage that could devastate the nation. His state had plenty of uninhabited lands, but it was of little help for the meat shortage. About 40% of the wetlands in the continental United States can be found in Louisiana. Swamps offer much in terms of fish and alligators, but they are less than ideal for cattle, sheep, or goats.
On top of that, the swamps themselves were in danger. In the 1880s, the water hyacinth had been introduced to the area and quickly became an invasive species. The plant grew at an alarming rate. It clogged waterways, hindering transportation and shipping. It choked out fish and native flora. The fishing industry of Louisiana and its neighboring states went into rapid decline because of the beautiful-but-destructive plant.
Broussard had been approached with an idea about importing African hippopotamuses and turning them loose in the Louisiana swamps. The congressman was keen to explore the concept. It seemed to be an ideal way to combat the hyacinth problem and address the meat shortage at the same time.
Broussard latched onto the lofty idea of creating a new source of protein for the American diet. Louisiana’s swamps could be used as natural ranch land for the hippos. The massive creatures with inexhaustible appetites would provide a natural way to combat the water hyacinth, all the while fattening themselves up to feed American families.
Broussard introduced H.R. 23261, commonly known as the “American Hippo Bill.” It would appropriate $250,000 ($7.3 million in today’s currency) for the importation and release of hippos in the bayous of Louisiana.
One Agricultural Department official projected as much as one million tons of hippo meat could reach the market each year. Congress and the public would need to be sold on the novel idea of eating the meat, dubbed by newspapers as “Lake Cow Bacon.”
The legislation gained the endorsements of former president Theodore Roosevelt, the Department of Agriculture, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. An editorial in the Times reasoned that if we’d learned to swallow raw oysters and suck the meat out of crabs, why shouldn’t we also learn to love “that plump and pulchritudinous beast which has a smile like an old-fashioned fireplace?”
The innovative legislation came up for hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture on March 24, 1910. Broussard made some perfunctory opening comments before introducing the stars of the show. The American Hippo Bill had brought two arch-rivals together as unlikely allies.
Frederick Russell Burnham did not need much introduction. Just one month earlier, his article “Transplanting African Animals” had appeared in The Independent. He promoted the idea of introducing non-native animals to American terrain that is otherwise unsuitable for livestock. “Take, for example,” he wrote, “the giraffe, which is a browsing animal, living almost exclusively on a thorny scrub, like the mesquite. Its flesh is very palatable and its hide extremely tough and serviceable….”
Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. The men immediately found common ground. Burnham quickly lent his name toward the ambitious plan. His testimony before the congressmen was compelling. He maintained that “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.”
As impressive as Burnham’s appearance and testimony were, Broussard wasn’t done yet. That afternoon, he summoned his other star witness, introducing him as an African “hunter of great note” who happened to be touring America, lecturing on the African continent’s wild animals. It was Captain Fritz Duquesne’s opportunity to shine.
He had come to the American public’s attention through a series of newspaper columns in which he offered informed commentary about former-president Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari. Initially, Duquesne had been one of Roosevelt’s consultants in planning the trip. Before it was over, however, Duquesne became critical of the former president, writing that Roosevelt’s African guides called him “Bwana Tumbo,” meaning “Mr. Unusually-Large Stomach.”
Having established his bravery as an adventurer, willing to take on the former occupant of the White House, Duquesne proclaimed his expertise on the subject. “I am as much one of the African animals as the hippopotamus,” he said. He lectured the legislators about the ease with which one can domesticate a hippo. He told them how a young hippo can be fed from a bottle “like a baby,” and be led around on a leash.
“It is absolutely not dangerous,” he said of the animal and described the meat—especially from young, castrated males—as “Splendid food. Excellent food.” He pointed to the health of the Boers during the recent conflict and attributed their wellbeing to their diet. “There was nothing mentally or physically defective about them,” he explained, “and they lived on hippopotamus.”
Read the testimony before the House Committee on Agriculture here.
The hearing had the outcome wanted by Broussard. The publicity gained by having Burnham and Duquesne as the Bill’s proponents gave the proposal the right kind of public attention.
The press was enamored. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine foresaw a future where “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation. Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami.”
The Evening Times of Grand Fork, North Dakota opined in its May 14, 1910 edition: “Great Britain has eaten the Australian kangaroo and likes him, horseflesh is a staple food in continental Europe, and the people of Central America eat the lizard. Why cannot Americans absorb the hippopotamus?”
Despite the publicity and apparent goodwill, it was relatively late in the congressional cycle for it to take off. The men believed this was merely a temporary setback. They planned on spending a year building support for the movement so Broussard could reintroduce the legislation at the next session of Congress.
Together, Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham started the New Food Supply Society to explore and promote the idea. After the hearings, the men regrouped at Broussard’s Louisiana home to plan the next stage in their campaign.
The plan was for Burnham to embark on a highly-publicized African expedition to raise awareness for their cause and to scout out other possible species to import. The trip was derailed, however, when unrest in Mexico forced him to focus his attention on protecting his business investments there.
At first, Duquesne seemed to be very much on board and helpful. In the spring of 1911, he organized a series of banquets in Washington and New York to raise awareness for the cause. At the banquets, he served a menu of imported African springbok soup, dik-dik, and hippo croquettes. He began studies about the prospect of bringing elephants to Central and South America to use as beasts of burden. He even looked into generating publicity by importing a herd of llamas and hiring Peruvians to drive them across the eastern USA.
A typical example of his promotion of the American Hippo Bill can be found in the October 26, 1910 edition of The River Press. It quotes “Captain Fritz Duquesne, a noted Boer soldier, who knows all about hippos,” as saying, “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana, for the temperature is exactly like that of its habitat… I can see no reason why the hippopotamus should not become a part of the animal life of this continent to the great advantage of the human inhabitants.”
For more contemporary newspaper accounts of the American Hippo Bill, see the links at the end of this article.
It was also around that time that Duquesne’s sinister side that had been evident to Burnham began to be seen by others as well. When The New York World published an article claiming that the idea for importing African animals as a food supply came from a California fisherman, Duquesne was incensed. He demanded a retraction and raged to a congressman that “It seems every day I hear of someone else, not Duquesne, being the man who brought this matter before the people.” It was becoming clear that Duquesne’s chief objective was to promote himself, not to solve the nation’s meat shortage.
Duquesne grew increasingly disillusioned about the country he was helping. As Europe moved steadily toward war, President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence upon neutrality enraged Duquesne. He had never overcome his dislike for the British from the Boer War and was easily sympathetic toward the German cause.
With the celebrity proponents of the American Hippo Bill distracted by other things and the nations’ attention increasingly focused on the prospect of war, the hippo meat solution lost momentum. Broussard kept insisting that he would reintroduce the Bill when the time was right, but when he passed away in 1918, no one stepped forward to carry the torch.
In short, the American Hippo Bill failed because it ceased to be necessary. Innovations in agriculture and food processing compensated for the growing population. In the end, it was easier for society to come up with technological solutions than to attempt to modify its palate.
Epilogue: Espionage and Intrigue
Fast forward a few years. It is near the end of 1917. The United States is seven months into World War I. A recent explosion at a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York triggered an investigation into rumors of anti-American activity in the city.
One of the people who came under suspicion was Captain Claude Stoughton. Stoughton was a British officer who was stationed in New York. He had been heard to make sympathetic statements about the Germans. His behavior was concerning enough to warrant a visit from New York City Police Department inspectors.
Detectives began their search of Stoughton’s apartment at 137 West 75th Street. What they discovered was troubling and baffling. A collection of newspaper articles detailing, according to The New York Times, “practically every bomb explosion since the war began,” with special emphasis on the SS Tennyson, which had blown up one year earlier.
That Stoughton thought highly of himself was evident from the plethora of photographs that highlighted his handsome features. What was puzzling was that the photos showed him in the military uniforms of several countries. Other differences in the pictures could not be explained by the passage of years. In one photograph appearing in a Belgian newspaper, he is identified as a war correspondent and had red curly hair. In another picture, he had black hair and a thick black beard.
Also in the collection of photos was a picture of the man they knew as Claude Staughton in a flier promoting a lecture about “The Wonderland of Roosevelt’s Hunt.” His image also appeared in material related to some proposed legislation from a few years earlier that would have imported hippos to the swamps of Louisiana for food. The name associated with the images, however, was not Claude Staughton, but Captain Fritz Duquesne.
Under the name Duquesne, investigators found more troubling material. One such piece of evidence was a letter of introduction from a Nicaraguan diplomat, describing Duquesne as a man who had “in many circumstances rendered notable services to our good German cause.”
What started to unravel in the days to come confirmed Burnham’s observation that Fritz Duquesne was “the human epitome of sin and deception.” As the world geared up for war, Duquesne was convinced that the German cause was the only one worth considering. He came to this conclusion less from admiration for Germany and more out of pure hatred for the British Empire. In his mind, any ally of Britain was his rival, so the United States also became the recipient of his wrath.
During one of his South American expeditions, Duquense went to the German consulate in Brazil and offered his services as a spy and saboteur. Over the next few years, he would go by many aliases, such as Frederick Barron, Colonel Bezin, F. Crabbs, Colonel Marquis Duquesne, Fred Buquesne, J. Q. Farn, Berthold Szabo, Von Goutard, Vam Dam, Fritters, Worthy, Jim and Frederick Fredericks.
One of his methods of sabotage would be to approach British sailors in bars and pay them to deliver packages to friends and family members overseas. He told them the packages contained orchid bulbs, but they were, in reality, explosives. By his count, Duquesne was responsible for sinking 22 ships and starting 100 dock fires. Included in his attacks was the HMS Hampshire, a British ship that sank in northern Scotland in 1916, killing more than 600 men, including Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of War.
With this information, investigators took another look at the explosion of the Tennyson. A co-conspirator who had been captured led authorities to a safety-deposit box and an envelope of money that was the payment for the destruction of the ship. The envelope was addressed to “Piet Niacud.” “Niacud” is the backward phonetic spelling of “Duquesne.”
With a mountain of evidence against him Duquesne was arrested. He escaped imprisonment after two years by pretending to be paralyzed so his guards wouldn’t pay much attention to him. He was able to cut the bars of his cell and get away before he could be deported to the United Kingdom and executed for the murder of British sailors.
He was subsequently arrested in New York in 1932. By this time, British authorities lost interest in Duquesne and declined to extradite him. This turned out to be a mistake because he went on to become the ringleader of the 33-member Duquesne Spy Ring that passed secret information about U.S. weaponry and shipping movements to Nazi Germany. It remains the largest espionage case in the history of the United States.
What Might Have Been
The utter dearth of hippo herds in the southern United States is just one indication that the American Hippo Bill never came to light. Whether Americans would have embraced hippo meat remains unknown. What we do know is that the legislation had enough backing and potential that it very nearly succeeded. Had that happened and hippos arrived in Louisiana, what would have been the outcome?
In 1993, four hippos owned by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar were released in Colombia. Today, that number has grown to over 100. We can only assume far more than four hippos would have been imported to the swamps of Louisiana. There is no telling how many hundreds or thousands of the creatures would be thriving there today.
Despite Duquesne’s assurances that the hippopotamus “is absolutely not dangerous,” it is one of the deadliest land animals on earth. The extremely-territorial hippo kills more than 500 people each year in Africa.
Other consequences of introducing the hippo to North America can only be guessed. Commonplace Fun Facts has documented a number of disastrous times when invasive species have been introduced into the environment. Bringing creatures of that size into a non-native environment could have had repercussions even greater than the harm caused by the hippo’s supposed ally, Captain Fritz Duquesne.