The Alderson Lion


Alderson city sign telling French’s story.

Arabella Peters, Staff Writer

On October 3, 1890, French’s Great Railroad Cirus was traveling through the small town of Alderson, West Virginia. While in the town, one of the lionesses gave birth to five lion cubs. Sadly, three cubs died immediately, and the two that survived were unwanted by the show. A local resident took in both cubs. Susan Bebouts did her best to raise the cubs, but soon one  died. Only French was left now.

French was not totally alone, though, because Bebouts had another animal in her home: Tabby, a simple house cat. French and Tabby became inseparable. French also loved to play with the children in town and they loved to play with him. French was well known in Alderson and everyone seemed just fine with sharing their small corner of the world with the king of the jungle.

Although all the locals knew French, people just traveling through had not heard of the lion. One night a traveling salesman was taking a walk along the Greenbrier River, and was undoubtedly surprised when he came across a full grown lion. French began to sniff the salesman. Before he could realize he wasn’t in danger, the salesman took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the home of a local doctor, where he collapsed from fear.

The incident caused quite a commotion; as a result, city council passed a law that all lions in Alderson had to be leashed. Bebouts put up a fence around her yard to keep French in, but soon realized she could no longer give French the life he deserved. She sold him to The National Zoological Park in Washington D.C., and he was loved there just as much as he was in Alderson. His keepers said he loved human interaction and would even leave his food to visit with them, something they had never seen a lion do. One of the keepers wrote a book in which he described French as “gentle and affectionate.” 

In 1894 French was traded to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, where he lived out the rest of his days just as he began them.