In 1898, under Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, crews of construction workers worked to build a railway bridge to cross the Tsavo River in Africa. However, the bridge would be delayed because of unforeseeable events. This delay would be remembered for more than 100 years and has become the subject of a book and several movies. But to coin a famous cliché, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
From March 1898 through December 1898, work on the bridge came to a temporary halt. You might assume it was weather related or perhaps a labor shortage. But no, the stoppage resulted from terrified workers becoming an all you can eat buffet by a pair of lions.
The lions would sneak into the worker living areas and drag the workers out of their tents before eating them. Workers tried to set up fencing and built fires to scare the lions away. But nothing worked. Suspicious worker believed the lions were evil spirits sent to punish them. Other workers thought the attacks had something to do with Patterson’s arrival, which is when the attacks began.
One worker said the lions’ jaws were covered in human blood. He also said the lions didn’t leave any leftovers. “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”
Although the number of victims varies, it’s believed the fearsome duo devoured at least 100 people. It would be difficult to know since the lions didn’t leave any remains. Patterson found himself in an unusual dilemma. How would he finish his project on time after his employees had either quit or become a meal? He solved the problem by going after the lions himself. Although he wasn’t a lion hunter, he had some experience shooting animals.
Patterson tracked and killed the first lion on December 9, 1898. He then located and killed the other lion twenty days later on the 29th. From head to tail, the two beasts were both at least 9 feet long. It took nearly a dozen men to carry back the corpses of the two beasts. Patterson’s men completed the bridge on February 7, 1899.
Patterson became a hero after killing the two lions. His name is still known today and won’t be forgotten anytime soon. After he killed the ferocious man-eaters, he sold their corpses to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois for $5,000. He detailed his experiences in a book titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907).
Although the lions of Tsavo are considered fierce, they don’t typically kill people or turn them into a main course. For unknown reasons, the Tsavo man-eaters from 1898 were different. They had developed a taste for human flesh. Even more unusual is how the lions worked together as a team to hunt their human prey, which isn’t the norm.
It’s a possibility that the lions of Tsavo attacked people because humans had encroached into their hunting grounds. The lions may have found it easier to kill and devour railroad workers who were easier targets. It’s also believed the lions had developed a taste for eating people because the area was populated with people. And when people died, they weren’t always buried. The Tsavo lions likely began consuming dead bodies since they were so readily available.
Today, the lions are stuffed and mounted so they appear smaller today than in 1898.
But the terror they delivered to African railroad workers will always remain an interesting piece of African history.
If you want to see these beasts up close, you can always visit the Field Museum. There you will come face-to-face with the deadly man-eating beasts of Tsavo. They eagerly await your visit.
Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page Life with Grandpa and he also just wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.