Some historical figures like Captain Jack Bonavita who have been forgotten have some remarkable stories to tell. The story here centers on Dreamland, an amusement park located in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City, that opened in 1904.
It was established by real estate tycoon and politician William H. Reynolds. At that time, he competed with Carl Hagenbeck’s modern zoo and other amusement parks.
William created an extravagant and opulent park that featured elaborate architecture, white towers, and various high-end attractions and exhibitions, including:
- an imitation Venetian canal,
- a train that traveled through a Swiss alpine landscape,
- a “human zoo” that included a village of Filipino tribesmen,
- another village filled with hundreds of dwarfs known as the “Lilliputian Village,”
- a tower illuminated by one million lights,
and numerous rides, games, sideshows, booths, and other attractions. A display showcased real premature triplets and even a six-story building set on fire and extinguished every half hour by pretend firefighters. But then there was Captain Jack Bonavita.
At the turn of the century, America was a land of opportunity, and spectacle and sensation were highly sought after, with circuses drawing massive crowds.
Captain Jack Bonavita, a death-defying performer who managed to tame wild animals and establish a reputation as a peculiar figure, was one of the many sensational performers at Dreamland. He captivated audiences as he bravely entered a metal cage with 27 lions and survived.
However, in 1917, Bonavita met his untimely demise when an uncooperative polar bear attacked him during one of his performances. Despite having experienced 50 attacks in his career, this one proved fatal.
Early life of Captain Jack Bonavita
Johann Friedrich Gentner, also known as Captain Jack Bonavita, was born to a Dutch family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 15, 1866. From a young age, he was daring and athletic, eventually becoming a circus acrobat during the golden age of sideshows and circus pioneers like P.T. Barnum.
Bonavita quickly transitioned from acrobat to animal trainer, believing that properly trained wild animals would do a performer’s bidding. He became well-known for his performances with big cats and his bold appearance, standing at 5’11” with a dark handlebar moustache and a military-style uniform accentuating his muscular chest. Bonavita’s skills and striking appearance drew crowds to his performances.
Captain Jack Bonavita – The Lion Whisperer
Captain Jack Bonavita was a performer of extraordinary talent, with a seemingly magical ability to connect with animals. His skill at taming lions and getting them to follow his commands earned him the nickname “lion whisperer.”
Based at the Bostock animal arena, Captain Jack was renowned for his dramatic stage presence, including a military uniform and a handlebar moustache, as well as his incredible animal acts.
One of his most famous acts, “The Arm-Chair,” involved sitting in a chair surrounded by a pride of lions that acted like housecats. He also famously locked himself in a metal cage with 27 roaming lions. Despite his extensive training, Captain Jack’s charm over the lions eventually failed, leading to a tragic end for this dashing and fearless performer.
The Tragedy That Took His Arm
At the turn of the 20th century, Captain Jack Bonavita captivated audiences with his extraordinary ability to tame lions. No one could quite figure out how he could get these ferocious beasts to succumb to his every whim, but the lions seemed to bow down to him. However, this talent only sometimes went according to plan.
There are several conflicting accounts of the day (July 31, 1904) when Captain Jack’s luck ran out. Some sources claim that the incident occurred at Coney Island, while others, including mysterious figure and palmist Cheiro, say it happened in Paris at the Moulin Rouge.
According to Cheiro, Captain Jack was performing his opening act – getting a lion named Baltimore to sit on a chair – when he turned away for a moment too long, and the animal pounced on him.
He was reportedly rescued by Princess of Montglyon Rosalie F. Mercy d’Argenteau of Belgium, who had become enamoured with the lion tamer and distracted the animal by prodding the lion with her parasol while others carried Captain Jack to safety.
Despite the efforts of the princess and others, Captain Jack’s left shoulder and arm were severely mauled, and two of his fingers were mangled. Determined to remain able-bodied, he refused amputation for eight months but eventually had his arm removed in February 1905 to prevent death by infection.
The princess and Captain Jack fell in love during this time and were married on April 25, 1905, although their marriage only lasted two years before they divorced in 1907.
Another account of Captain Jack’s mauling claims it occurred at Coney Island and that he was aided by a woman named Marie Dressler, a Broadway actress. According to this version of the story, Dressler visited Captain Jack in the hospital daily and brought him watermelon slices until he recovered.
Regardless of the specific details, Captain Jack was a tenacious and bold entertainer who wouldn’t let his wound impede him from continuing his dangerous but exciting career as a lion tamer. He became renowned in circus acts, eliciting admiration and wonder from those who saw his courage and expertise.
A disastrous fire that nearly ends Bonavita’s career
Despite losing his arm, Captain Jack Bonavita refused to give up his career as a lion tamer. His one-armed performances became even more impressive and drew even larger crowds.
However, on the fateful day of May 27, 1911, disaster struck the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City. A new ride called “Hell’s Gate” malfunctioned and caught fire, and a worker accidentally kicked over a can of tar, causing nearby lights to explode.
The entire park was engulfed in flames, and tragically, 60 animals, including one of Bonavita’s lions, Black Prince, lost their lives. Black Prince panicked and ran into the street, where a police officer fired six bullets into its mane.
Despite his efforts to save his lions, Captain Jack Bonavita, the celebrated one-armed lion tamer, could not prevent the loss of many of his beloved beasts. The fire destroyed the park and never rebuilt, leaving Bonavita’s career in jeopardy.
Despite the destruction of Dreamland and the tragic loss of many animals in the 1911 fire, Bonavita’s talents as an animal trainer did not go unnoticed.
He was able to parlay his skills and experiences into a successful career in Hollywood, where he worked as a trainer, stuntman, actor, and director. In addition to his film industry work, Bonavita continued to perform in shows with Bostock’s Circus and trained animals at Frank Bostock’s farm in Los Angeles.
The end of Captain Jack Bonavita
Despite being primarily employed by producer David Horsely, Captain Jack Bonavita also worked for Bostock’s Circus, where he was renowned for his exceptional ability to command large and potentially dangerous animals.
However, his luck ended on March 19, 1917, when a polar bear he was attempting to train attacked him, resulting in his fatal mauling and fracturing of his jaw and laceration of his face. The bear was eventually killed by the police, who arrived at the scene.
Bonavita died doing what he loved, and his legacy lives on as one of the most daring and fearless lion tamers in history. Despite his untimely death, Bonavita left a legacy as a mysterious and enigmatic figure, remembered for his impressive skills and fearless attitude toward training wild animals.
His techniques and methods were studied and emulated by future generations of animal trainers, ensuring that his impact on the entertainment industry would be felt for years to come.
Captain Jack Bonavita was truly remarkable, whose bravery and skill as an animal trainer was unmatched. Despite facing numerous challenges and setbacks throughout his career, he persevered and left a lasting impact on the entertainment industry.
- Coney – Dreamland Fire. (n.d.). https://www.westland.net/coneyisland/articles/dreamlandfire.htm
- STSTW Media. (2019, November 5). Captain Jack Bonavita: The One-armed Lion Whisperer – STSTW. https://www.ststworld.com/captain-jack-bonavita/
- Jack Bonavita. (1865, December 15). IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0093844/bio
- Full text of “Confessions.” (n.d.). https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.219087/2015.219087.Confessions_djvu.txt
- Times, T. N. Y. (1904, September 5). LION TRAINER IN HOSPITAL.; Blood Poisoning May Necessitate Amputation of Bonavita’s Arm. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1904/09/05/archives/lion-trainer-in-hospital-blood-poisoning-may-necessitate-amputation.html
- The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Training of Wild Animals, by Frank Charles Bostock. (n.d.). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61589/61589-h/61589-h.htm