Hungry for Hippos in Turn-of-the-Century America: A Tale of 2 Adventurers

In the crazy bustling world of the United States in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the government was getting antsy. Immigration was reaching record highs and the population boom in the US was leading to a major meat shortage.

It wasn't for lack of trying on the meat industry's part. The ranchers of the nation could surely breed more animals, therefore upping the production of harvestable meat, but this requires resources like land. Animals need to eat food, and that food has to grow somewhere.

So the meat industry was faced with a challenge: feed the growing masses demanding meat, but do so without setting aside more land for raising livestock. Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled at this point, so they couldn't just push Westward to obtain more land. They would have to solve this problem with the real estate that the United States already owned.

The solution, some proposed, lied in changing what we mean when we say "farmland". Perhaps the pastures and fields we use for cattle grazing wasn't the only medium suitable for the job.

Meanwhile, Louisana Congressmen Robert Broussard noted the trouble his state was seeing with water hyacinth, an invasive plant species that was running wild and clogging waterways.

Enter the hippopotamus: An enormous, chubby, adorable creature that also happen to be able to crush your head the way you'd pop a grape.

This could be you.

The horrific danger of the hippo notwithstanding, Congressman Broussard floated the idea of killing two birds with one stone by sending hippopotamuses into the swamps and bayous of the American South. This would be a somewhat familiar environment for the behemoths to live in and, being herbivores, they would ostensibly eat the water hyacinths, converting the troublesome plants into delicious hippo meat.

One big problem with that plan, other than its surreal Wile E. Coyote-level hare-brainedness, was the fact that hippos, native to Africa, are not known to eat aquatic plants, especially not ones originally found to South America. Instead, they are largely known to graze on land, preferring short grass, shoots, and reeds.

Impracticality aside, Broussard brought in a handful of experts to promote his idea. Two of the men Broussard brought before Congress to pitch his hippo meat plan would give the Dos Equis guy a run for his money when it comes to the title of "Most Interesting Man in the World". They are both so undeniably awesome that "tried to convince Americans to eat hippos" only receives a collective three sentences between both of their Wikipedia entries.

The first is Frederick Russel Burnham. It's a wonder that Burnham is not more widely known, seeing as he is strongly considered the historical basis for both Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain.

Frederick Russel Burnham

Frederick Russel Burnham


Burnham's achievements include:

  • Being the sole breadwinner of his family by the age of 12
  • Delivering messages for the Western Union Telegraph Company and evading outlaws at age 14
  • Spending his teen years being taught by frontiersmen, mountain men, and scouts in the American West
  • Becoming a spy and hired gun for the British Army to fight colonial wars in Africa (Boer Wars)
  • Detonating railway bridges and escaping from capture twice during the Second Boer War
  • Notable archaeological discoveries pertaining to the Ancient Mayans
  • Disarming an assassin within feet of killing President Taft
  • Obtaining the nickname "He-who-sees-in-the-dark" for his tracking abilities

And it gets even better, because the other expert who happened to have comparable experience with both Africa and hippos, was a Frenchman raised in South Africa, Fritz Duquesne. As fate would have it, this was not the first time Burnham and Duquesne met each other, because Duquesne was German man who fought on the other side of the Second Boer War, and the two men had mutually been assigned to kill the other during the conflict.

Fritz Joubert Duquesne

Fritz Joubert Duquesne

Some crazy accomplishments of Duquesne's include:

  • Killing a man with his own sword for trying to attack his mother at age 12 
  • Traveling the world with an embezzler after finishing secondary school
  • Infiltrating the British Army as a spy in the Second Boer War, became a British officer and sabotaged several operations, even leading other soldiers in an attempt to assassinate a superior officer Lord Kitchener
  • Escaping numerous prisons, including three separate occasions of escaping capture in the Second Boer War
  • Becoming a conman and spy with about 30 known aliases
  • Earning equally hardcore nicknames as Burnham, including "The Black Panther" for his stealth

Duquesne was eventually captured by the British in the Boer War a final time, which he nearly escaped by digging a tunnel with a spoon (no joke), but was foiled in this attempt. He was sent from there to a prison in Bermuda, which you guessed it, he escaped and fled to America where he became a citizen.

And that's where he met up with his sworn enemy and pitched to Congress the idea of hippo ranching.

But why would either of these old-timey adventurers join forces with their nemesis? It just so happened that these two were so cool, that they were the type of enemies that earned each other's begrudging respect, able to have a cup of coffee together despite swearing to stab each other 's brains out in the past.

Duquesne is quoted as saying:

I once craved the honor of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.

The feeling was mutual according to Burnham who said,

He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives.

As you can probably tell, the American South is not overrun with herds of hippos stomping through a Cracker Barrel and devouring Nascar fans. What gives? Why can't I get a burgerpotamus or a six-pack of hearty hippo nuggets? The answer to that question is much less interesting than the espionage and outlandish proposals that preceded it.

In short, the proposal simply faded from the collective consciousness of Congress, and the meat shortage was solved by farmers finding new ways to raise animals in more places and raise more animals in one place, eventually creating a crisis of its own from the ecological and ethical problems of the factory-farming nightmare we have right now (A whole store unto itself)

As far as the epitomes of manliness and adventure who proposed the hippo solution, things ended far more interestingly.

Burnham and his scouting and survival talents would become the inspiration for the Boy Scouts of America as well as countless fictional adventurers, who weren't quite as awesome as he was in real life.

And Duquesne? That's where it gets a bit touchy. True to his two-timing conman ways and a lifelong hatred of the British for their role in killing his family in the Second Boer War, Duquesne eventually became a spy for the Germans in both World Wars.


By the end of World War II, the FBI discovered Duquesne's secret spy ring, and he and 33 others working for him were arrested and convicted by the United States for espionage. To this day, this bust is considered the largest espionage case in United States history that led to a conviction.

And there you have it, a story that literally has everything. Adventure, daring escapes, large semi-aquatic mammals, assassinations, betrayal, and the real-life equivalent of an action hero/super-villain team-up.

If you liked this post, and you want to support this blog, you should definitely give the book American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem a read. It's a brisk and deeply fascinating read, and you can get it from the link below! Or, if you need a little buddy in your life, grab a stuffed hippo!