The Wildwood Massacre of 1938: The Untold Story of Tuffy the Lion and the Legendary Crackshot


Image courtesy of WeirdNJ

Joseph Sannito, Staff Writer

It may come to you as a shock that the Wall of Death is not remotely the most disturbing part of this story. The horror started back in the summer of 1938 in Wildwood, New Jersey where tourists would come to the Jersey shore to escape the tragedies of the Great Depression. One aspect of Wildwood that drew people to the area was the boardwalk; one main attraction on the boardwalk was the “Motordrome Wall of Death.” This act was a woman, the wife of the show owner, riding around a circular inclined track at amazing speeds. However, this act itself was not the crazy part. It was the thing that sat next to the woman in the passenger cart, an African Lion. This 300 pound Lion’s name was Tuffy, and he astonished crowds with his majestic poise as he rounded the wall of death. 

Furthermore, as the summer season came to a close, Tuffy still remained in Wildwood. Instead of drawing in large crowds, he sat alone in his cage waiting for his next meal. On October 5, in the early evening Joseph Dobish, the lion’s owner, went to see Tuffy to feed him. Unfortunately, when Dobish opened the cage, Tuffy, in a fit of rage, rushed out and escaped. At this point, Dobish made a mistake comparable to that of the Romans at the Battle of Cannae. For about an hour he did not inform authorities and tried to find the beast himself. This led to tragedy.

Tuffy was on the hunt, hungry, and angry. It was 7:30 pm and Thomas Saito, a Japanese immigrant alongside his Boss’s 9-year-old son Masami Oishi, were on their way home from a fishing trip. When the duo was about to get into Saito’s Car the ferocious Tuffy made his appearance. Saito, in complete shock, pushed Masami into the car and shut the door to keep him safe. No words could describe the true terror of what happened next. The Lion charged Saito and mauled him in the middle of the street, eventually dragging his corpse to the bowels of the boardwalk. The police finally were called to action by the screams heard in the streets of Wildwood. All the men and boy scouts of Wildwood were called to track down the beast. Women and children were told to stay indoors until Tuffy was caught. “Women shuttered their windows, children huddled in their homes and men ventured into the streets, armed with guns and flashlights to warn them of the approach of the huge beast,” proclaimed the Wildwood Tribune-Journal. As the chase went on, police were eventually able to track down Saito’s dead body, by following the trail of blood that had been left behind. Nearby the corpse, Tuffy made an appearance and one of the officers shot and wounded him, but the lion was able to escape. 

It would be roughly two hours later when John Gares would take matters into his own hands. Gares was an eight-year police veteran and he was masterful with his one-shot revolver. Locals called him “crack shot” because he simply never missed. In the late evening, Tuffy would launch his last attack and growl his last roar as he sprung at the legendary crack shot only to be squared up between the eyes from a .38-caliber revolver. Tuffy dropped and Gares in a Hercules fashion stood tall amongst the dead beast, saving the town of Wildwood from its unexpected attacker.