For well over a hundred years, seeing pink elephants has been the anglophone synonym of choice for extreme intoxication. Disney’s 1941 Dumbo with its nearly five-minute sequence featuring the surreal menagerie seen by Timothy Q Mouse and his elephant friend after drinking from a bucket of champagne-spiked water is the best-known example but it is far from the only one.
Jack London’s 1903 story Barleycorn is often cited as the first example of the term in print, though the OED has a 1900 citation. London describes the type of drunk most likely, in his words, to appear in the ‘funny papers’; one who “falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.” But there is at least one earlier example in print.
In a short and somewhat melodramatic short story called ‘The Dead Letter’, published in the Leighton Buzzard Observer on 30 April 1895, the Irish M.P. and author Justin M’Carthy described how the bon vivant protagonist fears he is hallucinating a letter from a woman that appeared, then mysteriously disappeared, from his mantelpiece. The celebrated doctor from whom he seeks counsel, Sir Jasper James, accepts that there are ‘men who see queer dogs and pink elephants’ but is emphatic that alcohol is not Christie Clare’s problem.
As it happens, the alcoholic habits of elephants were in the news at that time. In spring 1895, the exploits of George Lockhart’s three circus elephants, Boney, Molly and Waddy were the talk of London and the provinces. Boney, a pygmy elephant from Borneo (hence her name) was able to play musical instruments, conduct a band and ride a tricycle but the party piece that brought the house down was her ‘restaurant’ scene. According to her trainers, she had a distinct fondness for gin (of which she’d drink a bottle with a few ‘satisfied glugs’) but was not averse to champagne.
In the restaurant scene, she was seated at a table, where she ordered a bottle of champagne which she drunk with rapidity and then began to act as if she were under the influence, rolling on the ground and refusing to pay her bill, presented by the ‘chef’, Waddy. A policeman is called and Molly appears wearing a helmet as ‘big as a hogshead’. Still Boney is recalcitrant and Molly apparently much ‘enjoyed’ beating Boney with her truncheon before dragging her ‘drunk’ colleague off stage.
As the papers noted at the time, two of Lockhart’s elephants had pink patches of skin during the summer. ‘Not a disease’ insisted Lockart. Could the ‘drunken’ Boney and his two pigmented companions have been the inspiration for M’Carthy and, later, Jack London?
 See, for example, South Wales Daily News, 27 May 1895, p. 3. For further details on Lockhart’s elephants, see George Lockhart, W G Bosworth, Grey Titan: the book of elephants (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1938). For the ultimately tragic story of other Lockhart elephants, see Jamie Clubb, The Legend of Salt and Sauce (Buntingford: Aardvark Publishing, 2008).