MACCOMO the lion tamer is dead – that was the shocking news that readers of The Northern Echo were waking up to 150 years ago this week.

Martini Maccomo had died in The Palatine Hotel in Sunderland and is probably the only person to be buried in the North-East with the words “lion hunter” on his headstone.

Even more remarkably, one of the lions which mauled him has for generations been one of the region’s most curious museum exhibits.

Maccomo was said to have been born in Angola (although he might just have been a Liverpudlian called Arthur Williams who invented a glamorous back story), and he was billed as “the African Wild Beast Tamer”, “Angola's Mighty Czar of All Lion Tamers” and “The Hero of a Thousand Combats”.

He was part of William Manders’ renowned touring menagerie which brought all sorts of curious beasts, like monkeys, camels and zebras, to all corners of the British Isles.

Maccomo was probably the star turn because his act had a real element of danger to it. He would take on 20 lions and four Bengali tigers in the ring, running round them while flicking whips and firing guns (he once shot a member of his own audience), goading the animals into wildly roaring anger.

And then he would tame them so that they became as calm as kittens and allowed him to play with them.

Most times.

Some times, they bit him. He lost a finger to a lion in Norwich, and in Birmingham, a tigress held his arm in its mouth for five minutes and only let go when a heated iron was applied to its teeth. Heated irons were the usual way to fend of the king of the jungle if anything went wrong during an act, and they were always kept hot on standby.

They were needed in 1869 when the menagerie was in Sunderland and one of the lions, called Wallace, turned on Maccomo, pinning him to the side of the cage and mauling him badly. Only the hot metal deterred Wallace and saved the lion tamer.

Martini Maccomo was neither shaken nor stirred by the attack, and once he recovered from his wounds, rejoined the menagerie, and continued to perform with Wallace.

On the next visit to Sunderland, Maccomo fell ill and after a fortnight died in his hotel – the Echo says he died of epilepsy, but other sources say a fever. Either way, he was buried beneath a white headstone in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

After Maccomo’s death, Wallace continued to work with the menagerie. Maccomo’s replacement was Thomas Macarte, a one-armed Irishman who performed as Massarti the Lion-Tamer. On January 3, 1872, he was performing in Bolton before an audience of 500, when a lion shockingly killed him.

Wallace was not implicated in that death. The lion remained with the menagerie until it died in Warrington in 1875. It was sent to be stuffed by a taxidermist in South Shields, William Yearby, and in 1879, it was bought by Sunderland Museum because of its connection with Maccomo who died in the city 150 years ago this week.

Perhaps the reason Maccomo and Macarte found their lions so difficult to handle was because the Darlington-born lion tamer Frank Bostock had not yet developed his sure fire way of taming lions.

Bostock was born in Darlington Market Place on September 10, 1866, as his parents, Emma and James, owned Wombwell’s Menagerie – a touring animal show every bit as famous as Manders’ menagerie.

Bostock was probably only in the place of his birth for his first fortnight, but as he grew up, he discovered that if you show the four legs of an upturned chair at a lion, it will immediately be tamed. This technique turned Bostock into a worldwide celebrity, and when he died of flu in 1912 he was hailed as “England’s greatest showman”.