Thursday, March 26, 2020

Haunted Circus Mini-Series Ep. 2 - The Performers

Circus performers come in all varieties of shape and size and color. Some are human, while others are animals. These performers all provide their own unique gifts to bring the world a spectacular version of entertainment. There are thousands of people behind the scenes as well that are just as much a part of the circus. To put it simply, the circus is a family. On this second episode in our series on the Haunted Circus, we are going to feature that family. We'll talk about the lives of some of the more popular circus performers and the different acts that became world famous. As you learned in episode 1, the traveling circus relied heavily on trains and there were two tragic train wrecks we will share. These were the Hallenbeck-Wallace Train Wreck and 1915 Circus Train Disaster. And we have ghost stories! So "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, join us for the Greatest Show on Earth!"

As you heard in our first episode, a listener named Debbie inspired this mini-series. She had been with the circus for years and shares with us how she got involved and what it was like. (Deb Intro) And just like that, Debbie had runaway with the circus and continued on with the circus family doing other duties. (Deb Generations and Grandfather) The circus was very much a generational thing. Many of the most famous acts were created by families that carried on the traditions for decades. And the circus grew to be a place culturally diverse. (Deb Ethnic Circus) When we first went into the Circus Museum, there was this huge mural featuring many of the famous circus acts for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was gorgeous!

The early modern circus was centered around equestrian acts and we talked about some of those people in the first episode from Philip Astley to John Ricketts and beyond. Much of this was trick riding, but eventually acrobatics found its way onto horseback around the middle of the nineteenth century. John H. Glenroy would be the first equestrian to accomplish a somersault on horseback and he did it in 1846. Around this same time, acrobats would start joining the circus, many of whom were also clowns doing tumbling. An 1846 list of performers in the Welch and Mann's Celebrated Circus, reveals how much the circus was changing, featuring the names of equestrian riders, clowns, acrobats, a tumbler, a contortionist, comic singer and banjo player. To be clear, there were plenty of unique acts like aerialists and acrobats performing before the circus was an official thing. Tight rope walking goes all the way back to ancient times and hanging from ropes and swinging around does as well. When we use the term "circus" we are really talking about the circus ring. There would be new innovations to come as the circus progressed through the nineteenth century with things like a bar being added to hanging ropes, creating the trapeze.

The circus was not originally meant for children and was actually considered pretty racy. Women could show their legs. Performers were wearing skimpy costumes and tights. No one could show this much skin in public and get away with it, but the circus could and it was titillating to the masses. Preachers around the country preached about the sinfulness of entertainment, especially the circus. As we pointed out in the first episode, the menageries helped to deal with some of the preaching against the circus. Church people could go see the animals and not be scandalized. In the early 1800s, trained animals would become more a part of the circus. This officially started with a trained elephant in France in 1812.  Elephants were the biggest attraction for any circus. The Ringling circus eventually retired them all and they live in this great reserve just down the road from us about 30 minutes away.

Jumbo was the most famous elephant in history. His very name became the way we describe very large objects like the jumbo jet. His name is a combination of the Swahili words Jambo meaning "hello" and Jumbe meaning "chief." Jumbo is also the mascot for Tufts University. He was born in Sudan in 1860 and was exported to a zoo in Paris, Jardin des Plantes, after poachers killed his mother. He was tranferred to the London Zoo in England in 1865. Barnum convinced the zoo to sell the huge elephant to him and despite the protests of Londoners who loved their elephant, Barnum brought Jumbo to America for exhibition in 1882. He became the star of the circus and Barnum used him as well as 20 other elephants to prove the Brooklyn Bridge was safe by walking them over it together. As we shared in the previous episode, Jumbo was killed in a train accident. He and the other elephants were being lead back to their boxcar when a train struck him causing a head injury. Tom Thumb's leg was broken in the accident. We found out that the hide eventually went to Tufts University, but was destroyed in a fire and the skeleton was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it remains today.

(Suggested by Jenny Aaron) And following in Jumbo's footsteps was Tusko the Elephant. He was shorter than Jumbo, but actually weighed more. Now, imagine this scene: a large elephant rampaging through a small town followed by a drunk posse of men who could barely run, much less stop and catch a large pachyderm. The year was 1922 and the Al G. Barnes Circus was in the town of Sedro-Woolley. Tusko and several other elephants were getting cleaned and so had been unshackled. We all know that elephants are extremely smart, so Tusko decided to make a run for it. Widow Deitz would be the first to see the elephant as he tramped through her chicken coop, getting chicken wire caught on his tusks. Tusko continued into town drawing attention from the pool hall when his stampedeing shook the building. Pappy Splane told the Washington Magazine in 1985, "All of a sudden that whole goddamn building just shook. Somebody says, ‘There’s a mad elephant comin’ through,’ and he took off. We thought he was BSing, ya know. But, by God, the next time that thing shook we realized he wasn’t BSing.” The elephant took out telephone poles, fences and even a Model T. Hundreds of men and boys took up the pursuit, many of them taking pulls off the moonshine along the way. It was like a crazy drunken parade, only one member was really big and dangerous. By 9am the following morning, the posse had ctrapped the elephant and the Barnes Circus was paying out $20,000 in damages. Tusko would move around a bit and unfortunately come under the care of an abusive sideshow huckster before the Mayor of Seattle ordered Tusko confiscated and moved to the Woodland Park Zoo where he enjoyed a peaceful life until his death from a blood clot in 1933. His skeleton is at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural History.

The Russian Circus would become more prominent and influence future circuses when they opened their State College for Circus and Variety Acts in 1927. Sports acrobatic training would become the norm and performances would become more theatrical and choreographed. Eventually, music and special lighting would become more of the show as well. But even with all the music and lighting, it is the performers that make the circus. We've combined performers into their various groups and will spotlight a few of them or the families that are more prominent within those groups.

The Sideshow Freaks

Even though equestrian acts seem to be where the circus originated, the reality is that the sideshow and the freaks that were a part of that really are where the circus started. Sideshow freaks or acts rose to prominence in the 16th century. This was an opportunity for people with disabilities or other hardships to profit from those, while satisfying the morbid fascination of society. The sideshow had its own tent at the circuses with all varieties of people and acts to observe. While some of these presentations were racist in their roots, presenting indigineous people from other places as savages , many sideshow freaks were quite proud of what it was that made them unique and some were performances that were strange. There were the strong men and women, sword swallowers, snake charmers, contortionists, fire breathers, knife throwing, lying on a bed of nails and much more. Odd people could be little people, very tall people, morbidly obese people, skeleton skinny people, Siamese twins, heavily tattooed people, people with odd growths and etc. The sideshow has changed over the years, but still continues today. I have several friends that are sideshow performers and one of the well known troupes is headquartered right here in Florida, Phantasmagoria Orlando. The founder of that group is actually a member of the Spooktacular Crew, John DiDonna. They are Steampunk themed, so you know I love that!

Katie Sandwina was born to be a part of the circus, quite literally being born in the back of a circus wagon. She was born Katharina Brumbach and her father ran the circus. She eventually would perform in that circus, mostly challenging men to wrestle. She built up her strength and became stronger than most men. She could lift over 300 pounds above her head. During one of her performances in which she challenged a man to defeat her, a Maxwell Heymann would jump up on the stage and it must have been love at first sight. The way Max told it was, "She picks me up vuns and trows me on de floor and I say Kati I luv you. Will you marry me?" And she did. The two were married for 52 years. He would become part of her act in which she would lift his smaller 165 pound body up with one hand above her head. She would become The Lady Hercules and end up joining the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She worked for them until she was 60. She would lift multiple men at once, bend iron bars with her hands and resisted the pull of four horses.  She would retire and move to Queens with Max and they opened a bar and grill, which they advertised as being owned by the world's strongest woman and she would perform for patrons. She died on January 21, 1952 from cancer. She was 67.

General Tom Thumb was born Charles Stratton in 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was born a rather big baby, weighing in over 9 pounds. For the first six months of his life, he grew normally and then he just pretty much stopped. By the time he was four, he had only grown another inch. He would never even make it to three feet tall. P.T. Barnum changed his life as we mentioned in the first episode. Charles Stratton would put on a uniform and become General Tom Thumb. (We got to see his boots at the museum.) He became world famous and is credited with how people looked at the sideshow. Many thought of it as a dishonorable carnival attraction, but Stratton was an entertainer who sang and danced and cracked jokes. He showed that the sideshow and curiosities could be entertaining. He married Lavinia Warren, who was also a little person, and both got to meet President Lincoln at the White House. They went on to perform together. Stratton died unexpectedly at the age of 45 from a stroke on July 15, 1883. He was buried at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport. Barnum put a life-size statue of Stratton on the grave.

Schlitzie was born Simon Metz in 1901. He was born with microcephaly, which is a disorder where a person is born with an unusually small brain and skull. He also had intellectual disabilities and was only four feet tall. He wore a muumuu and his gender would be changed depending on what part he was supposed to be playing. He was sometimes referred to as the missing link, "The Last of the Aztecs" or "What is it?" He loved to dance and mimic and was very successful on the sideshow circuit and he worked for many circuses including the Clyde Beatty Circus and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He appeared in the cult classic "Freaks." He died at the age of 70 in California.

Annie Jones was born in 1865 in Virginia. She had hirsutism, which meant that she had excessive growth of facial hair and this would lead her to working with P.T. Barnum as the Bearded Lady. Annie started with him when she was just a toddler and by the time she was five, she had sideburns, a mustache and beard. She became the country's top bearded lady and was a spokesperson for her fellow freaks. She died young at the age of 37 from tuberculosis.

Jack Earle joined Ringling Bros. after he had an accident while making a silent movie. Earle was a giant of a man. He was born in 1906 and was over seven feet tall by the time he was thirteen years old. He traveled with the circus for fourteen years and the claim was that he was 8'6". He later became a salesmen and died at the age of 46.

Fedor Jeftichew was born in 1868 in Russia. He had hereditary hypertrichosis, which meant he had excessive hair all over his body, particularly his face. Barnum discovered him at the age of 16 and brought him over to America and dubbed him "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy." He was well-spoken, but would play up the dog part by barking and snarling at people. He died at the age of 35 from pneumonia.


Many of the circus acts could be considered of the daredevil variety, but there have been some throughout the years that are classified specifically that way. There are many varieties from being shot from a cannon to doing tricks on bikes or vehicles or other apparatuses. There is also The Wheel of Death, which first showed up in the circus in the 1930s and consists of a large steel frame with circular hooped tracks at each end. This whole apparatus then rotates while the performer runs around the inside and the outside of the hoops. Bello Nock and Nic Wallenda are a couple of performers who have used the wheel. The Human Cannonball has been done for decades and has had both male and female performers. One of the famous performers was Elvin Bale who started doing the cannonball for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1978. An accident in 1983 left him paralyzed.

One of my favorite circle acts has always been The Globe of Death. The globe is fashioned from welded steel mesh that is done in segments. The bottom panel of the globe is a trap door that allows motorcycles and performers to get inside. Most globes weigh 5,300 pounds and measure 16 feet and performers use dirt bikes to ride around the inside of the globe. There are multiple riders and they ride around the inside going faster and faster in circles as audiences hold their breath while riders pass right by each other. Different acts work with different numbers of riders, but the record belongs to the Torres family, which made the record with eight bikes. The first to present the Globe of Death was Thomas Eck and this was in 1903, but the man credited with making it popular was Arthur Rosenthal and he had a partner named Frank Lemon. These guys did tricks on bicycles and motorcycles and the globe would be how they ended their act. Italian daredevil Guido Consi introduced the Sphere of Fear and then there were Germans and Brazilians and Australians. The riding in close quarters is dangerous enough, but now think about the effects of G-forces. Riders will use their peripheral vision or concentrate on a center point on the globe to help prevent nausea and such. Now we mentioned the Torres family and their record of 8 bikes in the globe at once. This is a family of cousins, brothers and a sister from Paraguay. Carmen Torres-Colossa is that sister. She was the first woman to ride in the Globe of Death. Carmen and her husband Joe are two of the owners of the Al. Ringling Mansion in Wisconsin. We got the chance to visit with Carmen here. (Carmen Performer) So she hadn't ridden in 3 years, but it was like getting back on a regular bike. It just came to her. You'll hear more from Carmen on the next episode about the hauntings she has experienced while living in the Al. Ringling Mansion.

Mauricia de Tiers was one of the highest paid stars of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She was a French daredevil during the early 20th century. Her main mode of stunts was through the automobile. Her signature routine was called the “Dip of Death.” This crazy woman would drive a small car down a ramp and into a loop-de-loop, then jump a large gap while upside down and then land safely on the other side. A New York journalist wrote of the act, "All the other acts that make ‘hearts cease to throb’ look about as harmless as a game of tiddlywinks indoors compared with the trip that Mlle. Mauricia does in her made-in-Paris automobile."

Zazel was the first human cannonball. She did this feat at the age of 16 at the Royal Aquarium. She climbed into a cannon and was blasted 70 feet into the air and then into a net. Springs and tension in the barrel pushed her out of the cannon and fireworks were set off to make it sound like an explosion from the cannon. The cannon would go on to be improved using compressed air. Zazel unfortunately flew past the safety net during one of the stunts and broke her back, forcing her to retire.

The Equestrians

May Wirth was a trick rider by the time she was ten-years-old. She would become one of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all time. She was born in Australia in 1894 and after her parents were separated, she was adopted by a sister of the Wirth Brothers, who owned the largest circus in Australia. She started with tumbling acts and wire walking, but was soon riding horses and trying her acrobatics on the back of the horse. One of John Ringling's talent scouts spotted her and brought her on with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1912. She would mesmerize crowds as she did back flips from horse to horse. She was injured in 1913, but bounced back and traveled with the Carl Hagenbeck Circus. In 1917, she was with the Ringling Bros. Circus and then stayed on as the Ringling Circus combined with Barnum & Bailey. She stayed with them until 1927. She would perform with other circuses and even did a scene for an opera. She retired in 1937 and passed away in 1978 in Sarasota.

The Clowns

Early clowns would be more like stand-up comics who would feature parody songs and jokes. They would evolve into juggling acts and presenting shows with trained animals. Clowns have always been important because they bring human contact to the audience. They also were able to deal with the political climate of the times with their acts. And one of those clowns even ran for office, the highest office, President of the United States! This clown was Dan Rice and in 1867, he was the circus' most famous clown. Rice had joined the circus in the 1840s and his comedic performances earned him the title of "The Great American Humorist." He did not employ much physical comedy, which is really what clowns will come to be known for, but his sexual allusions, jokes and ad-libs had audiences in stitches. Rice eventually died in obscurity in 1900, even though he had once been so famous and was more than likely the model for Mark Twain's clown in the book "Huckleberry Finn." There are different varieties of clowns. There were character clowns, white-faced clowns and austere clowns who only had white around their mouths and eyes..

Emmett Kelly was the Hobo Clown and known by the name Weary Willie. He played a sad clown with a big bulbous nose and face paint that gave him a mournful mouth surrounded by a five o'clock shadow. He wore tattered clothes and floppy shoes. He didn't start out as a clown and Weary Willie actually started as a cartoon character he drew. His work with the circus started as a trapeze artist and then in 1923, he brought Weary Willie to life as a clown act. One of his favorite things to do was to sweep the spotlight away and then get surprised when it appeared again. He worked for numerous circuses, one of which will be featured in our ghosts stories, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. He joined Ringling Bros. in 1942 and stayed with them until the late 1950s. He would star in a couple of films. He died in 1979 of a heart attack while taking out the garbage and I'm sure he could have found great comic use for that. Kelly was a hero. He helped to save people during the Hartford Circus Fire and was featured in a picture in Life magazine about the tragedy as he was running with a bucket of water. This was one of the few times people saw him cry.

Lou Jacobs was probably the most famous clown to work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey and is the one our listeners are probably most familiar with as he was used in lots of marketing and appeared on a 1966 U.S. postage stamp. Virginia and Debbie talk a little about Lou in this clip and then you hear me get inside a replica of the little clown car he used to squeeze his tall 6'11" frame inside. (Lou Jacobs) So as you heard there, Jacobs was a German immigrant. He played the part of a clown for 62 years and 60 of them were spent with the Ringling circus. His parents had a song and dance act and he got into gymnastics as a child, which lead him into barrel-jumping and contortionism as you heard Virginia mention. Jacobs came to America in 1923 and he found work as an acrobat. He started working for The Greatest Show On Earth in 1925 and it was there that he moved into clowning. He modeled his clown make-up on Europe's greatest circus stars, the Fratellinis. Rather than white-face, they used a flesh-colored base. These were three brothers who worked mostly in France from the 1900s to the 1920s. Jacobs had many gags including not only his 2'x3' small car, but also a self-propelled bathtub and a couple of little dogs. He wore a costume that was a pink and lavender checked suit with 12 inch collars and his shoes were really big. He married Ringling showgirl Jean Rockwell and they had two daughters, Lou Ann and Dolly, whom we will talk about later. Jacobs retired in 1985 when he was 82 years old, although he continued to teach at
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. In 1987, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He died of heart failure on September 13, 1992, in Sarasota, Florida at the age of eighty-nine.

We had the great honor of eating lunch with the first woman to ever be hired by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as a clown. Peggy Williams was the first female graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus' Clown College in 1970. She didn't start out with clowning though. She was a speech pathology major at the University of Wisconsin majoring in deaf education. A friend directed her toward the clown college saying she would be perfect for it and she thought that perhaps it might teach her nonverbal communication skills. We'll let Peggy tell the rest of her story. (Peggy Story) We know it was hard to hear with the background noise at the restaurant. Peggy broke her foot right when she got to clown college and they were going to send her home. But they let her stick around and Feld offered her a contract and the rest is history as she made the circus her life and still works for them today at the circus museum as an archivist.

The Tightrope Walkers

Tightrope walking is officially known as Funambulism and it dates back to Ancient Greece. Funis means rope and ambulare means “to walk.” In ancient times tightrope walkers were revered, but would move to being something jesters would perform and during the late 1600s in England, tightrope walkers would work with conmen to rob people. They would be the distraction while pickpockets would work the crowd. It eventually became a circus act that has become a crowd favorite.

We don't think there is any more famous name in the circus than The Flying Wallendas. The claim is that this multi-generational performing family goes all the way back to 1780.The Wallendas started their circus history in America in 1928 when Karl Wallenda and his troupe joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling had seen them perform in Cuba and he signed them to a contract. Their signature act was the seven person pyramid that they presented for the first time in 1948. Karl started performing when he was six. He started with acrobatics and then moved to the high wire. He developed the seven person pyramid that made the family superstars and would begin the solo walks over various locations. He walked above the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, Veterans Stadium in Philly and he broke the world's wire walking distance record when he walked 1800 feet at Kings Island Amusement Park. His great grandson Nik Wallenda would go on to greater feats and break that record in 2008. Karl would die at the age of 73 when he was attempting to walk between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico and fell from the wire. Nik would make the same attempt and complete it. Other members of the troupe died during a performance in 1962. Karl didn't like the family performing over nets because he felt it would make the performers lazy. Nik and his sister Lijana continue to perform. They had a serious accident in 2017 while attempting to break a record and Lijana broke every bone in her face. In 2019, she joined Nik in successfully crossing New York's Time Square 25 stories high. The pair wore safety harnesses as this was Lijana's return to live performing after her accident. Nik has also crossed Niagara Falls and lots of other places. I saw the Wallendas perform at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

The Trapeze Artists

There are multiple forms of trapeze. It can be static, swinging, flying or spinning. Most of us think of the short ropes with a bar in between then with performers flying from one to the other and catching each other as they hang from the bar. There is usually always a safety net in place in case an artist falls, but it wasn't always this way. Jules Léotard was a French gymnast who created the trapeze act. He presented it for the first tine in 1859 at Paris's Cirque Napoléon and called it La Course aux Trapèzes. He became the toast of Europe. He created a costume that helped him perform better and that is named for him today, the leotard.

The Flying Concellos were Antoinette and Arthur whom were a married couple. Antoinette was living in a convent when her sister invited her to join her with the Ringling Circus in the 1920s. Their trapeze act was one of Ringling's most popular attractions and Antoinette was called the "greatest woman flyer of all time." She was the first woman to complete a triple somersault in the air. She went on to become Ringling's aerial director and retired in 1983.

The Acrobats

The Nelson Family were acrobats who got their start on the streets of London. They performed with some circuses like the Dan Rice Circus and then formed their own that they called "The Nelson's Great World Combination Show." This operated until 1894. They joined the Ringling Circus for several years and worked with other circuses off and on. They are one of the most famous acrobat families and were the ones to develop Risley or "Foot Juggling" in which one performer lies on his back, and then tosses another performer about with their feet.

The Aerialists

Aerialists fall under a variety of acts from aerial silks, aerial hoop, hammock, chains, rope, rings and more. This is both an art form and a show of strength as the aerialists perform great feats several feet above the ground without safety nets.

Lillian Leitzel was born as Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan in Germany. Her family were all  circus performers and she joined her mother's aerobatic circus group known as the Leamy Ladies. She would perform on the trapeze and also do aerial acrobatics and she joined Barnum and Bailey in 1910. She left for a while, but would return when the Ringling Bros. merged with Barnum and Bailey and she would become famous. She was one of the headliner's and would wow the crowds with her performances. Her specialty was holding onto a ring hanging from a rope and perform mulitple one-armed planges over and over and she facilitated this by dislocating her shoulder over and over. And that over and over means more than a hundred times. She knew she was a star and she could act the part and she demanded her own private Pullman car that also had a baby grand piano. She was married three times and her final marriage was to trapeze artist Alfredo Codona. They had a contentious relationship. Tragedy struck in 1931 when Leitzel fell from her rigging when the swivel broke that held the rope and she hit the ground. She lingered for two days before dying. Alfredo would marry again and end up separating and in a horrible set of circumstances, he shot his estranged wife and then himself.

Dolly Jacobs became one of the most famous circus stars, following in the footsteps of her parents. We talked about her father, Lou the clown, but her mother was also in the circus and performed as an aerialist as well. She was eight weeks into her first run with the circus in 1948 when she fell from the rings 50 feet to the ground. She spent three years in a cast and was told she would never walk again, but she did. So it is a bit surprising that Dolly would decide to go the route of being an aerialist too. Dolly had said, "We always loved the circus and dreamed of being in it. But Papa insisted we stay at home with mother in Sarasota. I never really liked school. I was kind of an outsider, because I was with the circus." She left Ringling in 1984 and joined the Big Apple Circus and performed with them throughout the rest of the 1980s. She married another circus performer, Pedro Reis, and as you heard Debbie mention earlier, they founded Circus Sarasota. This was in 1997.

The Animal Trainers

Isaac A. Van Amburgh entered a cage with several big cats in 1833, and is generally considered to be the first wild animal trainer in American circus history. It would be his training and presentation of animals that would end up combining the menagerie and the circus performances into one. Not bad for a guy who started out as a cage cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York. He would add daring to his act by placing his arm and head inside the mouth of a big cat. He became known as The Lion King, but historians do point out that the moniker revealed a way of training that was more domineering and not kind. In the mid-1840s he had the largest circus in England and in America, he had one of the eleven traveling shows in 1861. In 1868, a fire killed his animals. Van Amburgh had already died three years earlier from a heart attack.

Ephraim "Eph" Thompson was a black elephant trainer who worked with the Forepaugh circus. He was born in Michigan in 1859. He eventually got on with the Adam Forepaugh Circus and showed a real skill with the elephants. Forepaugh hired him as an elephant trainer, but since he was black, he had to take a backseat position to Addie Forepaugh who was Forepaugh's son. He became an animal trainer and was known as the youngest elephant trainer. Eph left for Carl Hagenbeck's International Circus in 1887. In 1895, he joined Circus Salamonsky Moskau and developed an act where he did a tight rope trick between two elephants that were holding the rope. Another unbelievable act that he developed was a somersaulting elephant. Eph came to be known as the first great American elephant trainer who trained elephants in a very humane way. He died in Egypt in 1909.

The person I remember most from my young visits to the circus was Gunther Gebel-Williams. From 1968 to 2001 he was probably the most celebrated circus performer of his generation. And he was probably the greatest animal trainer of the the twentieth century. He was born in 1934 in a German town that is today part of Poland. His childhood was not happy. He grew up during World War II with a father who was not only a drunk, but very abusive. Circus Williams had a permanent wooden structure in Cologne and Gunther's mother took him to see it and while they were there, she applied for a job as a seamstress. She was hired and Gunther would spend the next twenty years with Circus Williams. One of the great things this circus did was to hide Jews within the traveling circus and once Gunther's mother decided the circus was not for her and left, they took him under their wings and they became his family. Gunther was put in charge of taking care of the horses. Ab great animal trainer was employed by the circus as well and that was Charly Baumann. He was an expert with the big cats. The patriarch of the Circus Williams was killed during an act and Gunther was sent to the matriarch's brother's circus where Gunther learned elephant training. The brother was Franz Althoff and he could direct a herd of 13 elephants with his voice and the tip of a chambrière, which is a whip. Gunther returned to Circus Williams the next year and took over their elephant herd. He developed the teeterboard trick in which he was propelled by one elephant onto the back of another. He also learned to jump from the ground onto the back of a galloping horse.

In 1955, Miss Yvonne joined the circus with a group of lions. Gunther filled in for her for a performance and he fell in love with training the cats. He developed an act with a tiger named Bengali and an elephant named Kongo. The act became a sensation. He would add another elephant and two more tigers. He married the Williams' daughter Jeanette in 1961, which was fitting since he was already considered family. He took on the name Gunther Gebel-Williams after that. Gunther bought a group of eight tigers in 1968 to expand his act further and Jeanette helped him as an assistant. Around this same time, Irvin and Israel Feld had bought the Ringling Circus and they wanted a new star for a second unit of the circus. Gunther would be that star and Irvin Feld would sign him to a four year contract for two million dollars. Gunther brought his new wife Sigrid and step daughter Tina, along with seventeen elephants, nine tigers, thirty-eight horses, and a few assorted animals. The Felds would give him his signature look of bleach-blonde, well shaven and flamboyant costumes. Gunther developed a small cat act that became his favorite. He did a Farewell Tour in 1990 and left the circus only to return again for a ten city performance in 1994 and then he replaced his son, Mark Oliver, for one show in 1998. In between those, he had heart surgery and then in 2000 he developed a brain tumor. He had surgery and underwent chemotherapy, but it took his life on July 19, 2001. Mark continued on in the big cage until 2004 when he left the circus.

Mabel Stark was a famous female tiger-tamer in a world dominated by men. She was born in 1889 in Tennessee and was orphaned at the age of 17. She moved in with an aunt and then became a nurse in Louisville. That didn't suit her and she became a dancer with carnivals. In 1911, she joined the Al G. Barnes Circus and worked as a horseback rider, but she fell in love with the big cats.She fell in love with their trainer and married him. Soon, she was presenting the tiger act. In 1916, Mabel was attacked while rehearsing with a lion. Her face was mauled and he grabbed her arm and started rolling with her. This was her third mauling and they managed to get her free by firing blanks at the lion. She joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1922 and was with them until they banned wild animal acts in 1925. She would be horribly mauled again in 1928, but she always returned to the ring. She worked with the tigers for 60 years. Mabel died on April 20, 1968 after overdosing on barbiturates.

The Ringmasters

Harold Ronk was a long serving ringmaster for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was their singing ringmaster for 30 years.  He was born in 1921 in Canton, IL. He studied music and theater and joined the circus in 1950. He was known as the "Voice of the Circus" and retired in 1981. He died on August 02, 2006 at Canton, Illinois

Johnathan Lee Iverson was the first black ringmaster and worked for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for 20 years. He started his career with the Boys Choir of Harlem. That group performed before many world dignitaries, preparing him for his greatest act, to mesmerize the family's of America who came to the circus. He was only 22 when the circus hired him and he helped Ringling's to set box office records. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith said of him, "I…liked six foot [five] youngest ringmaster ever, Johnathan Lee Iverson, who is commanding enough to be noticed in the melee, and he can sing." He performed in theater after the circus closed.

The 1915 Circus Train Disaster (Suggested by Jennifer Rodriguez)

When the Con T. Kennedy Shows were in town, newspapers would report immense crowds. The Charlotte newspaper reported in April of 1917, "Thousands of lights are used in illumination, the carnival field presenting the effect of a great mass of brilliancy. The show is the largest, the arrangement best, the exhibits and attractions the most engaging of any carnival ever held in Charlotte." But just a couple years before this, the Con T. Kennedy Carnival Show would suffer a devastating tragedy. The traveling circus had been having a very successful Fall and had just wrapped up the Harvest Festival in Atlanta. The show train was 28 cars long and full of both animals and performers, several of whom were not officially recorded because circuses were very transient at this time with people coming and going. The group was heading to Phoenix, Arizona and was outside Columbus, Georgia when tragedy struck at 1:26 in the afternoon of November 22nd, 1915.

A steel passenger train slammed into the circus train with both traveling 30 miles per hour. The passenger train held up well against the crash with no fatalities, but the circus train was devastated. The engines of both trains fused together. People were trapped in the front of the train and Con Kennedy led a group of performers in an attempt to save them. This was far worse than just being trapped. A fire started. Two of the carnival performers, Fred and Myrtle Kempf, could not get free, so they passed their daughter out to rescue workers. The child survived while they died. Two carloads of animals went up in flames as well. When the fire was finally out after several hours, there were 50 Kennedy carnival workers injured with an undetermined amount of dead. Nobody knew real names or how many people were actually on the train. Some victims had been thrown and were unrecognizable. One victim had a mysterious story to do along with his death. Because he was a she. The clothing and androgynous look left people thinking the victim was a man until it was clear that this was a woman. She had clearly disguised herself as a man to be a part of the circus.

There was a mass funeral at Columbus’s First Baptist Church and then bodies were placed in a mass grave at Riverdale Cemetery. The carnival's band played on borrowed instruments. The mass grave can be found directly across from South Commons in Columbus. Con Kennedy erected the memorial and it reads "Erected by the Con T. Kennedy Shows In Memory of Their Comrades Who Lost Their Lives in a Railroad Wreck Near Columbus, Ga., Nov. 22, 1915." The passenger train's conductor was found at fault because he ignored orders to stop for the show train.

The train wreck has lead to alleged hauntings. Every October there is the annual fair hosted on the South Commons in Columbus. Many fair goers probably don't even know about the wreck lending credibility to their stories. In the early 1990s, a woman and her six-year-old son boarded the ferris wheel and soon felt as though they were not alone. Other riders on the ferris wheel have claimed to see a male and female in period clothing riding in an empty car on the Ferris Wheel. There are other reports of people wandering the fairgrounds in period clothing. One of these is a man who disappears indicating this isn't someone in costume. There has also been a little boy running around with a nickel trying to buy things and, of course, in our time there is nothing for a nickel. The creepiest report is of a floating apparition near the crash site that has no arms, legs or basically a floating torso.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Train Wreck

There was another tragic train wreck that occurred three years later. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was a circus that traveled across America in the early part of the 20th century. Although it was not as famous as the Ringling Brothers circus, it was the second largest circus in America when tragedy would hit, twice. It was based out of Indiana and started as the Carl Hagenbeck Circus. Hagenbeck had been an animal trainer and it is thanks to him that circus animals were trained with rewards rather than fear. The Wallace Circus was just getting under way at the same time under James Anderson and Benjamin Wallace and officially became the B. E. Wallace Circus under just Wallace in 1890. As happened with so many circuses at the time, Wallace grew his circus by buying the Carl Hagenbeck Circus and the two merged into the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The first tragedy occurred during the Great Flood of 1913. The circus lost much of its menagerie. Eight elephants, eight horses and twenty-one lions and tigers were killed. After that Wallace sold his interest in the circus to Ed Ballard.

On June 22, 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was on their train traveling to a performance near Hammond, Indiana. Another train, an empty troop train, was heading towards them and the engineer had fallen asleep. At 4am, the two trains collided and the kerosene lamps on the circus train started a fire. The railroad cars were made of wood and the fire quickly spread. When the fire was over, 127 people had been injured and 86 had been killed. No animals were injured or died because they had been on a different train that arrived safely at its destination. The clown Big Joe Coyle, lost his wife and children in the inferno. He would be sad the rest of his life, but he went on and created a vaudeville show called "George White's Scandals," which would launch the Three Stooges. There were many performers whose names were not known. They were just known by their nicknames, so that is what was put on their headstones. These were names likes "Smiley," "Baldy" and "Four Horse Driver." Fifty-three of the bodies were never identified and buried in a mass grave with five bodies officially identified and given a proper burial. These graves are at the Chicago Woodlawn Cemetery in an area called "Showmen's Rest." Other circus performers have been buried here as well and there are over 750 plots.

There are reports that Showmen’s Rest is haunted.An interesting report is the disembodied trumpeting of elephants. These sounds are mostly heard at night. There are no animals buried here and none died in the wreck. So this is really bizarre. An Oak Park Police Officer even reported that he once felt as though the ground were shaking beneath him as though there were a heavy animal running past him, something the size of an elephant.  There is laughter and circus music heard at odd times. Paranormal teams have investigated the cemetery and have experienced drained batteries and EMF activity in a cemetery with no electricity around.

Debbie shared an interesting experience she had with her dog that seems to have a paranormal connection. (Deb's Ghost Story)

The performers ARE the circus. They have brought us such joy. Some have suffered some great tragedy. Have some of these tragedies left behind hauntings? That is for you to decide!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Haunted Circus Mini-Series, Ep. 1 - History of the Circus

The Haunted Circus - History of the Circus

(Intro) Welcome to this, our first episode of a four episode mini-series on the Haunted Circus. HGB has never done anything like this before. We've never even produced a two-part episode. We have gathered so much research and audio to share with you that if we didn't go with a mini-series, we would find ourselves the Dan Carlin of haunted history. For those who don't know, Carlin produces the Hardcore History Podcast and many of those episodes run four and five hours long. Even if you don't love the circus, we think you will enjoy these episodes and they have some great haunts to go with the history we are going to share. The circus holds a special place for me. I went to the circus for my birthday every year starting when I was seven. And I joined my young niece several times as an adult. I love the circus and that is why we are doing this mini-series. This is dedicated to all the circus performers and sideshow freaks that have ever lived and who will live in the future. Thank you for your special gift to the world!

You are going to hear various voices throughout this mini-series. Debbie Fahrenbruck is a listener and she contacted us in January of 2020 with a suggestion. She thought we should look into the Al Ringling Mansion in Baraboo, Wisconsin. As her email continued with revelations that she had worked with the circus and that she had connections and that we should check out Sarasota as well, this mini-series began to take shape. As we met and interviewed people and got to tour the Ringling estate and Circus Museum here in Florida, we started to wonder how to go about organizing the mini-series, keeping in mind that we don't cover places that don't have a legend or haunt connected to them. We think what we have come up with will satisfy all of the listeners.

Nearly everyone has a memory that features the circus. Perhaps it was the first time you tried cotton candy. Or maybe the circus was the first time you saw a clown. The circus was loud and colorful, but most of all, it was magical. The animals were not in cages and they were performing tricks. Human beings could fly through the air with the greatest of ease or clamber across a thin wire. During times of turmoil, the circus was an escape and in the past when the circus came through a small town, it was like a dream. People would get to see animals in person that they may have only ever read about. Giant elephants and wild cats would parade down their main streets, heading to giant tents on the edge of town. Bright and colorful posters would decorate the town square. The circus was for everyone, regardless of class or race, whether it was as a performer, worker or guest. The circus was a beautiful show, full of energy, and some of that energy continues on in the afterlife. Join us on this first episode in the Haunted Circus Mini-series as we cover an overview of the history of the circus and discuss one of the biggest tragedies in circus history, the Hartford Circus Fire, and share the haunts connected to that event.

The circus, or some kind of performance done in a circle or ring, featuring acrobatics, amazing feats of strength, races and animals, has been around for centuries. Acrobatic performances more than likely date back to the dawn of human history. The first technical circuses would probably be the Roman Circus dating back to 500 BC and the Greek Hippodrome in 203 AD. These were nothing like the circuses to come and featured chariot races, gladiator combats and horse races. Chinese acrobats showed up around 2,000 years ago and many people in Asia would practice things like juggling, hand balancing and acrobatics for fun during the long winter months when they couldn't farm. These would all lead up to the beginning of the circus as we know it today. The person who would create the Modern Circus and be known as the "Father of the Modern Circus" was Philip Astley.

Philip Astley was born in England and he grew to love horses. He left home at the age of seventeen and joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoons where he learned to become an excellent horse rider and he started trying out tricks. He began performing shows in open fields featuring his acrobatic riding skills in 1768. The following year he opened his riding school and he popularized riding around in a circle ring that would become the standard of the circus. He didn't create this, but he did make it popular. Debbie shares about Astley. (Deb Astley) Astley also didn't use the term circus for his equestrian acts. His rival, Charles Dibdin, came up with that when he opened the Royal Circus in 1782. Astley's Amphitheater featured a platform, seats and a roof inside a wooden building and would eventually close in 1893 and be demolished. This set-up would become the standard for circuses for many years. Astley definitely seems to be the Father of the Circus.

In 1782, Astley got some competition from equestrian Charles Hughes. Hughes had worked with Astley and formed a partnership with Charles Dibdin and they opened the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. The term circus would start being used after this to refer to this new form of entertainment. The circus would spread to America with one of Hughes' students, John Bill Ricketts. (Deb Ricketts) Rickett's circus was in a wooden arena that had no roof and featured a ring that was filled with dirt and sawdust. Eight hundred people could watch the equestrian performances. After his season in Philadelphia, Ricketts moved on to New York City near the Battery. He would also start the first Canadian circus in Montréal in 1797. Ricketts spent most of his time in Philly, but he brought his circus to places throughout New England and down into Baltimore. In 1799, Ricketts' circus would come to end for the same reason as many to follow: fire. He eventually sold off his horses and was lost at sea as he sailed for England in 1802. Another British man would start a circus in America and this was equestrian Philip Lailson. In 1802, he would introduce Mexico to the circus. Up until this point, the only animals in the circus were the horses. In 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant to America and he began displaying it.

Back across the pond, the circus was being introduced to Russia in 1816 by French equestrian Jacques Tourniaire. His sons continued the circus after his death and eventually took it into China and India and eventually America. Another French equestrian Louis Soullier brought the circus to China for the first time. He would also find many Chinese acrobats to bring back to Europe to introduce new acts like plate-spinning, diabolo-juggling, hoop-diving and perch-pole balancing.

The circus that came to Brooklyn, New York on April 10, 1871, featured a big top tent with 60 performers and could seat 5,000 people. This was P.T. Barnum's Circus Museum and Menagerie, which he had started with the help of William Cameron Coup. The museum part was an exhibition of oddities, both human and animal and would come to be known as the Sideshow. The tented circus was not how it all started for Phineas T. Barnum though. He grew up from humble beginnings and his father died when Barnum was a teenager, leaving the family destitute. Barnum was not one for manual labor, so he schemed anyway he could to make money from selling lottery tickets to being a shop clerk to selling Bibles. Now P.T. Barnum would grow to become many things and some of this is controversial today. Putting people on exhibit is not something we would do today, but for the time, Barnum was giving people who would have been tossed aside by society, a chance to be famous and make money. And many of his people would become very famous and wealthy. Barnum was a politician, writer, lecturer, intellectual, philanthropist, an entrepreneur, but most of all, a showman. In the 19th century, he was the most famous man in America.

His first venture into creating a show was buying the rights to exhibit Joice Heth, an elderly African American slave in 1835. Barnum claimed that she had been President Washington's nurse maid and that made her something like 161 years old. She was both blind and paralyzed, but this didn't stop her from making herself into an engaging "attraction." She died on February 19, 1836 and an autopsy revealed she was more likely in her eighties. This was his first attraction and would not be the first time he would use trickery to make a buck off a curious public. Barnum would redeem himself for this and the purchase of three other slaves by becoming an avowed abolitionist and he would support women's rights and People of Color's rights.

In 1841, Barnum bought Scudder's American Museum, which was located in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points. This is present day Chinatown. The name was changed to Barnum's American Museum and featured natural history collections, wax figures, a zoo, theater, museum exhibits, oddities, curiosities and a freak show. This place had everything from a Beluga Whale in an aquarium to Grizzly Adam's trained bears to the Feejee Mermaid, which is where he got his start when it came to exhibiting oddities. As we all know, it turns out that the mermaid was actually a mummified monkey's torso attached to a large fish's tail. This museum would get 15,000 visitors a day and more people visited it between 1841 and 1868 than the population of America at the time. This museum would launch the freak show, so now would be a good time to talk about its origins.

To be clear, Barnum didn't create the exhibition of oddities. Traveling fairs had exhibited sideshow attractions for hundreds of years. Barnum knew that the most popular attractions would prove to be animal and human oddities and what he did that brings him much of the credit for sideshows is made it a real show. It was all about the marketing. And obviously what we are referring to as oddities, we all know today are medical conditions. The most famous and first would be the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. They were born in Siam in 1811 and arrived in America in 1829 with a manager who took them on tour. Eventually they would leave the manager and tour on their own. They did work with Barnum and appeared at his American Museum, but he never was their manager.

The next famous sideshow act would be General Tom Thumb, who was really named Charles Stratton. He was a little person whom Barnum convinced to join his cast of sideshow freaks when he was just eleven-years-old. The two men would become lifelong friends and were actually distant cousins and Tom Thumb would begin his career in 1843, gaining so much fame that he visited with Queen Victoria three times and his wedding in 1863 became the event of the year in New York City. Thumb died at the age of 45 in 1883 and never grew taller than 2 feet, eleven inches. General Tom Thumb would just be the first of many little people to gain fame as sideshow freaks. There would be Major Mite, Harold Pyott and Anita the Living Doll. They would all come to call themselves Lilliputians and some would take on specialties like the world's smallest strong man or smallest daredevil. On the other extreme were the giants. We've talked about Robert Wadlow from Alton, Illinois on a couple of episodes. He was the world's tallest man. Famous tall sideshow acts were Patrick O’Brien the Irish Giant and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant.

There were also the bearded ladies and dog-faced boys. These people had a condition called hypertrichosis and would grow hair in excess all over the body, particularly on the face. Some of these famous ladies were Alice Bounds the Bear Lady, Annie Jones and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady. On the male side, there was Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy. There were other extremes as well with very skinny people and morbidly obese people. And if people don't think that's entertaining, why does "My 600 Pound Life" do so well on television? The freak show continues today whether we want to admit it or not. There was even one woman who took great pride in being dubbed "The Ugliest Woman in the World." Her name was Mary Ann Bevan and she developed Acromegaly in her early thirties which caused her to have facial deformities. After her husband died, sideshows became a way for her to support her family.

Tom Norman was the English counterpart to Barnum and he wrote, "You could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told." Norman would be the final exhibitor of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. So this gives a little overview of the sideshow and as we all know, other performers would join creating acts like fire-eating, sword-swallowing and snake charming. The freak shows were clearly an essential part of the early modern circus.

So Barnum had all these sideshow acts in his museum, along with everything else and all of this would come to an abrupt end. The museum building was five stories high and would burn completely on March 3, 1868. The building a total loss and Barnum was devastated. Most people thought he would quietly retire, but two men, William C. Coup and Dan Costello, asked Barnum to join them in financing and promoting their circus. They needed his name and Barnum was happy to give it to them and jump into the traveling circus. And this is what opened in Brooklyn in 1871 as we mentioned early. After this, that circus traveled for six months throughout the Northeast and used 245 horses to pull 100 wagons.

The American Traveling Circus began in the early nineteenth century. The first man to use a full canvas tent was Joshuah Purdy Brown and he did this in 1825. A cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey was getting his start about this same time. He had an African elephant that he was touring around and he started adding other exotic animals to it, so that he had a traveling menagerie. Both Brown and Bailey were from Somers, New York and this area would launch many of the same ventures that eventually joined forces and formed the Zoological Institute, a trust that controlled thirteen menageries and three affiliated circuses. This is how many of the American circuses started. They were run by businessmen with traveling zoos. The European circuses were mainly performing families. Eventually, the American circus would be this too with circus performing running for generations in families and you'll hear more about that in future episodes.

Wild West Shows were another version of the circus in that they were traveling vaudeville performances. The first show started in 1870 with the most famous ones being hosted by Buffalo Bill Cody. These shows would continue until 1920. Performers ranged from trick riders to outlaws to shooting stars like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane to Native Americans to wild animals. Buffalo Bill's shows would tour Europe eight times as well. Other wild west shows were Texas Jack's Wild West, Bee Ho Gray's Wild West, Pawnee Bill's Wild West, Jones Bros.' Buffalo Ranch Wild West, "Buckskin Joe" Hoyt and the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which we covered in Episode 101.

Adam Forepaugh was an American entrepreneur and he was about to burst upon the circus scene in 1865. He would become a major rival to Barnum and Coup's Circus. Forepaugh started his life in poverty just like Barnum. He grew up in Philadelphia, but ran away to Ohio and got started in the livestock business. He made his fortune selling horses to the government during the Civil War and was considered an expert judge of horses. It would be a bad debt that would get Forepaugh into the circus. He sold a bunch of horses to a circus owner who did not pay the bill, so Forepaugh made a deal in which he got part ownership of the circus. (And may I just say, this Forepaugh guy had some amazing munton chops!) Forepaugh added a lot to the circus by incorporating Wild West Shows into his circus and he was the first to separate the menagerie into its own separate circus tent, so churchgoers wouldn't have to be scandalized by performances. He also was the first to hire a black elephant trainer.

Forepaugh and his partner, Pogey O'Brien, would invest in another circus and they would combine and split the circus assets up into two circuses: The Dan Rice Circus and The Great National Circus. That didn't last long and eventually Forepaugh split off taking just the Dan Rice Circus. The circus that Forepaugh ran would be the biggest rival to Barnum, but he lacked the showmanship of Barnum. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the two men would sign truces that divided up the nation between them, so that they wouldn't be trying to perform in the same places. They would combine their efforts and have their circuses perform together; however, twice. Once in Philly and once at Madison Square Gardens. By 1889, Forpaugh was done and sold the bulk of his circus to James Bailey and his railroad cars to the Ringlings.

And speaking of railroad cars, let's flip back to the 1870s again. The use of horse-drawn wagons was becoming a real issue and so William Coup talked to Barnum about using trains to move the circus. So in 1872, the circus train became a thing. Circuses up to this point had also just been one ring events and Coup added a second ring. This meant that the canvas tent was going to need to grow. So the tents grew and then more rings would be added until some circuses featured seven rings. In 1874, Coup and Barnum built the Hippodrome in New York, which would become Madison Square Garden. By 1875, Coup was done with the circus. So we just mentioned a Hachaliah Bailey who started one of the earliest American circuses with an elephant. His nephew was Frederick Bailey and James Bailey would take his surname from Frederick after the man took him under his wings when he was a teenager and made him his assistant with circus advertising. Bailey was just twenty-two in 1869 when he joined forces with James Cooper and started the Cooper and Bailey Circus. This circus would travel throughout Polynesia and down into Australia. Bailey would be the first circus showman to have electric lights on the circus grounds. He sold tickets for a tour of the generator that powered the lights and it was a main point in his advertising.

In 1881, James Bailey and P.T. Barnum became partners and started the Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth." This would be America's first three-ring circus. The show added Jumbo the Elephant in 1882 and he would be a big time attraction until he was killed when he was hit by the circus train. Barnum died of a stroke in 1891, leaving behind his second wife and two of his four daughters who were still alive. Bailey took the circus over to Europe after that and taught them how to have a traveling circus. This helped the tented circus to become a thing at the turn of the twentieth century. He returned to America in 1902 and discovered some new competition from the Ringling Brothers. They were five brothers who founded their circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1884 and they were immensely successful. They had already purchased shares of the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus at this point. Two of our episodes will be dedicated to the Ringlings, so we will discuss their personal histories later and more about their formation of their circus. Bailey died young at the age of 58 in 1906 and his widow sold the circus to The Ringlings in 1907. The Ringling Circus and the Barnum and Bailey Circus would remain separate until 1919 when they were combined to what we know today. European circuses would reach their peak between the two World Wars.

Now might be a good time to share how the circus traveled by train and the best way to do this is to share our experience at the Circus Museum down here in Sarasota. Virginia Harshman walked us through this immense model of The Howard Bros. Circus, which is a ¾-inch-to-the-foot scale replica of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus circa the 1920s. (Virginia Circus Model)

The Golden Age of the circus would belong to the Ringling Brothers. When the last Ringling Brother, John, died in 1936, his nephew John Ringling North became the director of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. Under his direction, the tented circus would come to an end in 1956 and the circus would move to venues like coliseums and stadiums that were air-conditioned. North ran the circus until 1967 and then he sold it to Israel and Irvin Feld. In 1982, Kenneth Feld took over for his father and the circus has been under his direction since then, up until its closure in May 2017. The Ringling Circus was closed after 146 years. But the circus was not done. It continues on in other forms, particularly in Europe. The Big Apple Circus started in 1977 and Guy Laliberte started Cirque du Soleil in Quebec in 1984. And...well...The Ringlings Circus is coming back too!

Hartford Circus Fire

One of the greatest tragedies of the circus occurred in 1944. This was the Hartford Circus Fire and the tragic event has left behind a residue that has fed some haunts. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had set-up their tents on the Barbour Street fairgrounds of Hartford, Connecticut. There was a keen excitement in the air, as there always was when the circus was in town. Seven hundred employees of the circus had set up the massive big top as well as all the other tents and concessions. The canvas tent could accommodate 12,000 people and was 450 feet long and 200 feet wide There were six poles supporting the tent that weighed 19 tons. Now, there were nearly eight thousand people filing into the big top to watch the performances on that hot July 6th day. There were folding chairs for reserved seats and bleachers for open sitting.

During the earlier part of the 1944 season, the circus had experienced three minor fires, which had caused no damage, nor hurt anyone. There was no reason to think that today would be a day that would bring one of the most devastating fires in American history. It really was amazing that something like this fire had not happened sooner. The big top was not fireproofed and the way that it was waterproofed made it dangerous. Sixty barrels of yellow paraffin wax were boiled and thinned with 6,000 gallons of Texaco white gasoline. This mixture was then poured from watering cans and brushed onto the surface of the top of the tent. The circus would have been able to get fireproof canvas if they had agreed to perform in military bases. The material was a war priority and so the circus could not get it without making the deal, which they did not. John Ringling North was okay with it, but his cousins were not.

To facilitate the entrance of the animals to the tent, a waist-high steel runway was used, which blocked or obstructed the exits. The first act that day was Alfred Court's lion performance and that was followed by the Great Wallendas doing their highwire act. The hobo clown, Emmett Kelly, was delighting children in the crowd. It was during the Wallendas' performance that the bandleader, Merle Evans spotted flames. He immediately started the band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, which was a signal to circus employees that there was an emergency. Several buckets of water were thrown at the flames, but they did nothing to put out the fire. The flames moved slowly at first, but a gust of wind blew them up the side of the tent and across the top. The power failed as the ringmaster, Fred Bradna, tried to tell the audience not to panic. When people started seeing flames, they panicked and rushed the exits that were blocked by animal cages and the runway. The Wallendas quickly climbed down to the ground to get to safety.

Employees grabbed knifes and sliced open the tent and started pulling children and people out and terrified parents handed their children over barriers to save them. Folding chairs upended, making it harder for people to get out. Maureen Krekian was 11 years old when she went to the circus in Hartford. She had gone all by herself and she said of the incident, "I remember somebody yelling and seeing a big ball of fire near the top of the tent. And this ball of fire just got bigger and bigger and bigger. By that time, everybody was panicking. The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. And there was a man taking kids and flinging them up and over that cage to get them out. I was sitting up in the bleachers and jumped down — I was three-quarters of the way up. You jump down and it was all straw underneath. There was a young man, a kid, and he had a pocketknife. And he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out."

Bits of burning canvas and paraffin rained down on the crowd. The scene was mass chaos. Within eight minutes of seeing the first flame, the big top collapsed, trapping anyone still inside. Hot paraffin wax burned people, while others either asphyxiated or were trampled to death. Ten minutes from the first flame and the tragedy was basically over. The fire department arrived in time to do basically nothing. The only animals in the tent were the lions and they got out with minor burns. Over 700 people suffered injuries and were taken to three different hospitals. One hundred sixty-eight people died between the fire and later that week, with half of them being children. Officials tried their best to sort out the bodies and they were carried to a nearby armory for families to identify. The work was done quickly and most bodies were removed within an hour and a half. One third of the victims had to be identified with dental charts. Flags were lowered to half-staff at the state capitol.

The circus was supposed to go to New York for its next performance, but instead went back to its winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida. Several circus personnel were brought in for questioning as officials tried to figure out what happened. In the end, they found that a discarded cigarette on some dry grass near the tent, started the flames. Citations were issued against the circus for many deficiencies, which included: location of the animal chutes, insufficiency of personnel, failure to maintain an organization to fight the fire, failure to flameproof, the location of supply wagons, lack of firefighting equipment and failure to distribute firefighting equipment. Nine circus employees would be arrested and charged with manslaughter. Seven would be found guilty and given one- year prison sentences. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey ended up paying out $4 million in claims.

Something this tragic has unsurprisingly lead to ghost stories and legends. Apparitions were reported soon after the fire at the fairgrounds. A housing project was built nearby after the fire and many residents claimed that the fairgrounds were haunted. They would hear disembodied weeping and screaming. The most terrifying images would be of flaming spirits running around. A man had recently relocated to Hartford and one night he claimed to see a boy that looked like he was burning, running past his apartment. A trail of smoke followed the boy and the man took off after him thinking that he needed help. The boy ran around a corner and when the man got there, he could find the boy nowhere. This man had not heard of the fire because he was so new to Hartford. A memorial plaque near the site also plays host to ghosts who hang around it. A school eventually replaced the apartment building and children and teachers claimed to have weird experiences that they attributed to victims of the fire.

We found another haunting connected to a circus. The Gandini Circus began in the early 1900s and had a run that ended in the mid-1930s. The circus would winter in Edmond, Oklahoma and then spend the rest of the year touring nearby states. The circus was bought by the Clyde Bros. Circus and then the Hagen Bros. Circus and then left abandoned in an empty wooded lot in Edmond, Oklahoma. It's been featured by Atlas Obscura and is already pretty creepy looking with rusted out cages, broken popcorn machines and a disintegrating bus. Locals claim that the abandoned grounds are haunted. There are tales of spirit animals in the cages and of ghost clowns wandering the grounds.

And I don't know if this really counts, but Circus Circus in Las Vegas is reportedly haunted by several ghosts, most of whom were murdered. None of the performers have died that I'm aware of, so none of these spirits are directly related to the circus.

The circus brings great joy, but the Hartford Circus Fire brought great tragedy. Do spirits linger after this fire? Are the abandoned grounds of the Gandini Circus haunted? That is for you to decide!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

HGB Ep. 331 - Greenwich Village

Moment in Oddity - Dracula Parrot
Suggested by: Jannae McCabe

Parrots are adorable birds and so smart. Most of the time, when we picture one in our head, we envision them with bright plumage. If you add a Cockatoo into the mix, you see white. But would you ever imagine a parrot with black feathers? Enter the Pesquet's Parrot! This variety is nicknamed the Dracula Parrot and it truly fits that name. Their beaks are pitch-black, the feathers of their chest are black and gray and their wings and lower body have bright red feathers. When they are in flight, their wings look like they are painted with a broad red stripe. Males have a very small red patch behind their ears. The Dracula Parrot's tail feathers are short, but broad. These beautiful birds are only found in the mountains of New Guinea. This parrot is large and one-of-a-kind and perfectly suited for Dracula's shoulder and that, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Battle of Iwo Jima Ends

In the month of March, on the 26th, in 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima came to an end. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this battle that was immortalized in a picture that we all know so well featuring Marines raising an American flag on the island. The Battle of Iwo Jima was a major battle during World War II that began on February 19, 1945 and lasted for five weeks. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war occured at this time. Although an American victory was almost guaranteed, the beginning stages did not go well as the terrain proved to be more difficult than what had been thought and that the Marines suffered an 83.3% casualty rate with the first wave of landings. The United States Marine Corps and Navy eventually captured the island from the Imperial Japanese Army. The island proved to not be strategically important since it could not be used as a base of operations, but psychologically it benefited the Allies. The aforementioned picture of "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" was taken by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945. The black and white photograph depicts six Marines from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village is on the island of Manhattan in New York City. After European settlement, this area would become a place for carriage houses, black servant quarters and row homes. The area would industrialize and become home to slums. Eventually, the avant-garde would come and soon beatniks, hippies, artists and homosexuals called The Village home. Upscale stores moved in and New York University bought up historic buildings and gutted them. Residents have not embraced these changes, nor does it seem, have the ghosts. Join us as we share the history and hauntings of Greenwich Village.

The island was named for the Manhatta Lenape tribe and was first mapped by the Dutch East India Company's British navigator Henry Hudson. By 1624, a fur-trading settlement was set-up and Fort Amsterdam was built on the southern tip of Manhattan. The island was purchased by the Dutch from the Manhatta in 1626 for around $24. The Native Americans had used what was a very hilly island for hunting and fishing rather than living space. Obviously, Manhattan is not hilly anymore and that is because most of it was dynamited to get it flatter. By 1673, the future Greenwich Village had become a hamlet of carriage houses and homes known as Groenwijck, which means Green District. The community officially became Greenwich Village in 1712. Greenwich Village was originally separated from New York City by water. The borough was laid out on land located on the east and west sides of the Minetta Creek with a main landmark called Washington Square Park. The homes of doctors and lawyers and the other rich and influential of New York were built around the park. Eventually, high rises would be built, along with office buildings. The Gay Rights Movement would be born here as was Howdy Doody. But as is the case with all neighborhoods, things would change again as upscale stores moved in and housing became more expensive.

The Village has always held an aura for gay people and when we found out that NY Ghosts hosted a ghost tour through it, we were excited! We met our tour guide, Damien, under the arch in Washington Square Park. The temperature had dipped down into the twenties with a brisk wind that would send the wind chill down below the twenties. This was going to be a tough tour for these Floridians, but we learned so much about this area of New York City that it was worth the sacrifice. We were joined on the tour by a couple from Montreal, who were much more prepared for the weather. Damien introduced himself and let us know he would be sharing just as much history as ghost stories and that he would take us places not on the normal tour, which was perfect for us. He clearly loves the Village and knows his stuff and has lived in Alphabet City for many years. He was full of great tips and taught us to cross streets like a native New Yorker.

Before we get into the tour, one of the places we passed was the Stonewall Inn. Damien didn't share any stories other than to tell us the riots had taken place here, so clearly, he didn't know it was haunted. We were going to catch a drink there after the tour, but we were so frozen, we waited until the next day. This was special for us in many ways. One, this was the place where the Gay Rights Movement started. But this was also a part of the episode that had been nominated for an award and the reason we were even here. (We share our thoughts about drinking at the bar and the people we met.)

Washington Square Park

Let's start with Washington Square Park since this is where we started and ended the tour. This is a place full of history and many reasons for being haunted.  Washington Square started as a small marsh through which the Minetta Creek flowed. The Dutch freed their slaves and gave them plots of land near the creek as a kind of buffer against the Native Americans that they had run off. This became known as "The Land of the Blacks." Eventually, the park would become the heart of Greenwich Village and many rich families would build their homes around it. Over time it would become a central place for the avante garde to gather. The most prominent feature here is the Washington Arch named for our first president to whom it is dedicated and two of his statues are a part of this gorgeous piece. It's officially known as the Memorial Arch  and is located at the north end of the park. The original arch was designed by New York architect Stanford White and erected in 1889. That was not anything like this one having been made from wood and decorated with items made from papier-mache. The one that is here now was also designed by White and made from Tuckahoe marble with construction beginning in 1890 and completed in 1895. One might wonder why it took five years to build this monument.

Washington Square Park is a graveyard. Thousands of people were buried here and never moved. So one can imagine that when ground was broken for the monument, workers found a lot more than just dirt. When it was complete, the arch stood seventy-seven feet tall and had a Beaux Arts styling.David H. King, Jr. who built the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, supervised construction of the arch. Many artists contributed their works to the memorial with the two statues of Washington being added in 1916 and 1918. The arch itself is the scene of one of the ghost stories told here. As World War I started, there were a group of artists who decided that they should declare Greenwich Village its own sovereign nation. They decided to do this from the top of the arch. They brought up balloons and lanterns and lit a fire as they read their declaration and celebrated. Even though they were probably drunk, nobody managed to fall off. But many people walking through the park at night have witnessed the scene on top of the arch as it plays over again in a residual manner.

This park is full of spirits. As we mentioned, this was a graveyard and thousands of people were buried here in mass graves and unmarked graves as epidemics would course through the area. The Manhatta were also driven from this area and people see their spirits here too, possibly trying to return to a place that was there hunting ground. Edgar Allan Poe's spirit had been seen walking through the park. And in the northwest corner is the Hangman's Elm. This is one of the oldest trees in New York and legend claims that it was used to hang and lynch many people in the past. The main branch that was used, broke off in the 1990s, but that doesn't stop people from claiming to see shadowy figures hanging from the tree. Spectres are seen gathering around the base of the tree and it is thought they are spirits of executed prisoners from a nearby jail. There is a ghost dog here too. Many think that this is Fala, President Franklin Roosevelt's beloved Scottish terrier who died in 1952. Fala was buried next to FDR in Hyde Park, but had spent a lot of time near Washington Square Park when Eleanor Roosevelt lived in Greenwich Village. Perhaps the pup loved its time at the park so much that it has returned on occasion in the afterlife. 

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The Brown Building that is now owned by New York University had once been home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The factory was located on the top three floors of what was called the Asch Building at the time and this was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. This was a dangerous sweatshop. Damien shares about sweatshops here in The Village and then starts to tell us of the tragedy that took place here. (Damien Shirtwaist)

We'll take over the story as the wind drowns out Damien. So yeah, these women were locked into the building like prisoners, having to prove that they didn't have material in their bags in order to be let out. As fire breaks out, the guy with the key leaves without unlocking the door. Five hundred women are left inside. The day was March 25th in 1911, so almost 109 years ago. And while the cause of the fire is blamed on an employee, the two men who owned this factory had a history of suspicious fires in their factories. It seems they liked to collect the insurance money and so they were unwilling to install safety measures like sprinklers. The factory was built in a very precarious way too with only one elevator working and a long narrow corridor that employees had to navigate to get to the elevator. The elevator was only able to make four trips, carrying 12 women at a time, before it broke down. The fire escape was very narrow and the fire hose was rotted.

Some women jumped down the elevator shaft to their deaths. Others made it to the bottom of the stairs, only to find a locked door. The employees and owners above the fire managed to get to the roof and make their way over to other buildings. Other trapped women started making the awful decision to jump from the windows. For those of us that witnessed the tragic events of 9/11, we all can envision this scene quite well. The firefighters were helpless to do much as their ladders only reached the seventh floor and the fire started on the eighth floor. Multiple girls would jump into a net together, shredding the net and making it useless. The tragedy was over in 18 minutes and 145 people were dead. The owners were never indicted and they only paid families of victims $75 of the $400 that the insurance company paid out for each victim. If any good came from this, it was that fire safety standards had to be met and labor laws were enacted. This was the largest disastrous fire in New York City until 9/11. And this kind of tragedy leaves behind immense spiritual residue. People claim to see the images of women falling from the building and that these shadows dissipate as they approach the ground. Students in the building have felt as though they are having panic attacks and a sudden need to evacuate the building.

New York University Library

The library for New York University is called the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. It's been open since 1973. There were many protests to it being opened, especially since it is tall. And that height had caused an unexpected issue in more recent years. Damien explains. (Damien Library) So eight students committed suicide here, according to Damien. Wikipedia has three as well as some news sources. The suicide panels are a unique design and it certainly was chilling to learn their real purpose.

Brittany Residence Hall 

Over and over you will hear us referencing how New York University destroyed much of the history in The Village. Our new friend at the bar hates NYU for just this reason. They have totally changed the landscape of The Village. This is not the artist or gay mecca that it had once been. And this is one of the, if not THE, most expensive schools in the country. Even topping the Ivy League schools. So they have the money to restore rather than destroy. One place they changed was The Brittany Hotel, which is now their Brittany Residence Hall. This is located at 55 East 10th Street, at the northwest corner of Broadway, across from the Gothic styled Grace Church built in 1846 by James Renwick. The dormitory rises to 15-stories and was built in 1929 as a residence hotel. It had multi-pane casement windows and a Gothic styling. These windows were replaced with single pane windows by the university. The former penthouse is now a 24-hour study hall. In its heyday, this served as a speakeasy. There are still false walls behind the bookcases. Famous people who have lived here include Al Pacino, Adam Sandler, Debbie Harry and Jerry Garcia. There was also a four-year-old girl who had lived here and her spirit may still be here.

This little four-year-old girl was named Molly and she apparently fell down the elevator shaft when the hotel was being built. Residents have seen her spirit in the hallways. She's not the only one heard and seen. Disembodied heavy footsteps are heard and there is music that is heard that no one can figure out where it is coming from. A former resident claimed that he and his fiancé were kept awake all night by a presence they couldn't see. Another former resident named Karen claimed to have what almost sounds like a sleep paralysis experience, although it continued to the point that most of us would call it a possible haunting. Karen had come in late one night and her roommate was already fast asleep. Karen got into bed, but she tossed and turned and was fully awakened when she felt a force pressing down on her and she couldn't breathe. She sat up thinking she was having a dream and then she realized that something was still holding her legs. She could see a dim shadowy figure at the end of the bed and its hands were around her ankles. Karen started screaming and her roommate snapped on the light. The figure was no longer there. And Karen moved to a different dorm.

Edgar Allan Poe's House

As we make our way to a place where Edgar Allan Poe once lived, Damien tells us about the artists moving in here. (Damien Intro) And then we arrive at a special treat for us. We had forgotten that Poe had lived in The Village before moving into his cottage in the Bronx. It wasn't for a long time - 1844 to early 1846 - but apparently he haunts the place. This is not the original building. New York University bought it and planned to demolish it, but preservationists made the university sign a deal in which they dismantled the house, but used the bricks to recreate the facade within the structure and they also had to place a plaque outside explaining its historical significance. (Damien Poe) Now, according to Tom Ogden's "Haunted Greenwich Village" book, Poe doesn't haunt the building, but the spirit of a mentally ill woman does. Her family had kept her confined in the attic. So is it this female spirit haunting the place or is Damien right in thinking that an autistic woman was locked away here? And we also want to point out the same point we made in our Poe episode. Many people get their information on Poe from Rufus Griswold's biography of Poe and Griswold hated Poe because Poe had given him lots of bad literary critiques. He is the one that had people convinced that Poe was a womanizing drunk who did drugs. So we don't agree with what Damien had said here about Poe.

Firehouse No. 2/Anderson Cooper's House

Right across the street from Poe's place, at 84 West Third Street, is Anderson Cooper's Place: an old firehouse and former brothel. The news personality bought the old station in 2009. Before that, this had been a full functioning firehouse. And even before that happened in 1960, it had been home for a volunteer fire department. But even before that, The Village's most popular brothel had been built here. Seeing any firehouse in New York is pretty poignant for Americans. The next day, we would be visiting the 9/11 memorial and many NYFD members lost their lives on that day. Dutch colonists had set-up a fire department of sorts all the way back in 1648 as a type of fire watch headed by eight wardens. They would work during the days, and at night the "Prowlers" would take over. These were groups of men that walked the streets from 9pm to dawn, carrying buckets of water like a traveling "Bucket Brigade." Things became more official in 1736, when two fire trucks were added to the force. This group was small and all volunteer. In 1865, the fire department would move from volunteer to paid, professional firemen.

Now, there was something different about the firemen at this particular firehouse. This was not an official NYFD house and was referred to as a Fire Patrol. This was owned by an insurance company and the main duty of the firemen employed here was to save the stuff inside burning buildings to mitigate losses. This was run by the Mutual Assistance Corporation. The Fire Patrol would rush into a business and pull out everything that could be removed. Whatever could not be removed, would be covered with a tarp to protect against ash and water. The Fire Patrol would then pump out the water that the firemen were using to put out the fire to lessen the water damage. After the fire was out, the patrol would clean up and secure the building, so thieves and vandals couldn't get inside. The Fire Patrol could be identified by their red helmets. And up until 2000, they were answering the call at 10,000 fires a year. They saved millions of dollars in equipment and priceless works of art and such. Despite this being the main duty of the patrol, they responded on 9/11 and one of their own was lost. The last of the ten patrol firehouses that had originally been founded was closed in 2006.

That is when this firehouse, Patrol No. 2, was closed: 2006. The building was originally constructed in 1906 and was designed by architect Franklin Baylis in the Beaux-Arts style. There is a large garage door with the head of the god Mercury above it, which symbolizes swiftness. A pair of terra cotta trumpets are along the roofline on opposites sides of the date "1906." Anderson Cooper has done a beautiful job of fully restoring the exterior and interior and turned it into his private residence. We're not sure what the inside looks like now, but during its fire days, the interior was made from brick set in a herringbone design and the walls were decorated with glass tiles that made up murals depicting the history of the Fire Patrol. To get to the upper floors, firemen would go up a narrow spiral staircase made of metal and they would come down via a brass pole. Four fire plaques honoring the fallen men of this house were up on the walls and were going to be thrown away when the building was up for demolition. One of the firemen's fathers grabbed the plaques. Anderson told the father that he would return the plaques to the outside of the building when the renovations were done.

Now, we don't know if Anderson was aware that the firehouse was haunted before he bought it, but he probably knows now. Damien tells us about it and some of the ghost stories. (Damien Firehouse) Many of the firefighters claimed to have either heard, felt or seen a spirit in the firehouse. Is the spirit of this Schwartz still hanging out here and specifically on the fourth floor? Is that why Anderson never has a light on up there?

Twin Sisters Houses
There were a couple of L-Shaped streets here in The Village that were really neat because they were unique. One of them is named Commerce Street and the Cherry Lane Theater could be found here as well as the Twin Sisters Houses. This is a fun story. It would seem a sea captain had twin daughters and he had identical homes built for them with a garden between them. A unique feature stands out right away. Both houses have no windows on the sides that face each other. Apparently, these sisters hated each other and demanded that the houses be designed this way so they wouldn't have to look at each other. Their father named the garden between the house "The Garden of Hope" as he desired that they come to love each other. That never happened and it is said that the sisters haunt their homes with their full-bodied apparitions being seen outside of the houses with their backs to each other.


Chumley's is found at 86 Beford Street. Damien told us that this was the most haunted place in The Village. It was named after Leland and Henrietta Chumley who founded it in 1928. He was a member of the International Workers of the World and although the place didn't advertise that it served booze, it was a speakeasy during Prohibition. Many famous writers loved to come here. One of the famous people to have to sleep it off in a corner booth was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway also had drinks here. The building is very old and had been around long before the bar made this its home. This brick building was built sometime in the 1820s and served as a blacksmith shop, stable, dairy and garage on the ground floor and as a working class apartment above. Damien tells us about its history and haunts. (Damien Chumleys)

So as you heard there from Damien, someone was murdered inside and Henrietta Chumley had a heart attack at her favorite table. Henrietta and Leland are said to haunt their old bar. One young man claimed to come into the bar alone and he slid into a booth that faced the fireplace. He saw an attractive woman sitting there looking at him. She raised her glass in a toast to him and then looked above him to the wall where several pictures of famous writers were hanging. He wasn't sure if she was toasting him or them. He finished his drink, slipped on his jacket and headed for the door. He decided to turn and give the woman a farewell wave and when he looked back, she was nowhere to be seen. Could this have been Henrietta? There are other ghosts here too. Employees claim that glasses smash on their own. After 9/11, it is said that the spirits of several firefighters that died have been seen gathered around the jukebox enjoying each others company in the afterlife.

Thomas Paine's House

"These are the times that try men's souls." That is a line from Thomas Paine's work "The Crisis." Paine was known as the Father of the Revolution and his writing stirred a nation to freedom. He's one of my favorite Founding Fathers and I've owned a copy of his work "Common Sense" for as long as I can remember. This was published on January 19, 1776 and sold over 100,000 copies within three months and basically challenged the reader to take up arms and fight for liberty. Toward the end of his life, Paine called Greenwich Village his home. He died here when he was seventy-two and he was an outcast at the time because of many of his anti-religion and anti-Christian writings. As a matter of fact, no church would bury him, so he was buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Rochelle. Paine's former home is known today as Marie's Crisis and can be found at 59 Grove Street. This is not the original house. A new building was put up and it ran as a brothel during the 1850s. In the 1890s, it housed a basement bar for gay men. During Prohibition, it became a bar known as Marie's and it is still that today having been renamed Marie's Crisis. This is a piano bar where Broadway actors like to come after shows and give impromptu performances. There was a queue of people waiting outside to get in when we passed by.

One of the spirits that is said to be here is that of Thomas Paine himself who seems to either like his former home or be at unrest for a reason. Perhaps that reason is the fact that a man had him disinterred so that he could be given an honorable burial over in Britain, which is where he was originally from, and that man died before the bones were buried and now they have become lost. A disembodied voice that seems to be debating has been heard often in the bar. One piano player claimed that he saw a bright red orb when he was playing and this orb started to come at him, scaring him so bad that he would not return to the bar. He said that it was not only red, but it gave off a lot of heat.

House of Death

The townhouse at 14 West 10th Street in New York City is a beautiful Greek Revival Home built in the late 1850s. The brownstone has played host to many of New York's elite and was even home to Mark Twain for a year in 1901. It sits on a beautiful picturesque block and many people would probably just walk by the townhouse without the slightest shudder. But shudder they should because this townhouse has a dark past that has led to it being nicknamed "The House of Death." Death came in many forms here from suicide to murder to natural death. For this reason, it is believed that the brownstone is haunted by many spirits, one of whom is Mark Twain. Is the reputation deserved and is it possible that somehow this building itself has become a portal bringing nefarious creatures into our world?

James Boorman Johnston was a son of the prominent Scottish-born New York merchant John Johnston. He had been a founding member of the Metropolitan Underground Railroad and the Broadway Underground Railroad. His wife was one of the first residents at “Number 14.” At that time, it was a single family home. In 1900, Mark Twain took up residence and stayed for a year. Later, another couple had moved in and while details are hard to find, it would seem that a murder suicide resulted from the relationship. As the years went by, a need for housing grew in the city. Brownstones started converting to multi-family apartments. 14 West 10th Street converted into ten apartments in 1937.

Jan Bryant Bartell was an actress, author and poet. She and her husband moved into the House of Death into a top floor apartment in the 1970s. This had been the former servants' quarters. They had only lived there a short time when strange things began to happen. Their dogs seemed to see something they could not and they reacted very negatively towards whatever it was. Then Jan noticed it too. She described it as a “monstrous moving shadow.” Things got so bad that Jan decided to call in some help and she contacted a ghost hunter. Not any ghost hunter. She called Hans Holzer, who was a world renowned expert in the paranormal. He came to the house and confirmed her suspicions that something supernatural was going on at the apartments. They both believed that several people had died in the brownstone from mysterious causes. But nothing he did helped and Jan believed he made matters worse for her and her husband. She decided to document their experiences in a book that she published in 1974 called "Spindrift: Spray from a Psychic Sea." Jan had considered herself a skeptic, but now she believed in the paranormal and even thought she had become somewhat psychic herself. Jan and her husband moved out of Number 14 in 1973. Sadly, Jan died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. She never got the chance to enjoy the publication of her book. Some believe she has returned to Number 14. There are even those who claim that she herself died in the house, but there is no evidence to back that up.

Damien talks about the house and his thoughts on it (Damien House of Death)

Joel Steinberg was a criminal defense attorney in New York. He moved into the House of Death with his partner Hedda Nussbaum and their two illegally adopted children in the 1980s. One of the children was named Lisa. A single mother had hired Steinberg to find a family for Lisa. Instead of locating a family, Steinberg took Lisa home with himself and never bothered to file adoption papers. He more than likely was not a suitable parent and would not have passed the scrutiny because Lisa would end up dead. One of Steinberg's issues was that he liked crack cocaine. He hit six-year-old Lisa in the head one day. A call came into police that a child was not breathing at the House of Death at 7am on November 4, 1987. Lisa was rushed to the hospital where she was later taken off of life support. Her younger brother was a baby at the time and found tied to the playpen, covered in filth. He was removed from the home and Steinberg was arrested for murder. He was convicted of first degree manslaughter and sentenced to 8 to 25 years. He was released in 2004. It came to light that Steinberg had been beating Hedda as well, causing her serious permanent damage to her spine and face. He truly was a psychopath.

As you heard from Damien, one of the most prominent ghosts at the House of Death is Mark Twain. He had only lived there for a year and had not died there, but he must have liked the place since he has returned in the afterlife. People claim to have seen him wearing his standard white suit and hanging around the first floor and the staircase.

Paranormal investigators that have investigated the building, claim that there is a lady in white at the house, as well as the ghost of a young child and a ghost cat. In total, twenty-two separate entities have been counted. Several of the entities bring a darkness into the building. The feeling is oppressive and menacing. The shadows in the corners of rooms seem to have a life all their own. Did they drive Steinberg to murder or was that already in him?

Greenwich Village is a neighborhood full of wonderful history spanning decades of slums and factories to brothels and speakeasies to artist communes and civil rights battles. Today, The Village still holds much of its charm making it our favorite place we visited in New York City. We loved it so much that we had to visit during the daytime the day after our tour. Is The Village full of haunts? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
A great read and a wealth of information can be found in Tom Ogden's "Haunted Greenwich Village," published by GPP in 2012.