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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 head...so 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.
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!