by Kate Dugger
I was almost run over by a circus pony named Chaplin. I was 12 years old, and it was my job to keep him in the training ring. The whips in my hands were to convince him to mind his manners. He wasn’t convinced. He came at me, full tilt. I dove aside. After that, my name was Mud.
Growing up in Sarasota, Florida I have a story or two about the circus. This city was the winter home of the Ringling Bros. Circus for decades. Other troupes still call it home. Thanks to life on the fringes of circus subculture, I find the history and lore associated with the big top fascinating.
Since moving to Tennessee, I have tried to learn as much as I can about the history here. Curiosity had me pouring over old newspapers, magazines, and ads about the circus from more than a century ago. I have turned up interesting, funny, and tragic stories.
Hickman has quite a few of her own tales about the circus. Given the bluff city’s river traffic in her heyday, it isn’t surprising. E. Deacon Alrbight, a circus calliope player, wrote an article about his years with different circuses. The article ran in Billboard magazine, October 31, 1942.
“Let me say that there are even dogs who like the calliope … Years ago while on the river there was a point near Hickman, Kentucky, where every time we passed with the boat and I played the calliope, a big hound from a farmhouse would follow along the bank for a mile or more and the deckhands would say ‘Der come dat music-lovin dog again.’ ”
Hickman also gave birth to circus royalty, Floyd King, “Mr. Circus” in 1888. King was a businessman who threw away a chance at Trinity College (you know it today as Duke University) to run away and join the circus in 1908. His first gig was with a traveling Wild West show as a “candy butcher,” a candy vendor with circuses or carnivals. From there, King went on to wheel and deal his way to the top of the circus food chain, overcoming train strikes, the monetary black hole known as the Great Depression and two world wars. He was so successful in the circus business that he was called the John Ringling of the North. King’s career lasted for 68 years. Legend has it, King drank an entire case of Coca-Cola every day. When he traveled, he did so with two suitcases – one for clothes and the other stocked with a supply of Coke. His last few years were spent as a consultant for other shows. He died in Macon, Georgia, August 24, 1976.
In April of 1872, outside of Cairo, Illinois, the steamer Oceanus exploded, killing 12 with four others missing and presumed dead. George Constable and his wife, both of Noyes
Circus, were among those lost. They were laid to rest in Cairo. Constable (there was no mention of his wife) was reinterred a year later by a troupe of Noyes Circus performers in Hickman’s city cemetery. The funeral service was officiated by Happy Jack Lawton, who was also an orator, a temperance movement lecturer, and a clown of some renown. Sixteen years later, Lawton met his tragic end in Henderson, Kentucky, in a train accident while en route to John Robinson’s circus.
Union City, Tennessee
Since the rise of the traveling circus around the 1850s, the circus parade has always been an event worthy of great anticipation for towns across the United States. Since 1888 there has been an article at least once a year in the Commercial (The Messenger’s predecessor) heralding Circus Day, announcing that festivities would kick off with the parade traveling down First Street. The beautiful advertisements would claim “The Biggest Show on the Planet” or “Oldest, Biggest and Best is Headed This Way.” Who could resist?
An excited announcement about John Robinson’s Circus coming to Union City was published in the Commercial on September 5, 1919. It promised “A monster glittering street parade, absolutely free, a mile in length and containing hundreds of horses, scores of mounted people from all lands, a numerous glittering tableaux, open dens of rare wild beasts and birds, three herds of elephants, five bands, three calliopes and a detachment of soldiery. …” Even if a person couldn’t afford the price of admission at the circus, the free parade was a spectacle in itself. It is not hard to understand why Circus Day was regarded much like a holiday.
It was almost guaranteed that everyone would turn out of their homes to watch the parade and attend the show later. While any event was a welcome distraction from the day-to-day goings- on, it was also an opportunity for someone of a more devious nature. A 1908 Commercial published an article with the headline Trenton Victims: Shrewd Thief Makes Rich Haul With Trentonites. It reported that a tall, well-dressed individual used the town’s distraction to pilfer trunks of residents staying at a boarding house. The total dollar amount stolen was $22.50, which in today’s terms would come to about $560.
It seemed that the Union City Police Department was assisting in the investigation. However, whether or not the Circus Day thief was caught, I couldn’t determine. The newspaper was severely damaged and the second half of the article was destroyed.
Paris was another regular stop for traveling circuses. Like Union City, at least once a year there was a circus in town entertaining audiences young and old. Paris circus history is a little more colorful. In 1921, a notice was published in the Parisian. The notice stated, “If the circus this week does not have a parade, it will be through no fault of the city government.” Obviously, there was tension between the circus and the town government. Rumors were circulating that the street parade would not take place because the town wanted to tax the circus for the use of the streets. The town said there was no tax. But one would go into effect the Tuesday after the circus left town, to which any future parades would be subject to.
October 22, 1929, dawned. The stock market crashed, plunging the country into the Great Depression, and causing the Gentry Bothers Circus to flat-line financially. It was located in Paris at the time. The circus went bankrupt, the train cars and equipment were tied to the rails until the goods were sold off. Coincidentally, it was owned by Floyd King, our Hickman business student turned circus mogul.
The Sparks Brothers Circus performed in Paris on September 11, 1915. The advertisement announced that the show would be “Moral, Entertaining and Instructive.” It was the show that “Never Broke A Promise.” Mary, a famous elephant, was proudly displayed in the right hand corner. She was billed as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth. 3 Inches Taller Than Jumbo. Weighs Over 5 Tons.” The advertisement goes on to say “A Positive Feature At Each Exhibit.” That would be the last time Mary was in Paris. Tragedy struck a year later.
The darkest chapter of Tennessee’s circus history took place in East Tennessee, spanning two towns. Mary violently killed her trainer, Red Eldridge, during the parade through Kingsport. Eldridge was a hotel clerk and had no experience with elephants.
Erwin, next on the tour schedule, would not allow the circus to stop unless the elephant was destroyed. Sadly, the circus complied. Murderous Mary as the press called her, was hung by an industrial crane until dead. According to some reports, a veterinarian examined Mary and discovered she had a severely infected tooth. The tooth was right where Eldridge had been prodding her.
The Circus Golden Age has long gone. A time of technology and animal rights has dawned. While some circuses continue to endure the changing times, even Ringling Brother after 146 years of performances has announced that this would be its last season. There is a circus scheduled to stop in our area at the end of February. Make some memories with your family at the circus. The next generation might not have the option.