Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 1

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Sawdust and Spangles by William Cameron Coup
Boyhood with the Old-time Wagon Show

SAWDUST AND SPANGLES

I

BOYHOOD WITH THE OLD-TIME WAGON SHOW

As many a boy has come into the circus business in much the same manner that I entered it (at the age of fourteen years), this start in show life may be of some interest because typical of the way in which young lads drift into this wandering existence. Doing chores about my father’s tavern in a little southern Indiana town brought me in contact with such travelers as visited our quiet community. Listening to their talk and stories naturally inspired me with a desire to see something of the big and wonderful world outside our village. As this was impossible at the time, I did what seemed the next best thing so far as getting in touch with the world was concerned. When only twelve years old I took the position of "devil" in the country newspaper office, and for years worked at the printer's case, helped "run off" the paper on the old Franklin press and did almost every disagreeable task that could be put on the shoulders of a boy.

This seemed quite exciting at the start, but it finally grew monotonous, and the boyish longing for travel and adventure came back to me with redoubled force. As my mother had died when I was very young, and father had married again, surrounding himself with a second family, my home ties, though pleasant enough, were not what they might have been had my own mother lived. The printer in the little newspaper office who was dignified by the title of foreman had seemed to take quite a fancy to me, and we became rather close companions. One day when the spirit of restlessness and adventure was strong upon me I confided to him that I was tired of our slow old town and suggested that we pack our few belongings in bundles and start out for some place which would offer us a bigger chance to get on. This proposal, with the beautiful summer weather, started the slumbering tendency to wander that lurks in the heart of every true printer.

Placing a few necessaries in two bundles, we quietly left the village in regulation tramp-printer style. At length we reached Terre Haute, where I was offered employment in a newspaper office. I realized that I knew very little of the printing craft, and that it would take many years of hard, up-hill work to make me a master of the art. Consequently I determined to find some other line of employment more exciting than that of "sticking type." The first thing we heard was that a circus was showing in the town. This caught my fancy, and I told my companion that I was going to join the circus and see something of the world. He was disgusted at this proposal, and very plainly warned me that if I took such a course I would make a worthless loafer of myself. But my circus blood was up, and I put my resolve into immediate action, little dreaming that I was taking the first step in a career that was to become a part of the history of the show business in America.

The show which I joined was one of the largest then in existence, having more than a hundred horses, ten fine Ceylon elephants, a gorgeously carved and painted "Car of Juggernaut," and many other "attractions" which seemed marvelous in my boyish eyes. Not the least of these in point of attractiveness and popularity was General "Tom" Thumb, who was petted and feasted wherever he went. But Nellis, the man without arms who could paint pictures and shoot pennies from the fingers of the manager, claimed a large share of my silent admiration.

MY FIRST EXCITING EXPERIENCE

My first exciting experience came very early in my service. I had learned that the very best use to which I could put my time when not actually engaged in work was to throw myself on the nearest bunch of hay and sleep until awakened by the "boss." Having a boy's natural affinity for an elephant I chose, on this particular day, the hay near which the Ceylon drove was staked. In the midst of my dreams I was suddenly awakened by a strange sensation—a peculiar sense of motion that had something startling and uncanny about it. Then I realized that I was being lifted in the coils of an elephant's trunk. So intense was my horror at awakening to find myself in this position that I had strength neither to resist nor to cry out. My helplessness was my greatest protection. From sheer inability to do otherwise I remained entirely passive, and Old Romeo, the king of the drove, laid me gently down a little distance from the hay on which I had been sleeping. Then I understood the intelligence of the elephant and the harmlessness of his intentions. He had eaten all the hay save that on which I was stretched, and to get at this he had lifted me with as much care as a mother takes up a sleeping child whom she does not wish to waken.

THE INTELLIGENCE OF ELEPHANTS

Only one other instance of elephant intelligence ever impressed me more than this awakening in the grasp of Old Romeo. One of the small members of the drove was trained to walk a rope—or more properly a belt—the width of his foot. This performance attracted the attention of the baby elephant, and one day I noticed the little fellow stealthily unhooking the chain by which he was tethered. Then he boldly attempted to walk the guard chain which surrounds the drove in every menagerie. The same baby elephant, one day seeing the men shoveling to throw up a ring embankment, contrived to get a shovel in his trunk. At once he attempted to stab the blade into the earth. Failing in this effort to imitate the men he flew into a passion and threw the tool to the ground, trampling on it and breaking the handle.

In those first days of my novitiate I found the people almost as interesting as the elephants—which is saying much from the point of view of a boy. The crudity of society at that period is vividly illustrated by an incident which occurred soon after we had crossed over into Illinois. We were showing at the little town of Oquawka and "put up" at the only tavern there. The dining-room of this hostelry was papered with circus bills. Our first meal introduced me to a scene so outlandish that I shall never forget it. Shortly after we had seated ourselves at the rough board table, the kitchen door was pushed open by a tall, lank young countryman of a fierce and forbidding countenance. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, heavy cowhide boots—in the tops of which were buried the ends of his trouser legs—and a red flannel shirt. From his belt protruded a huge bowie knife. In his hand he carried a sixteen-quart pan heaped with steaming potatoes. As he strode across the room he shouted: "Who in hell wants pertaters?"

FIGHTS WITH THE GRANGERS

The novelty of all these curious and wonderful sights wore away after awhile, and then began my circus life in all its stern reality. The hardships and trials and the rough attachés of that "vast aggregation" can never be forgotten. If the showmen were rough, so also were our patrons. The sturdy sons of toil came to the show eager to resent any imagined insult; and failing to fight with the showmen, would often fight among themselves; for in the days of Abraham Lincoln's childhood the people divided themselves into cliques, and county-seats were often the arenas selected to settle family feuds. In other words, "fighting was in the air," and, as may be imagined, the showmen received their full share of it. It was no infrequent occurrence to be set upon by a party of roughs, who were determined to show their prowess and skill as marksmen with fists and clubs if required. As a consequence showmen went armed, prepared to hold their own against any odds. Not once a month, or even once a week, but almost daily, would these fights occur, and so desperately were they entered into that they resembled pitched battles more than anything else. Many years later, when describing this part of my career and later battles and circus fights to General Grant and Governor Crittenden at St. Louis, in which city my show was exhibiting, they admitted that my experience in thrilling and startling incidents compared favorably with their own, the difference being that they had perfect discipline and were backed by a powerful government, whilst for showmen there seemed to be little sympathy.

The roads at that time were in a terrible condition—so bad that slight rains would convert them into seas of mud, and a continued rainstorm would make them impassable.

One day one of our men became so immersed in quicksand that he sunk up to his armpits, and would have been very quickly swallowed up entirely had not some of his old comrades come to his rescue. Fastening one end of a long rope around his body, they drew him from his perilous position with the aid of a team of horses, and with so much force that a very necessary part of his attire was left completely behind him. These and other rigorous scenes were occurrences to which I became inured.

In these peaceful days it is almost impossible to realize the rough and desperate character of the people in the backwoods districts from which the old-time wagon shows drew their principal patronage. Even the latter-day circus men have no adequate conception of the improvement which time has wrought in the general character of the show-going public in the country communities. There is no denying the fact that then, as now, the attachés of the big circus were rather poor specimens of humanity; but in common justice it must be said that some of their pioneer patrons were more than a match for them. Never shall I forget the awful impression made upon my boyish mind by the first combat of this kind which I witnessed. Although I had not been long with the show, I had caught the prevailing sentiment that we were constantly in the "land of the Philistines," that the hand of every man was against us, and that our only safety was in perpetual alertness and the ready determination to stand together and fight for our rights on the slightest signal of disturbance.

"DOC" BAIRD AND THE BULLY

Connected with the side-show of the circus was a quiet inoffensive little man known as "Doc" Baird. While we were showing in a county-seat, the bully of the community, who was evidently bent upon displaying his courage, singled out the little "doctor" as his victim and proceeded to pick a quarrel with him. This proved a difficult thing to do, for Baird was decidedly pacific in his disposition and preferred to stand abuse rather than fight. I was among the attachés of the show who witnessed the trouble, and it seemed to me a shame that a big fellow like the bully should be permitted to terrorize the most inoffensive of all the showmen. Suddenly the altercation grew warmer, the bully's arm shot forward and the little doctor was knocked to the ground. Instantly, however, he was on his feet, and the next moment I heard the sharp report of a pistol, saw the smoke curl from the muzzle of the arm and watched the fall of the bully. This was the first time in my life that I ever looked upon the face of the dead or witnessed any affray of a fatal character. The shock and shuddering which it caused me were so great that I actually attempted to leave the show business, but was soon back again into the "current of destiny" and became inured to these exciting scenes.

TEASING OLD ROMEO

The circus grounds appeared to be the favorite arena for the settlement of the neighborhood feuds that were then characteristic of backwoods communities. Weapons of every sort, from fists to pistols, were employed and bloodshed was the rule rather than the exception. But the belligerent spirit of the pioneer yeomen was sometimes displayed in ludicrous ways. An instance of this character came near having a tragic ending. A party of young people halted before the elephant drove and amused themselves in teasing old Romeo. The ringleader in this reckless sport was a veritable young Amazon. For a time the patriarch of the drove, who had more good common sense than all his tormentors, stood the annoyance with dignified forbearance. But at last the big country girl succeeded in arousing his ire, and the huge elephant raised his trunk and gave her as dainty a slap, by way of warning, as was ever administered by a mother or school mistress to an unruly child. But the young woman would not take this hint that would have sent the most reckless animal-keeper of the show to a discreet retreat. Her pride was wounded before her companions. With her face flaming with anger, she leaped over the guard chain and made a vicious lunge at the shoulder of the elephant with the point of her gaudy parasol. Fortunately an attaché of the show leaped forward in time to save her. This was one of the most foolhardy displays of animal courage that I ever saw—and it was thoroughly typical of the circus-going public of the West at an early day.

THE STORY OF A STOLEN NEGRO

The sectional feeling between the North and South was also a constant menace to the showmen when traveling in the slave States, for the circus men were universally regarded as "Yankees." The exciting episodes growing out of this sentiment were numbered by the score, but the one which gave me the greatest fright was encountered in Missouri in an initial chapter of my experience.

As the caravan pulled into Booneville, early one morning, after a wearing night of marching, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded, not by the usual welcoming party of children of all colors and sizes, but by a band of lank Missourians, armed to the teeth. By this time I had developed a very respectable amount of courage for a lad; but the sight of this posse made me decidedly uncomfortable, and I'm afraid my whole body shook as badly as the voice of Mr. Butler, the manager, when he inquired the cause of our hostile reception.

"You've got a stolen nigger in your outfit, and you're our prisoners—that's what's the matter!" was the rough answer of the leader of the posse.

The gravity of our situation was at once grasped by every man who heard this announcement, for the stealing of a slave was then a far greater crime in the eyes of the community than unprovoked murder would now be. A desperate and bloody battle in which every follower of the show must look out for his own life as best he could seemed inevitable. We all kept our eyes on the manager, who was cool and of impressive manners. In those moments of breathless waiting for the fight to begin, I wished myself with the vehemence of despair safely back in the quiet little Hoosier office.

Then Mr. Butler made a plucky appeal to all reasonable men who might be in the posse. Was it not fair, he argued, that the man who had brought this accusation should come forward and make himself and his standing known? Was he a planter, the owner of slaves and a substantial citizen of the great commonwealth of Missouri? This kind of ready eloquence took with the crowd, and it was soon found that the man who had brought the report was unknown to the people of Booneville. He was unable to give a satisfactory account of himself or to prove that he ever owned a slave.

Our trouble seemed to be rapidly clearing away when one of the natives, who had been quietly investigating the caravan, brought the stirring news that he had discovered the stolen negro. Then all was excitement again, and the strain was even more intense than before, for, hidden away in one of the wagons was a black man! This mysterious evidence of guilt dumbfounded every attaché of the show save the manager, who continued to maintain his splendid nerve in the presence of a half a hundred rifles. Every instant I expected the shooting to begin.

Once more, however, Mr. Butler caught the attention of the leader and fired at the man claiming the negro a question which made the fellow turn pale. On his answer depended the issues of peace or conflict. To the surprise of the Missourians, our accuser broke down and confessed that the affair was a scheme laid by himself and the negro to blackmail from the circus manager a large sum of money. They planned that the negro should make his presence known to some citizen while the white man should circulate the rumor that his slave had been stolen by the showman. Then the white man was to go to Mr. Butler and threaten him with the wrath of the people unless a large sum was paid him to quiet the matter and make his peaceable departure with the slave. But the would-be blackmailer had started a larger fire than he had counted on and had become frightened at his own work. The moment his confession was made the mob turned upon him as fiercely as it had first started for us. Then our manager once more stepped forward and urged the cooler members of the posse to hasten the white man and negro inside the protecting walls of the jail. This they did in a hurry—and just in the nick of time, too; for the delay of a moment would have resulted in a lynching. This episode won us the admiration and respect of the rough men who had met us with loaded rifles, and we were feasted on yellow-leg chickens, hickory-cured ham, wild honey and all the delicacies that the southern planters "set out" for their guests.

HORSE THIEVES IN THE CIRCUS

It was on this trip into Missouri that we met with a very serious loss which almost crippled us for a time. The baggage train had passed en route to the city where we were to exhibit, leaving the performers, the band and ring horses, as is the custom, to follow in the rear. We had about twenty horses and ponies of great value, and of invaluable use in the show. One morning, just at daylight, the men who had charge of these horses were attacked by a gang of horse thieves, and the entire lot was taken from them. Our men were left wounded and bound with cords, lying by the wayside. Meanwhile, the tents and other paraphernalia were already in the village, awaiting the arrival of the horses. The time for the show to begin came, but still no horses appeared, and the crowds, assembled to see the performing animals, were growing impatient.

While we were in this embarrassing predicament, a citizen came riding up in hot haste, stating that he had seen and released some men who had said their horses had been stolen and who begged him to come into town and report the loss to the managers. When this news was received, it was immediately communicated to the expectant, impatient audience; but being naturally suspicious of all mankind, and especially of circus men, they thought it was a "sell" and a "Yankee trick"; but when once they were made to believe the true facts of the case they rose as one man and mounted their horses to overtake the marauders and punish them. But the thieves, having had several hours start, escaped, and after several days' search the chase was finally abandoned, and we were obliged to proceed on our way without our horses. Horse thieves in those days were very common, and were a continual annoyance to the planters and farmers, and had our thieves been captured, they would have been summarily dealt with.

Naturally, we were very much crippled with our loss; but soon the fertile brain of some of our performers secured us a means of recovering from this calamity, and we were provided with other horses which we used as substitutes for the beautiful and (for those days) highly-trained animals which had been stolen.