Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 10

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search



In a lifetime spent with the circus I have learned the heart of the people. I have felt the pulse of the multitudes who have made the history of the West. This insight into conditions of things in the West brought me many and varied experiences, some of which were rough and severe. They had their interesting sides, however, and many of them are worth the telling, if for no other reason than to throw light upon the character of the people with whom we had to deal. That the show was appreciated by these frontiersmen there can be no doubt.

In the earlier days it was the custom to have a concert in a side tent before and after the regular performance in the circus. At one place where we stopped the people paid their money and went in and enjoyed the concert; but so well pleased were they that they insisted upon a repetition of the performance. At the point of their pistols they compelled the poor minstrels to continue their antics nearly all night, until ready to drop from sheer exhaustion.


At one time, while in Texas, we were doing an act called An Indian Chase for a Wife, in which we used several guns with blank cartridges. The act opened with a lively fusillade and the reports brought a great crowd to the tent. The Texans appeared to come from every direction, many of them with revolvers ready cocked. The fact that many of them had been drinking greatly increased the perils of our situation. After careful consideration of these facts I decided not to give a night performance, and ordered an early supper so as to be able to load by daylight and, if possible, get out of town before nightfall. The seats were soon taken out and the side wall was dropped.

I sat in the cook tent, eating dinner, when a great crowd suddenly surrounded us. The leader, who claimed to be the town marshal, had his revolver pointed directly at my head, and I could see by the inflamed condition of his features that he, like the rest, had been drinking heavily. Realizing my danger, I knocked the pistol down and it went off between my feet. This was taken as the signal for a rush toward me, the crowd evidently thinking I had shot at the marshal. The noise attracted the concourse that had just left the circus and they drew up in line with revolvers cocked. A slaughter of showmen was clearly imminent.

I leaped upon a box and tried to pacify the infuriated Texans, while receiving, at the same time, their abuse. I was entirely ignorant of the cause of the disturbance and demanded to be informed of the reason of the uprising. Getting no reply, I appealed to them as law-abiding citizens, and for the first time in my life this appeal was useless.

By this time our entire force had collected, and as the show was the "First Hippodrome" and altogether the largest circus ever in the south, we had at least five hundred attachés, three hundred of whom were powerful fellows and well armed. This was the first time that I had ever thought of permitting my people to fight. Our gang was headed by my boss canvasman, "Put." I momentarily expected the attack, but just as I got down from the box a detective who was hired to travel with the show rushed upon the scene and yelled: "In the name of the United States Government, whose officer I am, I command peace!" It was surprising to see that crowd scatter, and certainly this was a master-stroke on the part of the detective. He earned more that day than I ever paid the agency for his services. In ten minutes all was calm and peaceful.


In 1859 two Philadelphia friends of mine were going to make a trip South, and offered me big inducements to join them, which I accepted. We started from Philadelphia, making our way slowly through the different States, with the usual routine of wagon-show life. No event of importance occurred until we reached Missouri. It was a most foolish trip to undertake, for the people were then so embittered by the John Brown raid that we were in constant danger. First came a tirade of the fiercest abuse and this soon led into a regular knock-down fight, which speedily developed into a shooting-scrape lasting several hours. We were compelled to defend ourselves by every method at our command. Our men were marshalled inside the tent and armed with long, heavy stakes which looked like guns and were really formidable weapons. The wagons and other available goods were grouped in a circle, and behind this pioneer fortification the men paced with their long stakes at their shoulders like the guns of sentries. In the dim light thrown by the torches they certainly looked like armed men. So formidable was our appearance the enemy thought us armed with Winchesters. By putting on this bold front the canvasmen were able to get all the loose stuff into the wagons, leaving the tents standing until the last. Finally these also were taken down and loaded. Then came the most perilous undertaking of all. To get our horses from the stables seemed at first an absolute impossibility. It was the custom, at that time, to stable our horses wherever space could be found for them, and as Granby was only a small village, nearly every stable contained one or more of our horses. We divided the men into two gangs, one of which was left to guard the property on the grounds.

Our show was situated in the public square and was thus surrounded by houses and stores, all of which were filled with armed men. By the dim light we could see our enemies running from house to house with guns in their hands. The second detachment of our men was sent to gather in the scattered horses. And a lively time they had accomplishing that business! Shot after shot was fired at them while the horses were being driven into the corral. Fortunately, however, neither man nor horse was hit.


We remained quiet until daylight, keeping constant guard, for we feared an attack at any moment; but toward daybreak we could see that the ranks of our enemy were thinning out. After careful deliberation I gave the order to march. Just as the first team was leaving the square the sharpshooters opened a vicious fire from the windows and doors of houses and stores. Practically every shot brought down a horse. Strange to say, we could not discover that a single man had been struck. Our men instantly fell into line and began firing together, but as we had only pistols the fight was against us. As our enemies were safely concealed in stores and buildings, only a few exposing themselves to our pistols, we fought at great odds. However, we kept up a rapid fusillade, and under this heavy fire we managed to get out into the open country, leaving our dead horses on the village square. Once safely outside and beyond the range of the enemy we paused for roll-call and found that three of our men were dead. This put the spirit of fight into every man in the company, and there was almost an eagerness to have another encounter.

Proceeding cautiously on our way, we came to a stream spanned by an old-fashioned bridge. The first chariot being a very heavy one, the bridge was carried down, throwing the wagon, horses, driver and men into the water twenty feet below. Soon firing was again heard, and two more horses fell. This proved my suspicion that the beams had been cut for the porpose of wrecking us and of trapping us where we could have been slaughtered. The next shots brought several of my brave men to the ground—dead in their tracks! The enemy, being in ambush, had us at great disadvantage; but my men were so thoroughly aroused and so fearless that we soon drove our assailants back. This last plucky onslaught won the day for us, although at sad cost.

After a delay of several hours, during which we repaired the bridge, we were again able to proceed on our way. Hardly were we fairly started when a new difficulty was encountered in the form of big trees felled across the roadway. This work had been cleverly done by the enemy in order to retard our progress, and we had to stop and remove these obstacles before we could pass. The time lost by the first attack, by the bridge engagement and subsequent delay threw us behind a whole day.

Although the people were all anxious to see our show they had not a friendly word for us. Frequently large crowds would force their way into the tents, pointing a cocked revolver at the doorkeeper's head. Finally, however, we managed to reach the Arkansas line with comparatively small loss of life. I am surprised that we were ever able to do so, because of the extreme bitterness which then prevailed toward all Northerners.

At length we came to a town called Bucksnort, the scene of the hanging described in one of Mr. Opie Read's short stories. Nearly every man at the tavern was ready for any kind of excitement. They started the quarrel by accusing our men of stealing their hats. A fight quickly ensued; and we were forced again to defend ourselves by resort to arms. At that time we were playing Mazeppa in which we used a number of dull swords. These were instantly placed in the hands of performers and canvasmen who knew how to wield them, and the result was a terrific hand-to-hand encounter in which we came off victorious.

At Lickskillet, another place on our line, the principal building was a log tavern. We put up our tents, but shortly afterward noticed several old men with long-bladed knives cutting slits in the canvas. The canvasmen, on seeing the tent walls slashed, vigorously protested. At once bullets began to fly from the corner of the tavern. One of our men was killed at the outset of this mêlée.

Previous to this episode our men had become pretty well discouraged and would gladly have had peace, but this last outrage seemed to arouse them to a perfect frenzy. Instead of shooting they went for the gang of roughs with clubs, stakes and every other kind of weapon they could find. The encounter was a terrific one. Our men knocked the desperadoes senseless and seized their guns, and in a very few minutes we were much better prepared to defend ourselves. I think during the battle our men seized fully thirty rifles. Shotguns were seldom used in this section of the country. Most unexpectedly we succeeded in getting some recruits. A few Northern men who had come into the place to settle permanently offered their services for our protection.


In early days many of the young countrymen would be seized with a desire to become "actors," as they called the acrobats. This led the circus performers into the scheme of selling the ambitious wights something to make them limber. A big trade of this kind was carried on by selling an oil made from very cheap grease, the innocent victims being thoroughly convinced that they would come out full-fledged "actors" by the use of this lubricant. Frequently some young fellow would apply for the position of student to the clown. When he presented himself for tuition, the paint prepared for his make-up would be mixed with grease and thoroughly rubbed on his face and limbs. He would then be dressed in an old pair of tights and made to enter the ring, where he would be ordered by the ringmaster to "act up." He would be so embarrassed at this demand that he could not speak, whereupon the ringmaster would lay the whip upon his practically naked limbs, telling him that it was the only way by which to learn the acrobatic art.

Another trick was to toss the students to the clown in a strong blanket of canvas. I can now point to an ex-member of Congress who was thus tossed until sore and exhausted.

Among the various performances on our circus program one feat was that of placing a large stone on a man's breast, as he lay on his back, and then striking the stone with a sledgehammer so as to break the rock. The audience was invited to furnish a man to break this stone, and although one would naturally suppose that such an act would hurt the performer on whose breast the stone rested, he would, in fact, receive no shock whatever. But one day, while exhibiting at a small town, a drunken countryman, in attempting to break the stone with a sledge-hammer, missed his mark entirely, and the poor fellow received a blow that nearly killed him. He was obliged to lie in bed and have medical aid.

The following day we were compelled to move on to the next town, as advertised, which was a keen rival of the village we were just leaving. Our principal actor being unable to perform, we came near being mobbed, for this rival town did not relish the idea that its competitor had witnessed features which it could not see. All our remonstrances were in vain; and we were finally compelled to allow the injured man to quit his bed and actually go through the performance. These rough countrymen would certainly have kept their word had we not complied with their wishes, and it would have fared very badly with us. However, the sick man went through his part as well as he could, and received the full approbation of the audience.

From this town we proceeded to a large Indian encampment. There we obtained permits from John Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and erected our tents. The government had just made an Indian payment to this tribe, all the money being in twenty-dollar gold pieces. Neither the circus treasurer nor any one in the community could change these coins for money of smaller denomination, and we were almost in despair. Meantime some of the Indians climbed into a tree, seated themselves comfortably in the branches, and prepared to witness the entire performance free of charge. This exasperated me, and, seizing an ax, I commenced hewing at the tree. Instantly I found myself the center of an incipient riot, as there was a law in the Territory forbidding a white person to cut down a tree. John Ross, however, quickly came to my rescue and saved my scalp by an adroit appeal to his people.

We adopted the plan of admitting the Indians in squads, charging them a dollar each and taking a double-eagle from every twentieth man. The Indians seemed to enjoy the performance hugely, but were highly excited by the tricks of the magician, whom they regarded as a supernatural being.


At a certain town in Missouri a laughable circumstance occurred. Here, for some time, a revival had been in progress. The revivalists had been abusing the circus, its surroundings and influences, and had tried to prevent us from exhibiting. However, we secured a lot adjoining the church and opened our doors. John Robinson, the chief proprietor of our show, was one of the best equestrians that ever lived, and at that time was introducing what he called his Demon Act. In this act he dressed and made up as nearly as possible like a demon. While riding his four horses at breakneck pace around the ring, he would utter a series of the most ferocious yells imaginable, at the same time working himself up to a great pitch of excitement, until, as the auditors frequently expressed it, he "looked like his Satanic Majesty himself."

On this occasion, at the close of his act, he jumped from his horses, ran out of the dressing-room and boldly entered the church, exclaiming in the stentorian voice for which he was famed: "I am victorious! I am victorious!" The effect was magical. The revivalist had been eloquently exhorting on the subject of the Prince of Darkness, and the overwrought congregation took but one glance at the theatrical Satan, and then, leaping madly through the windows and doors of the little church, broke for the woods.

At Council Bluffs, Iowa, we had exhibited to a large afternoon audience. The day was extremely hot and sultry, and in the evening, just as the people were seating themselves on the benches, a cyclone struck us without the slightest warning. In a twinkling the poles, seats and canvas were being hurled through the air in all directions. At that time we used an inflammable liquid for illuminating the tent, and this ignited and added the horror of fire to the scene.


In those days our menagerie was exhibited in the same tent used for our circus performance, the seats being arranged on one side and the animal cages on the other. Imagine the scene! Several thousand terrorized and screaming men, women and children rushed wildly in all directions, the combustible tents and paraphernalia were in flames, and above all could be heard the roar of the terror-stricken animals, beating madly against their iron bars. Two of the largest dens had been placed together and the partition bars withdrawn, so as to form one big cage, wherein the lions and tigers were exercised by their keepers. The fire burned the woodwork so that this double cage came apart and liberated the ferocious animals. These lions and tigers escaped among the people and added a new element to the general pandemonium of terror. Words cannot convey an adequate idea of that awful moment.

As the tents and cages slowly burned out, total darkness came upon us. In the excitement, one of the men in the audience happened to jump on a crouching lion and yelled that he was in the clutches of the beast; however, the animal was as thoroughly frightened as the man. Some of the animals were loose all night, and one Royal Bengal tiger disappeared altogether. No trace whatever was found of his remains when the debris was examined, and he probably escaped to the nearest woods.

Near to the tent was one of those prickly osage hedges, and into this hundreds of people ran, becoming so entangled in the thorny network that it was almost impossible for them to extricate themselves. Many were badly lacerated by the brambles. There was no sleep in Council Bluffs that night.

Several of our wagons disappeared and one carriage was never afterward found. Four or five horses were lifted and blown into a lot some distance from where they had been stabled. To add still further to the misery that prevailed, the catastrophe ended with a cloud-burst and the earth was fairly deluged, so that in a short time what little remained undestroyed by wind and flame was floating around in a sea of water. Dense darkness prevailed and nothing could be done till dawn. It was then found that the cyclone had done even more damage to the city than we had at first supposed. Though the circus was a complete wreck, it was learned that both the city and its suburbs had suffered severely, and it was considered providential that the performance had attracted so great a concourse of the people from their homes.


When we exhibited in Kansas the country was in such a state of terror, resulting from the "border warfare," that all the towns and villages had organized military companies. At each camping place we were obliged to join these home guards, for protection. One day, while we were exhibiting at Lawrence, a detachment of militia encamped about a mile from us, the posts and guards surrounding the entire city. I had with me a friend from my old home at Delavan, Wisconsin. He was a merchant and had never seen any of the hardships of the camp or of circus life, and all this rough experience was new to him.

As we were obliged to travel through the country for weeks without daring to take off our clothes, I had a wagon snugly covered and this served as a sort of sleeping berth. In this wagon my friend and I spent our nights. At our feet slept a faithful watch dog. On this particular night we were sound asleep, when the dog made a sudden lunge, jumping upon us and instantly awakening us. The moon was hid behind a cloud, and it was, for the moment, very dark. As I jumped to my feet, I indistinctly saw what appeared to me to be a body of men coming towards us. I fired several shots from the big pistols I always carried swung from my belt; but still the mass came forward. I soon heard a most pitiful wail of grief, and then I discovered that I had shot into a herd of elephants which had stampeded.

The firing, together with the noise, alarmed the militia around the city, who, thinking the border ruffians were upon us, came to our assistance. It was some time before I could convince them of the real state of affairs, as the elephants had made a wild escape and consternation reigned. The militia hunted for the men who fired the guns, threatening dire vengeance for alarming the post, but after a full explanation we succeeded in pacifying them. Then we had a long chase after the stampeded elephants, which were finally captured.


One of the most exciting and amusing episodes connected with my career as a showman is that which passed into Gotham history as "the bear hunt on Fifth Avenue." And certainly nothing could be more strange and picturesque than a hot chase after a ferocious polar bear along this aristocratic thoroughfare!

In 1873 there were no polar bears in America, and I thought it would be a good stroke of business to obtain some of these beautiful and imposing animals for my menagerie. Therefore I sent an expedition to the Arctic waters to capture a pair. My men finally succeeded in landing two enormous polars in New York. In the process of shifting them from the shipping-box one of these monsters made his escape, and started on a run down the middle of Fifth Avenue. His course was marked by general consternation. Children playing on the streets, seeing an immense white bear lumbering toward them at full speed, screamed and fled in every direction for shelter; horses, frightened at this unusual spectacle, became unmanageable and ran away; nurse-maids, wheeling their small charges, were stricken helpless with terror, and even the street dogs fled howling down the cross streets and into business houses. Everywhere disorder and terror reigned supreme; the streets became suddenly deserted, and one would have supposed that a plague had instantly depopulated the city. The police were called out from every adjacent station as soon as it became known that a white bear was loose in the streets of New York. The poor animal,
Sawdust and Spangles (245).jpg


unaccustomed to the strange medley of metropolitan civilization, was more frightened than those who fled before him.

Finally, by the aid of the police and some of the braver citizens, the beast was driven into a basement of a private residence, and there shot. Had the people only realized it, the creature could easily have been captured alive; but fear reigned in every heart, from the child to the policeman, and the latter would not consider anything save instant death to the bear. The animal was very valuable and had cost me a large sum of money, not only for its capture but also for its transportation, and I was exceedingly sorry to lose him in this way. I considered myself exceedingly fortunate, however, to escape as easily as I did, for had the bear done any harm I should have had to pay heavy damages. No person fortunate enough to witness the tumult of that exciting scene can ever forget the bear hunt on Fifth Avenue!


At one time certain towns in Pennsylvania were greatly dreaded by all showmen, from the fact that the "tough" element there predominated, and rarely did a circus escape without a pitched battle with these desperadoes. Mahanoy City was one of the worst of these towns, and on my last visit there nothing but the sound "horse sense" of one of our trained animals saved the show from a conflict the result of which might have been deplorable. I had wired my agent, weeks before, to drop this town from the list, but he had written back that, under favorable circumstances, we were sure of taking about $10,000 there, and therefore, in accordance with my instructions, the town had been billed.

We had a fair afternoon's business, and at night, judging from the appearance of the house, we ought to have had at least $5,000 in the treasury. But, as usual in that town, the toughs had simply forced their way in without paying, and, as a consequence, only about $800 had been taken. On the outside were several hundred hoodlums clamoring for a fight, and I am bound to say that "Old Put," our boss canvasman, and his faithful followers were anxious for the same means of satisfaction, and only refrained from an outbreak because they knew that instant dismissal from my employ would follow any attempt on their part to take the initiative in any trouble.

At last, however, a fight did come off, and a hot one it was, too! Right in the midst of it one of my horses, which had been trained to fire off a cannon from its back, got loose and, fully accoutred, galloped into the thick of the mélêe. The creature seized the strap which operated the trigger and began firing blank cartridges in every direction. If ever a mob of toughs was frightened it was then! They stopped not upon the order of their going, but fairly flew in all directions.

One of them afterward told a policeman that they could fight any gang of showmen that ever traveled, but when a horse commenced to unload on them with a cannon, he knew it was time to quit.