Where the Show Still Goes On

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Barnum and Bailey circus rider Josephine DeMott Robinson presided over the naming of the baby giraffe.

Working in tandem with acrobat Zella Florence, Josie already had encouraged an assortment of female animal trainers, wire walkers, hand balancers, dancers, and strong women (including Katie Sandwina, the “female Hercules”) to hold a suffrage rally at Madison Square Garden. Barnum & Bailey’s presentation of an elaborate, Cleopatra-themed show during its 1912 season seemed a perfect opportunity to introduce the world to its first circus suffrage society, not to mention the giraffe, soon to be named “Miss Suffrage.”

Initially, Inez Milholland had promised to be present at the organizational meeting of the Barnum & Bailey Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, and to personally oversee the giraffe-naming.

A passionate defender of women’s rights, Milholland also grasped the effectiveness of a circus-like approach to things. After being suspended from Vassar for organizing a women’s suffrage meeting in a cemetery, she went on to lead a demonstration in Washington on March 3, 1913. 

Photographed wearing white robes while astride a white horse, her image was memorable, to say the least. Whether she meant to portray herself as a modern day Guinevere, I can’t say. What’s certain is that, after one demonstration, Milholland was described as the “most beautiful woman ever to bite a policeman’s wrist.”

In the end, Inez chose a speaking engagement in New Haven over a trip to Madison Square Garden. Just slightly miffed, but undeterred, Josie DeMott made a visit to the headquarters of the Woman’s Political Union on 29th Street, where she managed to persuade Miss Beatrice Jones to visit her group.

During the visit, Miss Jones first cautioned the gathered women about the need for dignity in the struggle for the vote. Then, more speeches were given, the giraffe received her official title, and Josie De Mott was elected President of the eight-hundred member “Suffragette Ladies of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

Eventually, women won the right to vote, and Josie retired: first from politics, then from the circus. No longer was able to perform her trademark stunt — multiple somersault flips on a moving bareback horse — she found even simple challenges in the ring difficult. She’d come out of retirement in 1906 in order to supplement the family income by performing, but her love of the circus couldn’t overcome the lessened strength and agility brought about by age.

Unable to train and perform, she decided to build a ring at her farm in West Hempstead, Long Island. There, she trained circus horses, eventually establishing a riding school for girls that gave her great pleasure. Many years later, reflecting on her life, she said:

I have lived in both worlds. And I think I prefer, to the indifferent, haphazard, money- mad hurry of the Outside World, that of my world. That sympathy and understanding, grown shadowy since I have been away from it so long, still is more real to me than the world I am in now. Not only the spangles and the gay trappings made it colorful; there was an inner color that warmed the soul. And that I miss.
Deep down, deeper than everyday gets me, I am still one of them, and will be ’til I die. In my heart and soul I belong to the lot and the red wagons and the Big Top.
There are so bewilderingly many laws in the Outside World. We of the circus know only one law—simple and unfailing. The Show must go on.

Today, the law of the circus remains inviolable: at least, for those who share Josie’s passion.  No matter which circus is considered; no matter its size, prestige or level of profit; no matter whether it’s the world’s greatest production or the smallest, one-wagon show with a pony and a terrier traveling the back roads of America, the show is going on.

Nowhere is that tradition, that commitment to and love of the circus more visible than in Hugo, Oklahoma. After a first visit there, I wrote:

Well-known as a circus town since before World War II, Hugo’s reputation began in 1937 when Vernon Pratt, a local grocer and circus enthusiast, decided to stop stocking shelves for a bit and make a run over to Mena, Arkansas, where the Al G. Kelly-Miller Circus over-wintered.  Searching out circus owner Obert Miller, Pratt extended an invitation to bring Kelly-Miller west. Obert agreed, packed up the pachyderms and headed for Hugo, where his circus became a permanent fixture of town life.
Thanks to a relatively congenial climate, accessible land, and plentiful grass, more circuses followed, including Stevens Brothers, Cole & Walters, Don Karr, James Christy, and the Fairyland Circus begun by Obert Miller’s son, the late D.R. Miller. 
Today, three nationally-known circuses call Hugo home – The Kelly-Miller, the Culpepper & Merriweather and Carson & Barnes, the last traditional, traveling three-ring tented circus in the country.

 Trey Key, a Brown University graduate in philosophy and trained clown who happens to own the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, perfectly captured the unusual nature of life in Circus City, USA over a lunch at Angie’s Circus City Diner.  As he said:

Hugo’s the only place I know of where you can put an elephant down as collateral on a small business loan.

Hugo also is one of only two places in America where circus performers have their own section in the town cemetery. (The other is Woodlawn Cemetery, in Forest Park, Illinois.)

When Kelly Miller died in 1960, his brother purchased a section in Mount Olivet Cemetery, both to honor him and to memorialize other circus performers. Known as Showmen’s Rest, the space is marked by elephant-topped columns and dedicated to “All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.”

It’s a fascinating place to visit.  An abundance of monuments celebrate the rich history of Hugo’s circuses, and the families who founded them. The Millers, of course, are well-represented.

Here and there, a stone recalls even earlier circus days in America.  Occasionally, one brings the past to life, as Sarah Orton Woodcock’s did for me.

Her father, Hiram Orton, established the Orton Brothers Circus in Wisconsin, in 1852. They ranged fairly far afield, traveling  through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. After spending the winter in Independence, Iowa for a few years, they settled on new grounds three miles east of Adel, Iowa, where their community became known as Ortonville.

Hiram retired around 1862, and his sons Miles and R.Z. took over the business. Eventually, they split into two troupes. R. Z. kept the name “Orton Brothers Circus” and continued to spend winters in Ortonville, along with his wife and seven children: Criley, Lawrence, Miles, Bayard, Grace, Nellie and Sarah, who became “Babe” Woodcock.

In a letter, Nellie describes their sharing of responsibilities:

There were 27 Ortons on the show besides the in-laws. We did not carry a sideshow, but we did have four animal pits on the front. R. Z. Orton advanced the show, and after his death Criley took up those duties, besides the management of the show.
Miles built the tents in winter quarters. Bayard handled the band and the wild animals and Lawrence on the transportation and Supt. of lot. I had concessions and Grace the wardrobe and the cookhouse, and Mother was in the office. Sarah devoted her entire time in horse, pony and dog training.

What raises this from merely interesting to personally compelling is my suspicion that my mother crossed paths with Sarah Orton Woodcock. Mother often spoke of her single experience with the circus, one she described as “a small family circus that spent the winter pretty close to us, on the other side of Des Moines.”

Ortonville would have been about 45 miles from my mother’s home town, and the Orton Brothers Circus still was traveling and performing in the area when she was a girl. It seems reasonable that the Ortons were the ones to delight her, and remarkable that a stroll through an Oklahoma cemetery would have raised the connection.

Moving on through Showmen’s Rest, there are eye-catching stones that recall equally eye-catching performers. There’s another Woodcock, keeping up the family tradition.

There’s Ringmaster John Strong, whose stone declares, on the opposite side, that “Big John” had more friends than Santa Claus.

Although he performed with his wife using the name Los Latinos, The Great Huberto wasn’t Latin at all. Still, Herbie Weber was one of the greatest wire-walkers of all time. More than a circus performer, he ranged through movie sets, Las Vegas clubs, and even Broadway. Still performing at 74, he headed off to bookings in Australia and New Zealand, two places he always had wanted to visit.

A truck driver for the Carson & Barnes Circus once told me, “You’ll never come to the end of interesting folks around a circus. We’re all interesting.” And so it seems, at least from the variety of people memorialized in Hugo.

Bareback rider Zefta Loyal is remembered as much for her loving spirit as for her skills.

“Turtle” Benson seems to have been a jack-of-all-trades, and a great friend to his jackass.

He’s also the only one in the cemetery who had an original poem added to his stone.

(Click on the image of the poem for a larger, and complete, version.)

The Loter family is rooted in Texas, and firmly rooted in circus history. One of Frances’s sons was named Richard Barnum, and a grand-daughter was named Moira Bailey.

As for Frances? Her approach to life seem clear enough, and remarkably appealing.

Some who rest in Hugo took a more philosophical turn when designing their stones. Ted Bowman’s wagon wheel evokes the transitory nature of the circus, and of life. It says, “There’s nothing left but empty popcorn sacks and wagon tracks. The Circus is gone.”

The McIntosh family, providers of concessions to “Circus, Fairs, Carnivals, Rodeos, Ice Shows, [and] Street Corners” also chose a circus theme for their epitaph: “We have had the good times, but the season ended.”

Jack Moore foreswore pithy sayings in favor of this circus tent, a perfect representation of a bit of wisdom offered to me in Angie’s Circus Café:  “The tent goes up; the tent comes down. That’s life in the circus.”

The Rawls, clearly hopeful, gave a slightly different twist to things.

In the midst of such remarkable gravestones lies one whose owner still visits it in person. Dudley Hamilton, cheerful and quite alive, is more than willing to spend time at Showmen’s Rest, reflecting on his own circus days.

Formerly the agent for Carson & Barnes and Kelly-Miller circuses, he moved on to become winter quarters superintendent for Kelly-Miller. Logos of the two circuses appear on the reverse of his stone, which features an elephant “long mount” from a Carson & Barnes poster on the front, along with four lovely showgirls. As Mr Hamilton likes to remind people, he likes elephants, and he really likes show girls.

A happy man, Dudley Hamilton is said to be happiest when talking about the circus. At conventions, overseeing the winter grounds, eating lunch at Angie’s or showing people around town, the circus comes first.

During an interview at Showmen’s Rest, Hamilton said, “I tell people this is the happiest cemetery in the United States.” And perhaps it is.  Sitting in the sunlight, surrounded by shades and echoes of a disappearing past, I found myself remembering the words of poet Robert Lax.

We talked about the fact that
it wasn’t the danger,
it wasn’t the skill,
it wasn’t the applause
that made the act what it was.
It was principally the grace;
the bringing into being
for a moment
the beautiful thing,
the somersault,
the leap,
the entrechat on horseback…

In Hugo, at  Showmen’s Rest, surrounded by memorials to those acrobats and clowns, aerialists and animal trainers who devoted their livings to “bringing into being…the beautiful thing,” it’s easy to believe their grace still is being peformed.

Somewhere, I prefer to believe, the Law of the Circus prevails. Somewhere, the show still goes on.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below. To see a wonderful  collection of vintage photos of circus people  taken from the “Life” magazine archives, click here.
By coincidence, another blogger, Isathreadsoflife, has posted about an equally remarkable cemetery in Jaun, a small village in the Gruyère area of the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. Click here to see her wonderful photos.

76 thoughts on “Where the Show Still Goes On

    1. Nia, I thought of you when I saw some of the circus costumes. There are wonderful photographs of the women sewing the feathers and sequins on them. Wouldn’t that be fun? And such bright colors, everywhere. It doesn’t surprise me that you like the circus!


  1. Engaging topic I had not considered: the lives and deaths of circus performers, unless perhaps I read an article about a circus performer dying…typically a trapeze artist, or an animal, especially the elephants or big cats, being mistreated.

    And I never once considered there might be graveyards dedicated to circus performers. But it makes sense. They have to live–and die–somewhere when they aren’t traveling with the circus. Beautiful treatment of this subject and lovely writing as always.

    1. Martha, one refrain I constantly heard in Hugo, and a truth that Mr. Hamilton mentions in the video I linked, is that the circus is family for everyone associated with it. Especially for those who have none of the usual family ties, it makes sense for them to be buried together with the friends they worked, traveled and performed with.

      The first Showman’s Rest, in Illinois, actually was developed under the leadership of Buffalo Bill Cody and the Showmen’s League. I had assumed it was the result of the terrible circus train wreck in 1918, but not so. It already was there, and many victims of the crash were buried there.

      I didn’t know until today that there’s another Showmen’s Rest in Tampa, Florida. I remember reading about at least one more, but I’m not sure where it is.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s a rich world out there, filled with wonderful people.


    1. It’s a delightful space, Gallivanta. Some may prefer the “memorial gardens” we have, with identical stones for each person and no landscaping or decorating allowed, but I’ll take the odd, the quirky and the expressive every time.

      Friends who used to work in Austin television once said they planned to to have dual tv screens on their grave marker, with a scroll running underneath saying, “Stay Tuned. We’ll Be Right Back.” We had a mutual friend who was an entymologist — she preferred, “You Can’t Bug Me Anymore.” I’m considering a bucket and brush, accompanied by the words, “She Varnished From Our Sight.”


        1. I do remember that. And licking the bowl clean is greatly to be admired. On a related subject, look what I found, quite by accident — the very flower for which Bluebell ice cream was named. I’ve never really thought about it being named for a flower, but there we are. There are more Texas flowers in prairies and wetlands than are dreamed of in our philosophies.

          1. One almost expects the icecream to have blue petals in it! Texas has the most amazing variety of flowers. I really had no idea of this until I started following Steve’s blog.

  2. Circuses in Panama are not very common and don’t have the rich tradition depicted in your thorough blog post. We do have one Mexican circus that makes an annual visit to Panama. It’s called, “El Circo de los Hermanos Suárez”. Lately they were been harshly criticized by local authorities due to the way they treat their animals.

    I have a feeling they will be hesitant in returning to Panama after a rough experience with Panama’s City Hall.

    I’m afraid I never was a follower of circuses, perhaps due to the fact there were no circuses in Changuinola where I grew up.

    I like the way circus’ performers are remembered in the United States and other parts of the world like Europe and Asia where they are very popular.

    1. Omar, I never saw a real circus until after my trip to Oklahoma. Carson & Barnes came to a little town not far from here, and I persuaded a friend to go with me. It wasn’t anything like Ringling Brothers or Barnum & Bailey — the big circuses that come to Houston. But it had three elephants and a camel, and pretty girls on the trapeze, and lots of opportunity to talk with all of the people who work in the background: truck drivers, animal care staff, musicians and so on.

      When I was a child, my dad and I went to the carnivals that came to town every year. They were a little tawdry, I suppose, and consisted mostly of rides and games to win cheap toys. But they were fun, and I still remember many of the “prizes” I carried home.

      I’m sure I read about a Panamanian girl who starred in one of our circuses, but I couldn’t find her again. I did find The Great Huberto’s wife, the other half of Los Latinos. Her name was Elodia Chatita Escalante, and she was a part of the Escalante family circus in Mexico. Here’s a nice article about them in California. If you scroll nearly to the bottom, there’s a great photo of Chatita with a zebra.


  3. Beautiful writing, as always. I didn’t know that the suffragist movement made it into the circus, but it makes sense that it did. This post evoked the memory of my threatening to run away and join the circus when I was a young child. :D

    1. I didn’t know about the circus suffragists either, Ruth. Looking up the phrase, “the show must go on,” led me to Josie, and from there it was just a hop, skip and a jump into real circus history.

      I especially enjoyed the articles from the “Times” archives. One of them has the story of a male performer showing up to drag his wife and daughter out of a meeting. On the other hand, the husband of the “female Hercules” was smart enough to let well enough alone.

      Now that circuses aren’t so common, I wonder where children fantasize running away to? I set my sights on the circus for a while, too. I’d never make it on the trapeze, though.

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  4. Linda, thank you for doing the research and writing this beautiful piece. I had no idea there was so much camaraderie among circus folks, though why it should surprise me does in fact surprise me!

    I never was a big fan of circuses, probably because of the clowns (which to this day terrify me!). Sadly, I passed my trepidations along to my son (purely unintentional, I assure you!). Still, the beauty of the acrobats, the horses, and the elephants enthralls me, and there’s something rather intriguing about a nomad’s kind of life!

    1. Debbie, once you begin delving into circus history, it doesn’t take long to realize that the history of the circuses and the history of the families often are one and the same.

      Beyond that, the connections throughout the community are very real. I think that really came home to me when I saw “Barnum” and “Bailey” in the names of Frances Loter’s children and grandchildren. There was competition, of course. But all of the circuses seemed to have that sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.

      I found this little paragraph that says so much about the nature of circus life:

      “After the horrific [train crash in 1918] the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus only cancelled two of their next scheduled shows, the one they had been traveling [to] on the morning of the crash, in Hammond, and the next in Monroe, Wisconsin, as even competing circus companies like Ringeling Brother’s and Barnum & Bailey, as well as members of nearby communities, banded together to loan whatever they could: performers, equipment, extra hands, food, clothing and anything else, to ensure that the show did go on.”

      As for clowns — they used to scare me, too. Then, I met a pair of brothers who decided to give up their lucrative careers as CPAs and go to clown school. Now, every time I see a clown, I think of those guys, and just laugh.


  5. What an interesting story. I think the poem at the end reflects the sentiments well…grace, beauty, execution, and unique skills. Those make for strong bonds.

    The tombstones are amazing creations. They are such clear and honest testaments to their lives. I see why it is viewed as a happy place.

    Thanks for this. It was fun to read.

    1. It was a fun visit, Jim, so I’m glad it was fun to read. I have so many more photos of markers — it was hard to decide what to put in, and what to leave out.

      I’m glad you liked the poem. Lax published an entire volume titled “Circus of the Sun.” He was a juggler, and traveled with a circus for a while. You can read more about his remarkable biography here, if you like. From Columbia to circus to friend of Thomas Merton to hermit poet on Patmos is quite a journey.


  6. Beautiful weave.

    I never imagined that so many circuses called the midwest home for the winter. I always thought they headed to the warmer climes for their layovers. But I guess thinking about the logistics of travel in those days, a more central location in the country would be beneficial.

    I still remember my first circus. I don’t know how young I was but it was either the late 50’s are the early 60’s.Barnum and Bailey was in town at the old Sam Houston Coliseum, and as much as I remember the circus, I especially recall the seating. We were way up in the “nose bleed” seats. To my young eyes, looking out level with the trapeze and high wire performers, most of my attention was on the stairs that seemed to drop straight down from our seats…

    I still remember walking around the concourse on the performance level with all of the clowns and animals milling around on their way to and from the three rings…

    1. I was equally surprised to hear about those winter quarters, Gary. What I don’t know is if they kept the animals with them. I suppose they did. From what I’ve read, the Ortons had only smaller animals — ponies, dogs, chimps — so it would have been easier for them to arrange things in the cold months.

      I was thinking about the Coliseum today. It had quite a history, and yet I never got there. It would have been a great place to see a circus, I think, although I found the Carson & Barnes tent show down in Bacliff perfectly acceptable.

      One of my friends used to take her kids down to see the circus arrive in town. And of course people still make the trek to pick up elephant dung for their gardens once the shows are over. I hear it’s quite prized!

      Here’s a tidbit for you. When I was reading about the Coliseum’s history, I saw that Houston’s first ice hockey team was called the Skippers — for one year. Then, they changed to the huskies. Maybe they decided a hockey team named for a butterfly wasn’t quite what they wanted.


      1. My history with the Coliseum was really varied…From Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo in the 50’s… To the Circus in the 60’s…To Rock & Roll in the 70’s (Chicago, Black Sabbath, Mountain)… To setting up rock concerts and conventions in the 80’s and 90’s.

        I even spent a cold winters day on the roof one time hauling up sections of an 8’x 40’wooden sign that we then hung over the side of the building.

        During one of the crazy ice and snow storms somewhere through there, we stood on the steps between the Coliseum and City Hall and watched the crazy drivers try and drive on one of the access ramps covered with ice… Each car would start up the ramp till it hit the sloped part, then the rear wheels would start top spin… the rear of the car would slide down while the front stayed put until it hit the guardrail. All in slow motion…Then another driver would try his hand. Over and over and over…

        1. I laughed and laughed at that memory of the winter storm, Gary. I remember back in the days when the Michiganders were flocking here, they used to stand in the bridges across the Pierce elevated when it iced, watching the demolition derby below. I guess that was a “show,” too.

          It’s such fun to hear your memories of Houston “back in the day.” It’s like talking to someone who was “born on the Island,” or sitting on a porch with Leon Hale. Good times.

      2. Interesting tidbit showed up in my email today which led me right back here Linda…It seems I own a circus… Or at least someone named Gary Boyd does…

        Established in 1937, Carson and Barnes boasts the “Biggest Big Top in the World” and is owned and managed by Barbara Miller-Boyd and Gary Boyd.

        Read more: http://www.randolphcountyheraldtribune.com/article/20140917/News/140919316#ixzz3DfvnhSYh

        It’s always amazing what I find out about “myself” on the internets.

        1. What fun! You Boyds are everywhere. One of my best friends in high school was named David Boyd, and one of the people I sailed with years ago was also David Boyd, from Victoria.

          One of Barbara and Gary Boyd’s children married into the Cavallini clan, who worked with Carson & Barnes. You can see what they like to do here.

  7. Loved this, Linda. You do this so well.

    Circus people are a special lot. I always found it magical how they came to town and created something out of nothing that seemed so real and permanent. Then, whoosh! They were gone. No one would have ever known they were there if they hadn’t seen them with their own eyes.

    We once went to a stonemasons’ cemetery. I believe it was in Barre, Vermont. I’d never seen such beautiful and unusual tombstones.

    1. When the circus came to our town, I didn’t take the time to go down and watch them raise the tent. I really regretted it. Next time, I’ll go. That “something out of nothing” is amazing to see. And you’re right. The day after, it’s as though nothing happened, no one was there.

      I found this interesting tidbit in an article on circus language:

      “Circus shows that pull up stakes every few days, leaving nothing but trailer tracks in its wake, are referred to as “mud circuses.” The workers who dismantle the show and build it up again in the next town are called “roustabouts,” and the physical act of carrying the “big top” (main tent) and rigging to the empty lot for set-up is dubbed “the haul.”

      It’s a world unto itself, for sure, but a delightful one to be close to. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, Bella.


  8. Thank you for again bringing a story of some of the good, the gentle things that were, and are in America. I miss the entertainment that the circus provided, especially for the kids. I guess they are still around, but I don’t see them in this part of the country any more.

    1. They’ve had a hard time, montucky. I’ve been told things really were tough for a few years after 9/11, when concerns about animal safety and human safety seemed to merge, and bookings were hard to come by. The economy didn’t help.

      Now, the circuses in Hugo seem to have stabilized, thanks in part to the Elephant Sanctuary there, and the contribution of the circuses to the preservation of the Asian Elephant.

      When I found this page about the elephant breeding program,
      I discovered a great tidbit, lurking in the sidebar. There are comments on the right side made by Buckles Woodcock. If you look at Barbara and Buckles Woodcock’s marker above, you might assume, as I did, that the “Anna” pictured in the middle is their daughter. Not so. Anna is the elephant! It seems her name was Anna May, and she was pretty famous in her time. There’s more about Anna and the Woodcocks here.

      And yes, Sarah Orton Woodcock was Bill “Buckles” Woodcock’s mother. Buckles still is living, and his circus blog is something to behold.


  9. A cemetery for circus owners/performers. Who would have thought it?

    Maybe it’s because I was just a small girl, but I remember the circus as being a grand thing, Barnum and Bailey, I believe it was; but in later years when I took my own children to the circus in Houma, it seemed small, cheap, and had lost so much of its previous grandeur. Again, maybe it’s just the difference in perception, from child to adult, but I was very disappointed.

    The people you mention in this story must have made the circus what it was–the circus I recall. Maybe now, they are not the great showmen and women they once were. Maybe, like many other vocations now, it’s just a job or passing fancy and not so much a life choice and career. I find a continuum lacking in general in our society today. The more connected folks get to social media, the less connected they seem to the real society. Pity that it is.

    I enjoyed reading this piece, Linda, and it brought back some fond memories. And the last fellow? Hamilton? Was born the same year as my father, who has been gone since 1996, but it makes me wonder what Daddy recalls of the great circus of the past . . . .

    1. When I went to the Carson & Barnes circus here, the friend who accompanied me had been to many circuses – big ones, like Barnum & Bailey. Her experience was like yours, BW. She was disappointed, while I thought it was wonderful.

      I suppose part of it is that corners are being cut, and circuses are becoming smaller. Putting on a performance is expensive. On the other hand, we’ve become accustomed to spectacle in our society. Between Cirque du Soleil and Circus Circus in Vegas, who wants to see some troupe with hand-made costumes and a llama on a dusty back lot? Well, me, for one. They may be shabby, but they’re real and approachable, which means: more interesting.

      One thing seems certain. Circus people today are just as committed, just as passionate about what they do as were their parents or grandparents. The ones who don’t particularly care for it have left for other things.

      But you touch on another important point – people increasingly seem to be substituting those danged devices for life. The good news is that, so far, we still have a choice. (More proof? That heron dance along the Atchafalaya.)

      That’s something, that Mr. Hamilton was born the same year as your father. I did make a call to Hugo while I was writing this, just to be sure he still was with us. I’d love to go up again this winter, and perhaps have a chance to talk with him.


  10. Wonderful write, Linda, told with the knack of weaving a wealth of information while keeping us engaged.

    I always find topics about circuses and the performers quite interesting — I was mesmerized by them when I was younger. I have fond memories of my parents taking us to the Big Top. My sister still has her sock monkey she got in the 60s. (for some reason I didn’t get one) I remember Emmett Kelly, Sr. — (I wonder if I still have the autographed program? —- hmmm!)

    Thank you for sharing and conjuring up some old memories!

    1. Becca, some of these stories make me feel like I’ve just fallen down a rabbit hole. A little digging here, and a little rummaging around there, and pretty soon there are piles of information all over the place. One thing’s certain — circus history is genealogy at heart. It’s the story of people, and most of them seem well worth knowing.

      What a treat, to have met Emmett Kelly. Did you like the trapeze artists? When I finally watched those folks live, rather than on television, I was more nervous than mesmerized. I just couldn’t imagine how they could “do that” without losing their grip and falling. They surely did seem to be having fun, though. You might enjoy this phenomenal performance.

      I’m so glad the story brought back some good memories for you. Maybe you should consider training those dragonflies and lizards!


      1. The trapezes were among my most favorite — I also loved the animal acts … and never could understand why someone would want to be shot out of a cannon! The linked performance was great! Thank you!

  11. You are such a story teller.

    I always loved the circus costumes and the beautiful horses and riders. The old cemeteries have so much more character, symbolism, and humor. I know the new flat on the ground rectangle stone markers are easier to mow, but those are like people are being filed away in a filing cabinet.
    Miss those traveling circus acts.

    (Did you ever tie ropes/swingset chains between trees and pretend to be a tightrope walker? We did every summer….about 2 feet above the ground…)

    1. We never tried tightrope walking, Phil. Instead, we’d get on our bikes and head down to the railroad trestle for our excitement. I still can walk finger piers, but thank goodness most of the really narrow ones have been replaced.

      I did learn a new word while I was writing this: funambulism, or tightrope walking. The American Heritage says it’s from the Latin words for “rope” and “to walk.” An alternate definition is “Try to walk, and fall off.”

      You’ve captured my feeling about those identical markers exactly. I hadn’t thought of a filing cabinet as a metaphor, but that’s it. Strangely, the song that comes to mind is Pete Seeger’s version of “Little Boxes.” Or maybe that’s not so strange, after all.


  12. What a fascinating story Linda! I never read about a suffragette connection to the circus, but it was an eye opener.

    I love circuses and the whole colorful excitement surrounding them. It was amazing to read about the three national circuses home based in Hugo, Oklahoma. Wouldn’t that be a fun place to explore? I loved that an elephant might be collateral for a quick loan! Great story as usual, and astounding research. Kayti

    1. Here’s another little treat for you, Kayti. I came across this wonderful piece about the Escalante Brothers Circus in Orange County. There are some great old photos included, along with a lot of background information about life in that part of the state.

      I didn’t know anything about the suffragettes in the circus, either. It makes sense, particularly since women of the time who decided to spend their lives swinging on trapezes, training animals or handling snakes clearly had an independent streak. They had opinions, too, which it seems they weren’t afraid to express.

      It didn’t occur to me until this very minute, but your comment about the “colorful excitement” of the circus really struck home. We live in a society that loves to tout its commitment to “diversity,” but the truth is, we’re becoming increasingly bland, boring and colorless. In the circus, the variety and differences among people truly are celebrated. Maybe that’s part of the reason I find it so appealing.


  13. What a surprise for me to see you talking about West Hempstead, Long Island, a place I had a lot to do with because I grew up one town to its west. (In spite of the word town, these suburbs blend seamlessly and hardly have separate identities). As a teenager I often rode my bike the 3.15 miles to the Salvation Army in Hempstead, where I would buy books for 10¢ or 25¢ each, so the middle part of my ride took me (mostly) through the back streets of West Hempstead. When I was old enough to drive, I remember filling up whenever possible at a gas station in West Hempstead that sold regular gas for 23.9¢ a gallon, 2¢ lower than the prevailing price.

    There used to be a branch of the S. Klein Department Store in West Hempstead, and it was there that as a senior in high school I bought a brand new Petit Larousse French dictionary for $6.95 (I know the price of that foreign book because someone in the store had written it in pencil inside the front cover.) But here’s something else I just remembered on this eve of September 11. There was a spot across the main street from Klein’s where everything lined up just right and you could look west to see, 20 miles away but still rising above suburban trees and buildings, the tops of the two towers of the World Trade Center.

    1. When I discovered Josie DeMott had connections to Long Island, Steve, I thought about you and wondered if you would know anything of her town. Indeed you do. I took another look at the West Hempstead site I linked to, and discovered a treasure trove in the sidebar. I’m sure there must be an assortment of places and names you’re familiar with.

      Another tangential connection to your old neighborhoods is the poet I quoted: Robert Lax. He attended Columbia, too, and worked on the school’s humor magazine, “Jester,” with Thomas Merton.

      I’d never stopped to consider it, but I’m somehow heartened by the fact that, while gas has gone from 23.9¢ a gallon to our current $3.11, there still are plenty of books available for 25¢ or 50¢. That may not be entirely a good thing, of course. It may simply mean there’s more demand for gas than for books.

      I’ve been thinking about the World Trade Center and the twin towers myself these past days. Not every memory is as fraught as those being experienced by many people this morning. It’s been just over forty years ago that the towers featured in another story with its own circus-like nature: Philippe Petit’s remarkable wire-walk across the space between the towers.


      1. I seem to remember that 10¢ was the price of most books, but a quarter would get me something special, like a big 8.5-lb. volume (I just weighed it) with all the 1857 issues of Harper’s Weekly bound together. Somebody had given away a set of those yearly volumes, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t buy more than one. Everyone should have newspapers from a century and a half ago in their house, right?

        By the time I became aware of West Hempstead in the 1950s, all trace of farms and rural life there had long since disappeared, including Josephine DeMott Robinson’s farm, so West Hempstead was just another Long Island suburb. Only one farm in the area survived through part of my childhood, Rottkamp’s, in the town to the west of my town, Elmont, which is best known as the home of Belmont Race Track, which you may have heard of.

        1. “Harper’s Weekly” is a treasure trove. Lucky you, to have an entire volume. I’ve used a few illustrations from the publication in blog postings, and once, I just couldn’t help myself. I have an 1851 illustration of that year’s flood on the Bayou Teche framed and hanging on my wall. I can’t remember where I found it now, but I remember I paid about $15. Multiply your number of pages by that, and it’s pretty clear why some people are selling page-by-page on the internet. This is the slightly doctored version I used in one of my posts. The original is somewhat larger, of course.

          I was curious about Belmont and Elmont. My assumption was that the track added the “B” to Elmont for some reason, but not so — as you know. Elmont came first, then Belmont, named not after the town, but after a person. It’s an interesting coincidence that makes it much easier to remember where Belmont race track is located.

          I associate Belmont with the Triple Crown, of course, but it was fun to read that the Wright brothers are part of its history as well.

          1. I once asked a second-hand book dealer in Manhattan about that Harper’s Weekly volume (this would have been in the early 1960s) and he offered me something like $5 or $7 for it, many times the 25¢ I’d paid. I don’t know if the sell-by-the-page market was already big then, but it certainly is now, as you pointed out. I’d still rather keep my book intact.

  14. The things we remember from childhood. Although I had never been to a circus except the amateur one put on by young students in a summer recreation program, I remember the name Emmett Kelly. Our Weekly Reader introduced us to him and I committed his name in my memory bank. I think perhaps another reason I remembered him was that he seemed to be the classic clown without the scary.

    What an interesting connection you make between the circus world and the suffragist movement. You do weave the most remarkable tales.

    Your accounts of the final resting place of these performers, remind us that although they led a physically nomad’s life, they were quite grounded in family and the community they created in their workplace. There is also a community of spectators who return to see them annually. As our girls were growing up, I learned that the circus comes to our town at the end of July routinely. If it’s July, mark going with the kids, grand kids — and my mother, who loves it.

    1. Georgette, you’ve mentioned something that others have brought up: the scary clown. When did that happen? I don’t remember clowns being scary when I was a child. Not everyone liked them, just as some kids were terrified of Santa Claus. But Emmett Kelly, Bozo the Clown, other popular clown figures? They seemed approachable, and fun.

      When I did a simple Google image search for “clown” just now, I was astonished. Half of the photos seem to have crossed “clown” with “vampire” or worse. Many of them look angry or threatening, or devilish — and not in a good way. When I did a web search, I learned the word for fear of clowns — coulrophobia — and discovered that it’s more widespread than I’d imagined. I also saw Stephen King mentioned as the person who may have done more to encourage such fear than anyone in history. Apparently one of his gazillion books deals with a clown — again, not in a good way.

      I suspect what’s important for the clowns is that they are part of that community you point to. Whatever the world makes of them, they’re accepted within their circus family, with an important role to play. I think that’s something else the Showmen’s Rest makes visible. Everyone counts. Even those who might not have had the means to erect a fancy marker are remembered, thanks to a fund established by a fellow named John Carroll. There are several stones for musicians, animal superintendants, lot workers, and so on,that were provided by that fund. No one is forgotten, not even those who labored invisibly in the background.


    1. Isn’t it fun, Beth Ann? I spent several hours there, as you surely did in “your” cemetery. It’s so interesting to read the stones, and put the families back “together” — if only in memory.

      Be sure and take a look at Isa’s blog, too — the link is at the bottom of the post. I’ve never seen anything like the cemetery she featured, either.


  15. This is wonderful and it took me back to a time in my life, I had almost forgotten. The circus and all of the magic it held had a way of uplifting my spirit like nothing else could. Thank you for taking me inside the circus world and introducing me to the people who brought life to the circus. Beautifully done.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Whimsical Fancy. There’s nothing quite like having memories stirred, is there? The circus wasn’t a part of my childhood or youth, but today I find the people fascinating, as well as their history.

      I especially like the photographs that show them practicing their skills in back lots and back yards. It takes a circus acrobat as much training and practice as a competive gymnast to do what they do. We see the magic in the ring — but it’s fun to see the preparation, too.


  16. Thanks for the bareback ride down memory lane, Linda. I was watching a woman play at tight-rope walking about a foot off the ground the other day. It was quite hilarious — and speaks to the true skills that circus folks have. It’s been a long time since I have attended a full blown circus. Maybe it’s time. –Curt

    1. Is this where I ask, “But didn’t you just come back from a week with the circus?” The more closely I look, the more similarities I see between the circus and Burning Man — at least in terms of the art, and the productions. Well, and the fun. We can’t forget the fun!

      The truth is, your life is pretty full of wonderful travel and unique experiences. But if you ever happen to cross paths again with a circus, it certainly would be worth an afternoon.


      1. Yes it would Linda. And yes, I even use the word there ring circus in the blog I am putting up today. Thanks for the inspiration. :) Actually there are a number of circus acts at Burning Man every year. Certainly the fire dancers would fit right in. –Curt

  17. As ever, this is beautifully written, Linda. A veritable cornucopia of wonderful, offbeat, eccentricities. If I ever feel the need for a bank loan, I shall obtain a small elephant and present it as collateral to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Byres Road, Glasgow UK – assuming of course that it will still be there, if we Scots say “Yes” to independence on 18th September…

    1. I’ve been most curious about your views on the independence vote, and I see your current post addresses the situation. I’m eager to read it. As for trotting over to the Royal Bank with an elephant in tow…. Given all the upheaval of late, they might be perfectly willing to accept the collateral. After all, things have become a bit of a circus there.

      On the other hand, if you had the elephant,you could take it over to the Children’s woods, perhaps with a clown and a juggler. Can you imagine the delight of the children? Maybe the Gruffalo could come, too.


      1. This has really made me chuckle! I’m meeting my friend Emily tonight, one of the leading lights of the Glasgow Children’s Wood movement. I shall suggest the elephant idea to her. It will have to be a pink elephant, of course…

  18. As someone who never cared much for the circus, maybe it was the Dumbo effect from my childhood, the community of circus performers was a place I never thought about. Your excellent writing has brought them, by way of a few well told stories, to life. I am still not a fan of circuses…at least the captive animal part…but I now have a new respect for the people who make that their lives.

    I was just glancing at your comments about fear of clowns. I think there are just some things that a segment of the population fear for some deep and not easily understood reason…like mottephobia…and then folks take it to another level, like Mr. King. I never understood horror movies as an entertainment. Again, just an old curmudgeon. :-)

    1. Steve, I understand the ambivalence of some people toward circuses, and the firm conviction of many that no animals at all should be involved. My first post about Hugo and its circuses, especially Carson & Barnes, addressed that. One reason I admire C&B is that the Elephant Ark, dedicated to Asian elephants, actually is helping to ensure their survival as a species.

      And then there’s the tale of Lilly and Isa, two young runaway elephants who evaded Oklahoma authorities for some time. Your mention of the Dumbo effect reminded me of it. When I was very small, I ran away from home because I wanted to go find Dumbo. I was in love.

      I had to look up mottephobia. Now I know “motte” is related to “mottled” and “motley”. Maybe that helps to explain my aversion to Mötley Crüe. Speaking of taking it to another level, another example comes to mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I’ve still never seen that one. When it comes to horror films, I’ll take mine with a good bit of campiness, like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” or “Tremors.”


  19. An excellent account of circus history, etc. For a number of years I have no longer supported the concept of a using wild animals for entertainment purposes.I find it inhumane and cruel especially for the elephants and big cats. The dog and horse acts are a different entity since they are domesticated animals.

    Aside from my moral convictions and beliefs this is a great read. You always without fail deliver the best information that is written in a styllsh and entertaining manner.

    I cherish every one of your posts- no matter the subject.

    oh and I’m behind reading and commenting on one or two of your posts. Those were written when I was feeling awfiully puny. I’m some better but still need to have cardio convrsion done after the implantation of the pacemaler. My energy level is improved some but MD says I have better days ahead. I hope he is right, :-)


    1. I’m sure you have better days ahead, Yvonne. My mother’s pacemaker literally transformed her life, almost overnight. A couple of friends didn’t see such dramatic results, but over a period of three or four months, they found themselves back to what they remembered as their old selves. I suspect you’ll have the same experience. I certainly hope so.

      As I mentioned to Steve, just above, I understand that people have a variety of objections to animals in circuses. I’m not opposed to animals in circuses, but I am opposed to mistreatment.

      I know Carson & Barnes has been targeted by some groups, and it may be that there were problems in the past. Now? I don’t see it. Of course, I’m not in a position to have much first-hand knowledge of what goes on, but there are a lot of knowledgeable groups commending them for their work on behalf of elephants.

      In any event, I think we agree that the well-being of the elephants should be primary. I really don’t know anything about the big cats, other than what a trainer in Hugo told me about changes in their transport and housing, to provide more space, more exercise and such.

      I saw you commenting somewhere that a new post may be in the offing. I hope so — I always look forward to them. And thank you for stopping by here and adding to the discussion. I appreciate it.


      1. Thank you , Linda for the new info re: the circus animals. I surely hope that is the case for giving the big cats more room and that the elephants are being treated kindly.

        Also thanks for the pacemaker info. I hope with all my being that I’ll be back to my former self. :-) I’l not yet motivated to present a post. Just can not get motivated to put forth the effort.

  20. What an amazing cemetery! I never knew that there were cemetery sections specifically for circus performers. I know that there are military cemeteries, but didn’t realize that other professions also had cemeteries.

    1. It’s not just circus performers who have their special places, Sheryl. I was completely surprised to find another profession represented in cemeteries throughout Arkansas — but more about that later.

      What I most love about the circus people’s markers is the sense that they wanted to be remembered for their performance as much as their person. It’s hard to be there and not imagine that, as you look at their stones, they aren’t looking down and smiling to see that their personal “show” still is going on.


      1. I doubt if I’ll ever get to Hugo Oklahoma, but this post really makes me want to visit the circus cemetery if I ever get to the general region. It really looks like an amazing place, and that it would be fun to see firsthand how the various performers are memorialized.

  21. You always write such an intruiging story Linda! I went for a quick search to see if Downunder there are cemeteries for circus performers, but I got distracted when I found out about this woman – from circus to bushranger! The Wild Woman of Wollemi

    But really I think, she was simply adopting the The Law of the Circus – the show must go on :-)

    1. What a tale! She certainly crammed a lot into her 46 years. And I was so touched by that mention of her blue enamel teapot. That’s just sad, somehow. On the other hand, maybe after her experiences with those three husbands, she was ready for a little solitude in her mountain cave.

      I loved the description of her circus act. It’s not something I’d agree to, but it certainly must have thrilled the crowds.

      I do think you’re right. She kept the “show” going, in whatever way she could. I’m glad there’s a book about her now. I’m going to see if I can get my hands on it. (It looks like it might be a bit of a project. It’s the first book I haven’t found listed at Amazon or Abe’s!)


  22. What a brilliant story… Wouldn’t you love to see the ghosts residing there? :)

    The “most beautiful woman ever to bite a policeman’s wrist.” I just love it — and would love to have that notoriety when I leave!

    1. Clearly, we have the same sense of humor, FeyGirl. My grandmother used to use the phrase, “That girl is a caution.” I think Inez probably was a caution. And if we’re going to be remembered for something, a little incident like the one with the policeman wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

      I never thought of ghosts. The place was so peaceful — even to the name, Showmen’s Rest — that the restlessness often ascribed to ghosts just didn’t occur to me. Maybe they’re all too busy putting on shows in the clouds to bother the people wandering their graveyard!


  23. We are supposed to be related to the famous Molly Bailey that had the Family Circus that traveled in eastern Texas and Arkansas. My dad’s paternal grandfather, whose Christian name was “Thomas Jefferson” was married to a Miss Molly Bailey, supposedly related to the famous woman. Her mother was a Dalton. Grandmother Mollie was adjured by her husband not to be talking about her family tree since a goodly number of her relatives were hanging from it. One assumes this was her mother’s family to whom he was referring. Thomas Jefferson was a switchman and conductor on the KT (Katy) Railroad, and my father was his “podner.”

    The circus life lets one travel and be outlandish, and was historically only marginally more respectable than being a member of the Travellers. One is said to be born with sawdust in one’s blood, which predisposes one to circus life. There is something very appealing about a life that flouts convention and lets one remake oneself into the person one feels one should have been.

    1. Do I love having a few readers whose roots go so deeply into Texas soil? Oh, yes, I do. And your Thomas Jefferson made me smile, remembering all the people I knew in Liberia who had adopted historical American names when they chose to no longer be known by their tribal names (at least in some contexts). My houseboy was Philip Lincoln, and there were plenty of Washingtons, Jeffersons and Monroes around, too.

      Ah, the Daltons. I presume you mean the Dalton Gang. I didn’t know until quite recently that they met their demise in Coffeyville, Kansas. I’ve been through there several times, and hadn’t a clue.

      Traveling and being outlandish. That sounds pretty good to me, although I’d prefer to take mine without the need to work on the trapeze.


      1. Now if I was young again and as light afoot as once I was, a dappled grey Percheron and a tutu would suit me down to the ground — dancing on horseback. What circus worth its salt would be without a bareback rider?

  24. Isn’t interesting how cemeteries reveal so much about a community?

    Walking around the cemetery in my home town is a little like taking a step back in time. I bump into names of people I have long since forgotten, but soon they are with me in their own way. Memories of my bus driver who knew me from 5 to 18; school teachers who are still teaching me; friends of my parents; even people I didn’t much care for – they all have stories worth the telling. Hopefully their families are keeping them alive in their own way so that their own show goes on.

    1. Allen, my parents used to be part of a bridge club: four couples, two tables. I think they played weekly, or pretty close to that, for years and years.

      Eventually, their parents started to die, and they began talking things over. One day, they all trotted down to the cemetery and bought their grave plots together — right next to each other. When my mother died, she was the last to join them. When I took her ashes there for burial and saw those stones, I just laughed. Now, they’re surely reunited at those great bridge tables in the sky. Just one more example of the show going on!


  25. An impressive post, Linda, both the content and your writing. I must say I’ve enjoyed reading the comment thread almost as much as the post. I had to laugh at your “She Varnished…” epitaph. I think the chances of my going to Chicago are higher than a visit to Hugo, so I will add Woodlawn Cemetery to my must-see list.

    1. We all enjoy the comments as much as the posts, I think. I’ve always believed the post is only the starting point. I suppose that’s part of what makes blogging such a different medium. And it’s nice to be able to prove that comment sections don’t have to devolve into a cage match!

      I have a friend who lived in Chicago. She’s been to the section in Woodlawn, and says it’s quite impressive. I know you’d enjoy it.

      So nice to have you stop by, Barbara. I’m glad you enjoyed this quite different, yet equally dignified cemetery.


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