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.
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 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.