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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Circus Disasters Throughout History in the US

There have been quite a few disasters in the history of the circus in the United States. Here I want to highlight a few of the most noteworthy and a few that are more obscure. There are many other disasters that have happened but I chose only a few of those that were the most disastrous (involving loss of life to animal or human but I won’t go into all the gory details).

Introduced in chronological order:

1916 – “The Day they Hanged an Elephant” – Erwin, TN

All the credit for finding out about this one goes to Librarypat as I had not come across this incident in my research. This event happened to the Sparks Brothers Circus – a small circus that was touring the southern US. A drifter, Red Eldridge, was hired by the circus that day to be an elephant handler (he had no prior experience of any kind, but apparently that didn’t matter). Claims as to what exactly happened on the evening of September 12, 1916 are confusing at best, but in some way while leading the elephant, Mary, down to get a drink from a pond, Eldridge ended up with his head smashed in by the elephant. Of course people were outraged and called for something to be done. Mr. Sparks decided that a public hanging of the offending Mary was necessary so that he would be able to carry on with his show. Over 2,000 people showed up. Mary was hanged by a railroad crane (twice actually because the first chain broke). This is one of the most prominent cases of animal cruelty in the circus. To read more about this incident, or to see the image which I won’t post here, you can visit the Blue Ridge Country website.

1918 – “Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” – Hammond, IN

This circus disaster happened to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus – it toured the country and was the second largest circus, right behind Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. In the very early hours of June 22, 1918 the train carrying the cars of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus had pulled over to the rail side waiting for a track switch. Problem One: the Hagenbeck-Wallace train had not pulled completely off of the main track, leaving a few of its cars still on the track. Problem Two: the military troop train that was following behind the circus train did not see that the train was still on the tracks because the engineer had fallen asleep at the controls. The two trains collided – right into the sleeping cars of the performers. The circus train was quickly engulfed in flames – due to the kerosene lanterns used to light the cars. 86 performers were killed and another 127 were injured. In a great show of circus camaraderie – other competing circuses donated equipment and performers so that the show would go on, only missing their immediate next two engagements. You can read more about this disaster on the Hammond, Indiana website.

1942 – “Circus Animals Perish in Costly Fire” – Cleveland, OH

This is the first of two circus disasters that we will look at that happened to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Occurring just 2 years before the Hartford Circus Fire this incident is looked upon as a great foreshadowing of events to come. The source of the fire is not known, but a fire started near the menagerie tent. All spectators were able to get out and circus workers fought against the flames to save as many of the caged animals as possible before it was too late. Even with all of the efforts approximately 100 animals died during this quick moving fire – the camels, zebras, and elephant groups taking the most damage. As you can imagine there was chaos – mostly from the animals that were unable to get to safety or just were so spooked that they would not cooperate with the handlers that were trying to save them. At least 26 animals had to be put down by police with machine guns because their injuries and burns were too extreme to be saved. Some of these very same animals would go on to survive the Hartford Circus Fire. You can read more about this disaster at the GenDisasters website.

1944 – “The Day the Clowns Cried” – Hartford, CT

This is the worst circus disaster in the history of the circus in the US – and the only one I know of where there was a loss of spectator life. As we have seen above there were losses to performers and circus animals, but during this one, not one single animal or performer was lost. This disaster happened to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus on July 6, 1944. During the matinee show a fire broke out along the side wall of the tent and within just a couple minutes had spread to the top of the big top. The aerialists were up on the high wire, the two circus performers with their cages of big cats had just finished their performances and were trying to get the cats out of the ring, and the band reacted and began to play the disaster march, Stars and Stripes Forever. Spectators panicked and fled for the only exit they knew of, others were too shocked to move. The whole tent burned to the ground in approximately 10 minutes. 168 spectators died – mostly women and children since it was a weekday matinee, over 700 people were treated for some sort of crush injury or burn. You can read more about this disaster at Circus Fire 1944. This website has lots of links to photos, videos, and additional historical content.

I thoroughly recommend the books below for additional reading about various circus disasters:

** The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan ** (I don't think I can recommend this book enough!)

A Matter of Degree by Don Massey and Rick Davey

Cleveland’s Greatest Disasters by John Stark Bellamy II

Worlds Afire by Paul Janeczko (YA)

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. All of these tragedies are just awful, but reading about Mary the elephant just makes me sick. The cruelty is just incomprehensible. I checked out the link you provided. I do tend to agree that the photo is a hoax. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that it looked fake. I also cannot believe that there is an antique shop there now called The Hanging Elephant. I mean, is that a moment in history to be proud of? I shouldn't think so. Makes me ashamed that I live in the state of Tennessee.

  2. I too was seriously disturbed by Mary's story. Such unnecessary cruelty. Highly disturbing.

  3. Heather, what and excellent post and subject matter. It is tragic events like the above mentioned that have help to shape the modern world. In truth if these things had not happened we would not have made rules and regulations to prevent these types of things from happening again. I am grateful that we live in such a modern time that if anyone of these events had happened today the public out cry would be huge. I remember reading about a Russian or Serbian circus that had a tragic fire not too many years ago tigers and human lives were lost.

  4. Michelle - I think the photo too is not of the actual hanging - like the article suggests maybe a photo op after the actual event? I wouldn't think it would be something to be proud of either, but you know that there are certainly people out there willing to make a buck off of anything. I didn't know you were from TN!

    Allison - it was so unnecessary.

    Lizzy - I have to agree with you. Without many of these types of unpleasant events things would not have changed. I was thinking the same thing as I read these articles about public outcry.

  5. The local attitude about Mary's hanging is a bit split. Many of the older people don't want to talk about it and resent it being brought up. For others it is a claim to fame, dubious as it is. And yes, Michelle, there really is an antique shop with that name, although it may be closed now. Mary's grave was never marked. There have been efforts to locate it and I think they may have recently. I had not heard of the event when we moved here, and only learned of it when I started working in the town of Erwin. The biggest shame aside from her suffering, is how unnecessary it all was. She could have been humanely put down in the town where the trainer was killed. The circus owner preferred to make some money and make a spectacle of it by moving it to the rail yard 30+ miles away. As to the authenticity of the photo, who knows. It is grainy, but spectacle that the hanging was, I find it hard to think no one was there taking pictures. If nothing else, the circus owner would have wanted it for publicity. I am really surprised there were many pictures of the event.
    Since the article was written in 1993, the train station has been refurbished and is now the county library. Mary's grave has been located, but its whereabouts are not public knowledge. Some people are still trying to get a memorial to Mary built.

  6. Librarypat - thanks for the local knowledge - there is only so much you can get by reading an article. I can imagine that the local reaction would be split in regard to the incident.


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