Amazing, mind-blowing, death-defying facts about MI circuses and carnivals!
The Fearless Greggs, daredevils from at least 1905 to 1912 defied logic and gravity with their thrilling automobiles-passing-in-the-air stunt. Fed and Joe Gregg, Howard Smith, Eddie Bouten, and Charlie Hall were from Grand Rapids and Ludington. Troupe members kept getting injured or killed when the car passing over landed on the car beneath.
Yes, circus is responsible for the spread of fruitcake as a holiday gift in the U.S. The Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, was established in 1896 by master baker, Gus Weidmann, and his partner, Tom McElwee. They also operated a fancy hotel where many famous guests stayed, including John Ringling. Mr. McElwee gave the guests fruitcakes. The circus people liked them and requested some be shipped to their friends all over the country. This led to establishment of the bakery’s mail order business. Today the bakery is world famous and ships fruitcakes to 196 countries.
Typhoid in Detroit
Ringling Bros. arrived by train in late July 1934 to perform in Detroit. Some of the crew had typhoid. 77 performers and support staff were sickened between July 22 and August 7. Eventually 7 men died of typhoid. Extra medical staff was assigned to the show. Sick people were sent to Harper Hospital, Detroit, and a Lansing hospital, performers kept separate from support staff. Health officials believed that if they closed the circus, the employees would leave for other work and typhoid would spread throughout the U.S. The story was carried by the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, and other papers.
Circus Hippo runs amok in the Detroit River
The Detroit Daily Free Press of June 13, 1863 advertised Geo. F. Bailey & Co.’s Grand Circus, Sands’ Nathan’s & Co.’s Circus with a gigantic hippo, elite equestrians, lots of acts and horses. Performances were scheduled for Mon.-Tues. 2 and 7:30pm on June 27-28. Admission cost 25cents for children under 12, everyone else cost 50 cents. The grand procession (parade) was scheduled for 11am was to include a horse-drawn hippo in his cage.
The Detroit Daily Free Press on June 23, 1863 ran an article about the same hippo entitled “Chasing of a Hippopotamus in Detroit River.” What follows is a summary. As the Geo. F. Bailey & Co.’s Grand Circus, Sands’ Nathan’s & Co.’s Circus traveled from Buffalo to Detroit, it became necessary because of the weight, to send the elephants and hippo on board the S.S. Coldwell. On Monday near port, the hippo nearly escaped. It belongs to G. C. Quick, Esq. The hippo’s immense cage did not fit on board ship, so the cage was shipped by land. The hippo, called “His Behemothship,” with Ali the Egyptian, the hippo’s keeper, went by water to Detroit. During the voyage the hippo took to water. Three miles below the Fort, a splash was heard from the side of the bow toward the American shore. The hippo had jumped into the Detroit River. The owner “looked the picture of despair,” $40,000 [the cost of the hippo] and prospective profits gone. Ali was frantic. A boat was lowered. The hippo plunged as boat approached. The hippo dodged the boat three times. Finally, a large black mastiff plunged in after the hippo. The dog barked and swam around the hippo, and then swam for the American shore. The hippo followed. Ali talked to the hippo, whacked the hippo’s butt, and drove the hippo to safety after “his frolic beneath the waves.”
Examples of Circus Ads in Detroit
Ads for circuses, and everything else, in early newspapers, 1840s, were small and had no illustrations. This soon changed. By the 1850s ads usually had beautiful art, long lists of exotic animals, performances acts (human and animal) and exciting jargon. Circuses had ad[vance] men who plastered towns with posters, sometimes over those of the competition. They made deals with local stores to sponsor the circus’ ads and sell tickets. Circuses usually advertised heavily about 2 weeks before their appearance in any given town and on performance days in newspapers with large, illustrated ads and small text ads such as “Small boys should save their coins to attend the circus!” In the exhbit there are ads from the Detroit Free Press 1843, 1856 and 1881.
Some town newspapers printed critiques of the circus performances. In the exhibit there are two critiques, a good review of Ringling Bros., August 17, 1895, and a bad review of the Great Eastern Circus, July 21, 1883, both from the Ishpeming Iron Agitator.
The beautiful drawing of the woman on the trapeze in the Clarke’s exhibit case in the library’s main hall is from a circus ad of 1888 in the Detroit Free Press.
Durand Train Wreck
On August 7, 1903, 26 men died when the second of two trains of the Great Wallace Circus train was hit by a steam locomotive near the Durand train station. The first train with the performers, animal trainers, and executives had already left. 12 train cars, many wagons, animal cages, and other props were ruined. Many animals died including Maud the elephant, a trained Arabian horse, thee camels, and a Great Dane. 8 dead people were never identified because they had either recently signed on with the circus or because they were known by nicknames. The Hotel Richelieu functioned as a morgue. Townspeople helped the injured. Surgeons, undertakers, and coffins were summoned from surrounding communities. Other circuses sent equipment and staff afterwards so the circus could continue, which it did.
On Tuesday, January 30, 1962, the Great Wallendas 7-person pyramid act fell 36 feet onto a cement floor at the State Fair Grounds Coliseum during a Shrine Circus performance in Detroit. Dieter Schepp, 23, Richard Faughnan, 29, and Gunther Wallenda, 42, died. Mario Wallenda, 22, Karl Wallenda’s adopted son fell and was paralyzed from the waist down. Dieter had apparently tossed his pole up to catch his balance. This caused him to fall and drag Faughnan, who was basically hooked to him via the shoulder harness, down from the wire with him. Karl and his brother, Herman, fell from the second to the first level and held onto the wire. Karl caught Jana Schepp, and held her until an improvised net was created. When she fell, Jana bumped her head and suffered injuries. Jana and Dieter were Karl and Herman’s niece and nephew. Gunther was Herman’s son.
When the Wallendas fell, mass panic broke out among the audience of 7,000, which included men, women, and children. Mario was hospitalized for a long time at Highland Park General Hospital. Although Karl had suffered significant injuries, he and Herman performed an abridged act the next evening. Karl told his wife, “I can handle the grief better from up there. The wire is my life. We owe it to those who died to keep going.”
The 7-person pyramid remains the standard of excellence for high-wire pyramid performance. The Wallendas regularly performed the 7-person pyramid between 1928 and 1947. After the 1962 fall it was performed once in 1963 to prove the family still had the nerves and ability to do it. Karl’s grandchildren performed the act for the movie “The Great Wallendas” in 1977. In 1998 the 7-person pyramid was successfully performed by a new generation of Wallendas. The Wallendas continue to perform and have created an 8- and 10-person pyramid.
Carla Wallenda Guzman, the daughter of Karl and Helen Wallenda, is a grandmother but still performs regularly at the Ionia Free Fair in Ionia. Carla’s act includes the high wire, trapeze, and a 70-foot-high sway pole that sways 25-feet in any direction. The sway pole has been her act for 36 years. She began performing when she was three-years-old.
Carnival Safety Board
Did you know that MI was the first state to regulate amusement rides? It was the first state to create a safety board called the Michigan Carnival-Amusement Safety Board in the U.S. The board was created under Public Act 226 of 1966 to set state-wide standards for safety regulations and inspections of traveling shows which operate in MI, and amusement parks, and other fixed locations with rides. The Board includes one representative each from amusement park operators, carnival ride operators, retrial merchants association, registered professional engineer, the director the Dept. Of Labor and Economic Growth, and 2 members of the public. The law is implemented by the Dept. of Labor and Economic Growth, Bureau of Commercial Service, Enforcement Division, Carnival/Amusement and Ski Area Safety. It makes it easier for carnival owners if regulations and requirements are standardized. It makes the rides safer if they are regularly inspected and maintained. It makes everyone happier if nobody gets hurt. The division inspects 1,000 rides in MI a year. There are 1,200 inspections by State inspectors. Did you know that inflatables, climbing walls and bungee jumps are not yet regulated?
Marvin "Slim" Girard
Did you know that MI author, western poet, juggler, yo-yo-expert, entertainer and rope spinning artist, Marvin “Slim” Girard, is known for his ability to make circles with a rope? Slim, his wife, Hazel, and daughter, Giselle, all were part of the act in circuses, on stage, theater, and in nightclubs. Slim has written three other books. Two of his works are on permanent display in the 101 Ranch Room of the Ponca City, OK, Cultural Center.