Old Burlington has always loved a great show – be it a band concert in the park, a stage show at the opera house, or a street brawl on Front Street. Regardless of the event or venue, with sufficient publicity, you can always count on an enthusiastic crowd.
This was especially true with the arrival of the circus, and circuses were an integral part of the city’s entertainment calendar in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Promise a couple of elephants, tigers and clowns to the audience paying tickets in Burlington, and then toss an acrobat in tinsel tights and you were sure to attract a crowd.
The community’s love affair with the Big Top began back in 1846 when the Howie and Mabies Olympic Arena and US Circus floated into town. Howie and Mabies were closely followed by IW French’s Great Oriental Circus and Egyptian Caravan, where the audience stood in line to take a breathtaking breath of fifty cents for a ticket.
This price of admission was considered reasonable as IW French had some world class acts. There was a team of geese trained to pull a wash tub, Don Stone – “the clown of the era” – and La Bell Jeanette, “the best rider in the world”.
Of course the newspapers would grumble that the circus was “the lowest form of entertainment,” but that didn’t put off the Burlington crowd. Circuses became such a profitable attraction that James Johnson and P. Sells built a circus amphitheater on Market Street in 1867 and started their own permanent circus and equestrian company.
Much later, when the Hagenbeck and Wallace Show rolled into town in 1914, it treated the town with a grand parade with a herd of elephants that managed to stir panic among the horse teams on Jefferson Street. But what is best remembered about the Hagenbeck and Wallace Show is that day’s afternoon show.
The performance started late thanks to the unfortunate incident on Jefferson Street, but by 2 p.m. an estimated 5,000 spectators had crowded under the big screen tent where they were being serenaded by the circus band. Many in the crowd had noticed storm clouds were gathering in the west, but no consideration was given to canceling the show.
But when the clouds reached the exhibition grounds, it became ominously dark in the circus tent. The now concerned crowd fell silent as the clerks rushed over to turn on the gas lamps and then the storm hit them. There was a faint rumble of thunder and then a strong gust of wind made the tent press the tent against its ankles and then it roared outside.
The Hawk Eye newspaper reported, “Halfway up the stands, a sturdy, middle-aged woman stood up and shouted, ‘My God, the tent is going by. ‘And then she jumped down the seats and out of the exit with an agility that was contrary to her size. “
Then there was another gust of wind stronger than the first, and the billowing canvas lifted one of the center supports skyward from its base to create threatening arches over the center ring.
The crowd gasped and stood up, and then suddenly the band tossed their instruments aside and ran for the nearest exit. And the panic began. Children screamed and there were shouts as the crowd shot over the seats and pushed the few narrow exits.
When the audience began to spill out of the main tent, the menagerie tent near the buffeting area collapsed. Most of the audience had already left the smaller tent, but a man had to cut his way out from under the canvas with his jackknife. Animal trainers rushed to the scene to calm the frightened animals in the cages.
At that moment, a heavy downpour poured over the exhibition grounds, soaking the crowd that was spilled by the Big Top. Those who were still in the tent hesitated at the gush of water and calmer heads in the audience indicated that the tent was the safest place.
The circus attendants now picked up the scream and urged the guests to return to their seats, and slowly, somewhat embarrassed, most of the people returned to their seats to await the storm in the dubious safety of the wildly fluttering tent.
Those who ran out of the tent were now soaked from storm, wind and rain. Parents looking after children could be seen running through the park, taking shelter on the porches, parlors, and outbuildings of the surrounding residential area.
The storm was supposed to end as soon as it started. In less than an hour the sun was shining through the clouds. In the big tent the lights went out and the cowardly band picked up the music where it left off and it was show time.
But the thrill of the acrobats and lions couldn’t match the excitement the crowd had already experienced.