The Circus Fightby
one historian has called "the most famous circus fight in history" unfolded in
1873 as Robinson's Circus was preparing to leave Jacksonville
in East Texas. |
Jacksonville was a fledgling community in those days.
It had been founded with a post office in 1849, but moved to its present site
in 1872 on the International & Great Northern Railroad.
The story of the
fight first appeared in a Dearborn, Michigan, newspaper and was reprinted by the
Jacksonville Daily Progress years later.
Here is what apparently unfolded.
Circus of Cincinnati, Ohio, opened on a raw, cold day in November of 1873. The
circus' hands had some words with a rowdy crowd of Jacksonville men before the
show opened and, when the show began four or five local men plopped down in the
circus ring where trained horses usually performed.
When the horses were
brought into the ring, the local men stopped them, forcing two circus hands to
remove the unruly group.
Later, the group went to the bars in Jacksonville,
started drinking and decided they wanted to arrest a circus manager named De Vere.
They obtained a warrant and went looking for De Vere. Circus officials, meanwhile,
hid De Vere.
Circus owner Jack Robinson, fearing something worse could
happen, ordered his men to pack up their wagons and drive them to a railroad loading
area. There, they were met by a Jacksonville mob.
As a circus employee
was supervising the loading of the wagons on the train, a shot was fired and the
powder of a pistol burned the face of a circus employee, touching off a melee
of additional gun shots, fights and threats.
The circus employees chased
the mobs into the town's business area, where they hid behind the barred doors
of a store. When the circus hands battered down the door, the locals fled out
the back door.
As the riot continued, a circus hand was stabbed in the
back, a local man fired a shotgun at the circus men, but missed and killed a circus
animal, and a circus employee poured a bucket of coal oil on a store and threatened
to set it afire if the mob persisted in their anger.
As the circus train
pulled out of town on its way to Houston,
more shots were fired. About a mile and a half out of town, as the train crossed
a trestle, the Jacksonville mob mounted another gunshot battle, wounding a circus
The mob then telegraphed Houston officials, asking them to arrest
the circus, but the telegraph operator in Jacksonville never sent the message.
The Robinson Circus didn't return to Texas for years, but when a group
of Texas lawyers came to Cincinnati, Robinson arranged for city officials to wine
and dine the lawyers. One of the lawyers promised to help wipe out the charges
against the circus in Jacksonville.
However, reports claim that when the
Robinson Circus returned to Jacksonville years later, a circus man injured in
the l873 riot killed a Jacksonville man.
After the passage of years, Jacksonville
forgot about the Great Circus Fight and settled down as a quiet, law-abiding community.
December 24, 2006 Column.
Published with permission
A weekly column syndicated
in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Distributed by the East Texas Historical
Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and the author
of more than 30 books about East Texas.
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