Born Mollie Arline Kirkland
"Circus Queen of the Southwest"
|Known as the "Circus Queen
of the Southwest," Mollie is said to have been born on a plantation near Mobile,
Alabama November 2, 1844.|
While in her early teens she eloped with Gus
Bailey, a redheaded cornet player in his father's circus band. This once-popular
escape for young women actually worked out for Mollie and Gus and they were married
in 1858. What young woman in that day and age could resist a redheaded cornet
Mollie's sister Fanny and Gus' brother Alfred, joined the two
and together they became the Bailey Family Troupe, singing, dancing, and
acting their way across small town Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. It was
a definite improvement over plantation life.
With the outbreak of the
Civil War Gus became bandmaster for a company in Hood's Texas Brigade. Mollie
traveled as a nurse and, was for a time, a spy for Gen. Hood. Disguised as a cookie-selling
crone, she easily passed through Union lines. After nursing and spying, she returned
to performing in Hood's Minstrels in 1864 - performing again with Gus and
Gus’ claim to fame was writing "The Old Gray Mare," a marching
song that became a popular period piece. The song was so popular that by 1928
it was used as a theme song for the Democratic convention of 1928. After the war
ended, the Baileys toured southern river towns with a showboat as the Bailey
Concert Company. In 1879 they traded the slight inconvenience of showboating
for the bone-jarring rigors of a traveling circus.
The circus was billed
as "A Texas Show for Texas People." Since Gus was forced into early retirement
by poor health, the circus became known as the Mollie A. Bailey Show.
Mollie had a policy of free admission for veterans – be they Confederate or Union.
Her generosity with free passes extended to include poor children. For a one-ring
circus, The Mollie Bailey Show’s fame was widespread - in no small part
due to a grueling schedule. After reading existing handbills that show the circus
striking tents in Hempstead one day, putting them up in Navasota the next and
Brenham the day after, it’s easy to understand Gus’ poor health.
died in 1896 at Blum, Texas and Mollie became even more devoted to the circus.
To avoid paying locally levied entertainment taxes, Mollie bought lots in towns
she frequently visited. In this way she would be performing on her property –
and she’d owe no tax. She allowed the towns to use the lots for picnics and ball
games when she didn’t need them – which was about 363 days per year. These properties
were eventually deeded over to the towns and many are small parks to this day.
circus started traveling by train in 1906, the same year she married A. H. “Blackie”
Hardesty, the circus’ (gas) lighting manager. Mollie and Blackie lived in an opulent
observation car frequently entertaining distinguished guests like governors, state
senators and even Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Former members of Hood's Brigade
were, of course, always welcome.
After their marriage, Blackie’s surname
of Hardesty was soon forgotten. He became, for all intents and purposes (other
than legal), Blackie Bailey.
As a footnote to movies in Texas, Mollie
Bailey has been credited with introducing the first motion picture in Texas. Shown
in a separate tent, it was reportedly a film portraying the sinking of the Battleship
Maine in Havana Harbor. You were expecting maybe Birth of a Nation?
“Birda,” the youngest of her nine children (her first child was named “Dixie”)
died in 1917, Mollie stopped touring and directed the circus by telegraph. She
died the next year on October 2, 1918, in Houston. The circus soon dissolved without
her hands-on management.
“Blackie” Bailey became a jitney driver between
Houston and Goose Creek (Baytown). Much younger than Mollie, Blackie lived another
19 years, and undoubtedly had some great circus stories to share with his passengers.
Although there is no tombstone that is marked Mollie Bailey or even Mollie Arline
Kirkland, The Texas Historical Commission has a marker erected at the Bailey plot
– at the rear of Houston’s Hollywood Cemetery (North Main at I-45). Sponsors listed
on the back of the marker show that Mollie’s descendants are keeping her name