by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
It didn’t bear the more famous P.T. Barnum or Sells Brothers names, but Winnipeggers were still excited that a circus was coming to town for the first time in the community’s history. For that matter, it was the first time that any circus had visited Manitoba. While the renowned Adam Forepaugh’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus toured the major centres of North America, Dr. A.W. Hager’s Paris Circus and Zoological Aggregation, beginning in May, was scheduled to spend the 1878 season touring less-populous frontier towns in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ontario, with the circus’ last confirmed stop slated for Winnipeg at the end of June. At the time, Winnipeg’s population was 7,000, which was quite a respectable number of people compared to the other communities the Hager circus visited.
For Hager, who was based in Mount Clemens, Michigan, it was his initial foray into the circus business, which meant he had to start from scratch by hiring performers and side show attractions as well as rent out concession stand privileges.
According to the March 23, 1878, New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper, Hager had hired: “Leopold and Gaston, Jennie and Albert Lawrence, Albert A. Hall contortionist; Profs. O.Hunt and Le Pere, balloon ascensionists; John Klotz, juggler; and Prof. Charles S. Share, with his Oswego Cornet Band. David Peitier has secured the candy stand privilege.”
In his 1903 book, On the Road with a Circus, author W. C. Thompson (Circus Historical Society), wrote: “In order to fill the side-show with small circuses there is always a candy stand, and whenever there is a lull in the proceedings the voice of the candy ‘butcher’ (circus slang for the concession vendor) may be heard calling his wares in this manner: ‘Strawberry lemonade, ice cold, is five cents to-day. Lemonade, peanuts, cakes, candies, everything is five cents.’”
But even before the troupe got underway, controversy arose when gymnasts Leopold and Gaston claimed they had not signed on with Hager. To make his case, Hager sent a copy of the contract signed by the gymnasts to the Clipper. “Their denial of this engagement would seem to indicate that they intend to break their contract,” stated the entertainment weekly.
Later accounts of performances in Winnipeg make no mention of Leopold and Gaston, who apparently succeeded in breaking their contract with Hager.
But this was just one instance of the controversies that plagued Dr. A.W. Hager’s Paris Circus, otherwise know as Doc Hager’s Great Paris Circus, or by other configurations that always contained Hager’s name plus the words Paris and circus. (Many circuses, although they had no association with the locales in their titles, used an exotic foreign city or country to promote their enterprises.) When the circus hit Winnipeg, the ultimate controversy would bring an “inglorious end,” as described by local newspapers, to Dr. A.W. Hager’s Paris Circus.
The circus began performing at East Tawas, Michigan, on May 6, 1878, and then made stops at Marquette and other locations in the mining and shipping towns along Lake Superior, including a show at Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). From Ontario, the circus recrossed Lake Superior by steamboat to Duluth and then travelled to Moorhead and Fargo aboard the Northern Pacific Railroad.
It was at Duluth that the circus’s troubles began in earnest and persisted as the company made its way to Winnipeg. At every stage of their journey west, it was the lack of adequate funding that was the catalyst for the woes of the circus. In order to fulfill his obligations, Hager was continually forced to solicit money from local entrepreneurs whenever the circus stopped in a town.
“The captain of the boat which brought the show from Prince Arthur’s followed it as far as Fargo to get his passage money,” reported the July 6, 1878, Manitoba Free Press, “and he being satisfied, two livery men of the town helped the circus along financially, on the trip down the Red River, which was commenced by special flatboat (barge). The performers all this time had not been paid any salaries, except a few dollars each, and their clamors for their dues were met by the old story — ‘Wait till we strike the next town.’”
The barge on which the circus performers and their equipment initially travelled down the Red to Winnipeg was towed by the steamer J.L. Grandin. En route to the capital of Manitoba, the performers were fed on “crackers and red herrings” (promises never intended to be kept that were designed to prevent them from deserting a sinking ship), and quenched their thirst with water taken directly from the Red River, according to the Free Press.
“At Caledonia, in Dakota (then a territory of the U.S., made up of what would later become the states of North Dakota and South Dakota), a hotelkeeper gave William “W.H.” Dwyer (Hager’s son-in-law and circus manager) $100 to stay over, and a performance was given, which resulted in a pecuniary loss to the dealer in spirits.” The performers and other circus employees had quite literally “drunk the bar dry.”
As the circus moved closer to Winnipeg, its proprietor was forced to put his hand out and beg residents along the river for financial aid to just maintain the show’s daily existence.
After arriving in Winnipeg on June 21 aboard the Grandin, the circus was set up in a field opposite city hall. The city’s first purpose-built civic adminstration building had been built on the west side of Main Street, and straddled Brown’s Creek that had been filled in to accommodate the building. The creek had crossed Main Street near William Avenue.
Dwyer told local newspapers that the circus’ misfortunes would end in Winnipeg. But he could not avoid paying the debts he had already incurred, as the men who had advanced money in Fargo followed the circus to Winnipeg, and any profits realized were said to have lined their pockets until they had all their money back. In the meantime, the performers still hadn’t been paid their wages.
Afterward, two Winnipeg backers took over control of the show — or so they imagined. For the first time since their arrival, the performers received some of the money they were owed, allowing the daily shows to continue.
The Free Press on June 22 reported that the circus may not have been “an extensive affair ... the performances gave general satisfaction, as was evidenced by the frequent applause elicited while the knights of the sawdust were entertaining the audience.”
The audience was particularly pleased by the performance of the acrobats, especially Kerman. The trapeze artists, the Herbert Brothers, were another crowd favourite as was contortionist Fred C. Hall.
“Munkin on the trapeze was also very good, and his balancing feats and contortions were loudly applauded.”
Klotz’s juggling was said to be well performed, while “Leando, the boy-serpent, very cleverly acted his part, and what the equestrian (horse act) lacked in quantity was made up in quality by MacMahon.
“The clowns’ antics provoked laughter, though their jokes would have been more palatable had they been void of profanity.”
The entertainment by the band was singled out for praise by the Free Press reporter.
“The sideshows with curiosities — dwarfs, child covered with hair, etc. — is well spoken of by those who visited it.”
The circus announced it was staying in the city until June 28 and would have afternoon and evening performances. A single admission was 75-cents, with an additional quarter needed for reserved seating.
The reporter said the price per ticket would have been acceptable if the cost of reserve seating had been announced outside the big-top tent, but patrons, who had already paid 75-cents in the expectation that a seat would be available with the price of their admission, were instead told as they entered the tent that an additional 25-cents was required to take a seat.
“In keeping with this is the additional charge made to witness ‘attractions’ that are so advertised as to convey the idea that they are covered by the general admission fee. No one ever supposed that circuses are philanthropic institutions — in the contrary it is well understood they are on the ‘make.’ But we mistake if the Paris Circus has not, like some other shows that have visited Winnipeg, overreached itself, by the greediness attempted to be gratified by manifestly dishonest methods.”
The reporter was right in claiming that circuses were not philanthropic institutions. In fact, the small-time circuses were frequently populated by pickpockets, grifters and short-change artists.
“The plain, unvarnished truth is that during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many circuses and their side shows were thoroughly crooked and infested with grift,” wrote historian John Hanners in his book, It was Play or Starve (1993), “a term that designates dishonest circus practices requiring personal contact between criminal and victim.”
“Play or starve” was a well-known phrase among the performers of the Hager troupe.
While circus employees willingly parted quarters, dimes and nickels from “the suckers born every minute” (a phrase attributed to P.T. Barnum), the promise of fresh prey in frontier towns also attracted a criminal element.
While in Winnipeg, circus employees, Charles Austin and Charles McKenney, were charged with waylaying George Walker as he walked from Cronn’s Variety Theatre to his accommodations at Brouse’s Hotel. After badly beating the man, the two circus employees robbed Walker of his watch, watch chain and pocketbook. After a preliminary hearing, they were sent to the provincial jail in Winnipeg to await trial.
The fortunes of the circus were delivered another financial blow when rain caused shows to be cancelled, sending it further into debt. The two unnamed Winnipeg backers generously continued to pay the circus employees a small portion of their wages even though the bad weather made it impossible for performances to be staged.
(next week: part 2)
Due to the setbacks, Hager and Dwyer petitioned city council to rebate the licence fee paid by the circus, but since the council was not meeting at the time, the petition could not be considered.
In a spate of sympathy, a “benefit” show was organized in order to provide enough funds for the troupe to return to the U.S.
But the benefit, despite a good turnout, became a fiasco, as Dwyer absconded with all the proceeds of the event in order “to see how the crops were in Minnesota” (Free Press, July 6, 1878).
“And Hager went after his precious son-in-law. In the meantime, a side show, which had accompanied the circus, left, taking with it two or three of the circus performers.”
Dwyer and Hager abandoned the troupe, which originally had been 50 in number, to fend for themselves in a foreign city. But it was Dwyer’s actions, not Hager’s, which resulted in the “inglorious end” of Winnipeg’s first circus. All that Hager can be accused of was fearing the worst from enraged Winnipeggers and employees after Dwyer fled with an undisclosed amount of money owed to them. The only estimate of funds owed was about $2,000 in employee salaries.
To make up for the villainy of their general manager, those performers who remained behind organized a show on July 4 for the benefit of the Winnipeg General Hospital and themselves. The plan was to donate half of the proceeds to the hospital.
The amount collected “was so small — a few dollars — that the hospital authorities did not accept it, but very properly returned it to the unfortunate showmen.
“Yesterday evening again, another performance was given, which netted the fifteen men left here some $4 each, which with a few dollars remaining from the wages paid here after deducting (the) board bill (most employees stayed at the Gable Hotel), leaves them in an extremely undesirable position.”
A few of the former Hager circus employees got jobs in Winnipeg, while others left by steamer for Pembina, where they gave a performance in the hopes of earning enough to pay for their passage home.
Among those left behind in Winnipeg was the contortionist Leando, who was gravely ill and unfit for travel. A group of performers also stayed behind, refusing to abandon their ailing friend.
“And Dwyer?” the Free Press asked. “Well, they say that he has been steadily pocketing that which should have been paid in salaries, and that he has ‘beaten’ his respected father-in-law, who with wife and two daughters, one of them Dwyer’s better-half, is now in Pembina completely strapped.”
Also remaining behind in Winnipeg was the troupe’s canvas tent, wagons, seats, trappings, etc., which were seized by local businessmen who were owed money by the circus.
On July 10, the Free Press reported: “MacMahon with his grey horse — the equine stock-in-trade of the busted Paris Circus — and several others of the troupe left last night on the Grandin to join another circus.”
Six days later, the same newspaper reported that Moiles, the assistant-manager of the “busted circus,” left by the previous day’s steamboat for the east. “By degrees the men who got left by the late circus are departing.”
The last report about the whereabouts of Hager was reported in the Grand Forks Plaindealer on July 13, 1878. According to the Dakota Territory newspaper: “Dr. Hager, formerly proprietor of Hager’s Paris Circus, called on us Wednesday as he was passing through on his way home. He says we were misinformed with regard to Dwyer being in jail. The Dr. was arrested, but Dwyer was not.
“He also claims that Dwyer is to blame for the whole affair; that he acted in such a manner that respectable people in Winnipeg would not patronize the show, and pocketed what funds there were left.
“Dr. Hager has the appearance of being an honest man, and says that through Dwyer he has lost all his property, and that he is left in his old age without a dollar. Some friends kindly furnished passes for him and his family to Detroit, Mich., and he is thus able to get home.”
Meanwhile, the Tribune based in Brainerd, Minnesota, reported on July 20 that Dwyer had passed through town on his return home from Winnipeg, “where, under the rigorous debt laws of Canada, the company was throttled and demoralized, losing their entire profit and bursting the show.”
What Dwyer failed to tell the newspaper staff was that he was far from “bursted.” He had plenty of cash in his pocket, which was obtained through thievery from the circus and its employees.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the first time that Dwyer had bankrupted a circus. How he was able to get away with virtually the same nefarious scheme twice defies reasoning. A year earlier, he was the general manager of the Great Australian Circus, which was owned by John S. Hurd and R.E. Emmons and also based, like the Paris Circus, in Mount Clemens, Michigan.
While in North Branch, Minnesota, “Dwyer had furthered his long-range plans by putting aside a substantial amount of money from the circus receipts,” wrote Helen McCann White in the Minnesota History magazine article, A Circus Gone Up (Minnesota Historical Society). “When he left North Branch before the end of July (1877), he took with him $7,000 — a sum gathered probably not only from admission fees but also from the management’s share of the profits from candy and other concessions.”
In the process, he abandoned the circus’ employees, the same fate that awaited Hager’s troupe in Winnipeg a year later.
Dwyer also happened to be travelling with his wife to Minnesota, but she left him when she discovered that her husband was paying more attention to the other women in the circus than to her. When Dwyer absconded with the $7,000, he was in the company of tightrope dancer, Madame Gosh.
How he convinced his wife to accompany him on the 1878 tour is hard to understand, especially after his flings with the tightrope artist and other women. His father-in-law should have also been quite suspicious of the rogue who, by taking off with proceeds of the Great Australian Circus, was responsible for causing a number of well-publicized lawsuits in Minnesota brought to the courts by employees and local residents owed money. But since Dwyer couldn’t be located at the time of the trials, Hurd and Emmons were forced to face the wrath of the courts. The two men fled the jurisdiction of the local courts when they realized that they would be made solely liable for the debts owed by the circus. They had already paid out some wages to their employees, but didn’t want to stick around and be held responsible for other costs incurred by the circus.
“At last the bonds posted by attorneys O’Brien and Gorman were forfeited to pay for court costs; goods and merchandize were sold and the services rendered long before were in some measure recompensed,” wrote McCann White.
The fact that Hager funded the circus that came to Winnipeg, which was so plagued by cash difficulties during its tour, is probably attributable to the persuasive charms of Dwyer. Getting away with the same trick twice, when the facts of the first “grift” in Minnesota had to be well known to father and daughter, shows that Dwyer possessed a good measure of the “gift of the gab.”
It would seem that the “inglorious end” to Manitoba’s first circus was fated to occur as long as Dwyer was the general manager and had the key to the cash box.