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Circus comes to town — owner and manager fled to United States abandoning penniless performers in Winnipeg
Jul 25, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
The fortunes of the Dr. A.W. Hager’s Paris Circus, the first circus ever to perform in Manitoba, were delivered another financial blow when a rain downpour 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.
Due to the setbacks, Hager and William “W.H.” Dwyer, his son-in-law and circus general manager, 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 sympathy for the plight of the circus workers, a “benefit” show was organized in order to provide enough funds for the troupe to return to the U.S.
The acts in Hager’s circus were typical of the small-time shows of the era, and were described in the Free Press on June 22, 1878. The newspaper 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 (slang for circus performers) 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 (and contortionist), 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 circus 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.”
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” (Manitoba 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 published 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,” according to the July 6 Free Press.
“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 on the U.S. side of the border, where they gave a performance in the hopes of earning enough to pay for their passage to their hometowns.
Among those left behind in Winnipeg was the contortionist Leando, who was gravely ill and unfit for travel. A number 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 published 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. Canada’s debt laws hadn’t played a role in the demise of circus.
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 Winter 1983 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 female employees of the Great Australian Circus. 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 1878 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.