It is no secret that the circus is on the downward trajectory of its once-proud lifespan. For many, it is difficult to reconcile contemporary attitudes with a form of entertainment that exploits animals and outcasts.
While some elements of the circus continue in acrobat shows and carnivals, and clowns have found a second calling as deranged horror movie villains, many of the more unique elements of the American circus are on the way out. Though the future outlook is not great, nobody can take away the cultural impact that the circus had throughout the earlier half of the 20th century.
The Ringling Brother’s and Barham & Bailey are the big names, but one often overlooked player from this era was the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, based out of Peru, Indiana.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus began life as two separate circuses – “The Carl Hagenbeck Circus”, ran by a German animal trainer of the same name, and “The Great Wallace Show”, ran by Ben Wallace, a livery stable owner in Indiana.
In 1890, Wallace bought out his partner and rebranded as the “B. E. Wallace Circus” and by 1907, he purchased Hagenbeck’s circus. Despite legal action, Wallace kept Hagenbeck in the circus’ name.
The circus was successful, growing to third largest in the country, but seemed to attract trouble. The circus lost a number of animals in the Great Flood of 1913, forcing Wallace to sell off his ownership to Ed Ballard, a fellow Hoosier from French Lick. Ballard didn’t fare much better. In 1918, a locomotive engineer fell asleep and rammed into the circus’ train near Hammond, Indiana, causing a fire to break out.
The tragic Hammond Circus Trainwreck claimed 86 lives and was one of the deadliest of all-time. In a rare show of solidarity from this notoriously competitive industry, rival circuses lent equipment and performers to Hagenbeck-Wallace and the circus only missed two scheduled events.
After the tragedy, the circus was bought out by circus entrepreneurs Jeremiah Mugivan and Bert Bowers, who already owned Sells-Floto Circus and John Robinson Shows. The three circuses were merged into the American Circus Company.
In 1929, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, who had merged in 1919, purchased the American Circus Company for 1.7 million. In 1935, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus split from Ringling before closing down for good in 1938.
Today, the former winter home of the circus in Peru, Indiana, houses the International Circus Hall of Fame and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The show may no longer be going on, but countless, irreplaceable circus artifacts are preserved right here in Indiana.