Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tom Mix and Poodles Hanneford: The Sells Floto Circus Comes to Jackson

In 1929, the Sells Floto Circus was winding up its touring season in Mississippi. That year, the circus was part of a consortium of circuses, including the Hagenbeck-Wallace, John Robinson, Sparks and Al G. Barnes circuses, all forming the American Circus Corporation. The whole group had been purchased that year by John N. Ringling (one of the famous Ringling Brothers) to create a virtual monopoly of shows. However, the Sells Floto Circus still toured under its own name and was scheduled to make an appearance in Jackson on October 1. As usual, the management sent advance men to put up advertising for the circus, which had been drawing huge crowds because of Tom Mix, the cowboy star. Arriving in the capital city in mid-September, the advance men proceeded to put up posters and billboards up and down Capitol Street until the store windows were “covered with tidings of the show’s approach.” Unfortunately, this did not sit well with the city council, and the eight men were promptly arrested for “illegal bill posting.” Although it was certainly not the first time the circus had to deal with issues involving their posters (on occasion they were dragged into court with other circuses over such matters), Sells Floto clearly had some public relations work to do in Jackson.

There were plenty of other posters and advertising bills in Jackson, so litter wasn’t the problem. In fact, there were “luridly attractive” fliers by the thousands nailed to every post and pole from Jackson to Memphis placed by the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which was scheduled appear at the Mississippi State Fair. Unfortunately, Sells Floto was slated to come to town at the same time the state fair would be at the fairgrounds, and the city had little interest in diverting customers away from the Wild West Show. Sells Floto had Tom Mix, though, and had been attracting throngs of onlookers at every stop. After the eight men released, the circus management (officially Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey) sent a young lawyer to represent their interests. A recent graduate of the University of Mississippi law school and newly married, the circus’ attorney would later make a big name for himself in Mississippi politics: Ross Barnett. After meeting with the mayor and city council (Mayor Walter Scott was actually a supporter of the circus), the 31-year old Barnett (above) informed city officials that the circus show would proceed as planned on October 1, but would be held “outside the city limits, of course.” To show his appreciation, Mayor Scott agreed to let the circus hold a parade for those who couldn’t afford a ticket to see the elephants and other attractions, including Tom Mix. However, E. L. Bailey, the Jackson school superintendent, refused to allow the schools to close for “show day,” as had apparently been the tradition. On the other hand, the superintendent announced that any child attending the parade would be counted as an excused absence. Based on the number of people who met the circus at the rail yard, there were likely very few children in school that day.

On Tuesday, October 1, the Daily Clarion-Ledger reported on the arrival of the circus and gushed over the appearance of the main attraction, Tom Mix. Thomas Hezikiah Mix, born in Pennsylvania in 1880, was a bona fide movie star. Appearing in more than 160 cowboy pictures in the 1920s, Mix (right) was known for doing all sorts of tricks with his horse, Tony (known as “The Wonder Horse”). By the 1930s, Mix was on his fifth wife and had blown through much of his personal wealth and then, tragically, died in an auto accident on October 12, 1940, in Arizona. After swerving to avoid a washed-out bridge, Mix was killed when an aluminum suitcase filled with money, travelers’ checks and jewelry flew forward in the car and broke his neck. But that was still more than a decade away. In 1929, he was the equivalent of a rock star. “Mix, by his athletic living, clean habits and dare-devil prowess…” the paper reported, “has endeared himself to the youth of the land, and he is every inch the ideal heroic figure the motion picture camera has depicted.”

In addition to Tom Mix, the circus also featured Cliff Aeros, the Human Cannonball (a native of Germany) and Poodles Hanneford (below left) with his Famous Riding Hannefords, along with all the trappings of a circus big-top. Born in a circus wagon in England, Hanneford was descended from jugglers who entertained King George III. After moving to the United States in 1915, Poodles (a nickname he acquired as a child) joined the Ringling Brothers circus and continued to perform as a clown and trick rider until 1954. To meet Ross Barnett’s promise to perform outside the city limits, the tents were set up in “Latimer’s pasture” just off of Claiborne Avenue, which in 1929 was the western city limits of Jackson. Thus, while technically “outside the city limits,” it was by a few feet at the most. Meanwhile, the rival 101 Ranch Wild West Show went off without a hitch at the state fairgrounds. Two days later, the circus moved to Meridian and set up shop there. Reporting on the “big show,” the Meridian Star noted that the circus featured “three herds of elephants, a 50 den menagerie of wild beats and an excellent side show of freaks.” After finishing the show in Meridian, the Sells Floto Circus folded its tents and headed home to Indiana, where the circus went into winter quarters. Alas, the great days of the traveling circus were quickly drawing to a close. The decline was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the Great Depression, which hit like a hammer at the end of the month. Also, other entertainment venues, especially the same movie industry that made Tom Mix famous, were more widely available to average Americans. Finally, the beginnings of suburban sprawl and traffic meant fewer places for the circuses to go and fewer opportunities for parades of clowns, bands and elephants. By 1932, Sells Floto, along with most other traveling circuses, were no more and in 1939 the horse-drawn circus parade became a relic of the past.  

Although Sells Floto ceased operation in 1932, there is still one curious relic of the circus on display. On a very hot day in August 1928, Mary, an Asian elephant, broke loose from her trainers and went charging toward Main Street, which was filled with people. Concerned that someone might get trampled to death, the mayor of Lewiston (who also happened to be a big game hunter) went home to get his gun. Although her handlers had calmed her down, the big-game-hunting mayor shot Mary to death. Witnesses indicated that the elephant had simply been thirsty and was trying to get a drink of water. Unfortunately, Mary’s death was just one of numerous elephant deaths during the traveling circus era. Today, if you’re ever in Lewiston, Idaho, you might be able to visit what remains of Mary the elephant (right), which is her trunk mounted on a trophy. This odd (and disturbing) relic is in a private collection.

Of course, there are still circuses. In fact, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently came to Jackson where they advertised a show full of “astounding acrobats, vibrant visuals and prodigious performers.” The “Greatest Show on Earth” no longer travels by rail, though, and doesn’t have a parade of elephants down Capitol Street. They did, however, get to perform at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, a location unavailable to them in 1929. And this time, hopefully, no one was arrested for illegal bill posting.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Sells Floto:
(2) Barnett:
(3) Tom Mix and Tony:
(4) Cliff Aeros:
(5) Poodles Hanneford:
(6) Mary:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Real Dog and Pony Show: Otto Floto and the Sells Floto Circus

Have you ever heard of a “dog and pony show?” These days, the term is used to describe something that is over-performed and a bit contrived in order to sell something or persuade someone. It is definitely not a term of endearment. At one time, though, there really were “dog and pony shows” in the United States, generally small circuses or animal attractions in small towns. One such show was the Floto Dog & Pony Show, started by a man with the most curious name of Otto Floto.
Born in Cincinnati about 1863, Otto Clement Floto (left) was the sports editor of The Denver Post in the early 1900s. He was known to be loud-mouthed, was prone to drinking heavily and was barely literate (he did not believe in using punctuation marks in his newspaper columns). Apparently, the Post hired him chiefly because his name was interesting. In fact, the Post also funded the “Dog & Pony Show” and borrowed Floto's unique name. Floto was also a fight promoter, and regularly reported on the fights he arranged. Among other boxers, the great Jack Dempsey owed some of his success to Floto’s influence. One person Floto could not best in a fight was Bat Masterson, with whom he had a long-running feud. When the two came to blows in a well-publicized confrontation, Masterson was smart enough to bring a cane to a fist fight and put Floto to flight. Despite his 250-pound frame, Masterson said Floto was “the best runner I ever saw.” Floto was also involved in a variety of other business interests, including management of an opera house (he claimed to be the grandson of German opera composer Friedrich van Flotow) and a saloon owner in Cripple Creek, Colorado (near Pike’s Peak), where he is supposed to have married one of the "working girls." In 1896, a massive fire which started in the Red Light district of Cripple Creek displaced 3,600 people and caused over a million dollars’ worth of damage. Among the suspects, although never arrested for starting the fire, was the aforementioned Otto Floto. 

The Floto Dog and Pony Show, established in 1902, featured not just dogs and ponies, but elephants too. By 1906, the show became a full-fledged circus and was combined with an existing circus owned by the Sells brothers of Columbus, Ohio. One of the brothers, Peter Sells, had a much-publicized and rocky marriage. In 1878, the 32-year old Sells married eighteen year old Mary Luker. After moving to Columbus where the circus had its headquarters, Peter built an expensive home designed by architect Frank Packard. His marriage was in trouble, however, because Mary apparently had her eye on several other men, especially local businessman Billy Bott. In 1899, based on the work of a private detective, Peter Sells sued for divorce. During the sensational trial, Florence Sells, the couple's daughter, took the stand against her mother and Peter was granted the divorce. A Kentucky newspaper, in reporting the verdict, opined that "When a woman is a devil she is the whole thing." Sells died in 1905, only a couple of years after the divorce trial. The house he built, now known as the Sells Mansion (above), still stands in Columbus. The Sells Circus, meanwhile, merged with Otto Floto's show to become the Sells Floto Circus. 

Touring throughout the 1920s, the Sells Floto Circus was one of many such traveling shows of the period, including the John Robinson, Sparks and Ringling Brothers circuses. For a time, Sells Floto teamed up Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and with Tom Mix, the motion picture cowboy star. Mix, who performed various stunts for the circus in the late 1920s and 1930s, earned as much as $20,000 a week during the tour season. Like most circuses of the day, Sells Floto had a variety of acts to attract customers to their shows instead of their competitors'. In the early '20s, though, Sells Floto was a circus without any animal acts, intentionally focusing on human performers. According to a Pasadena newspaper account, "one of the most outstanding features of the Sells Floto program is the total absence of 'carnival wild animal acts.' No mangy lions, whose claws are about to drop out or tigers which have to be fed with 'wet foods' because their teeth dropped out through age, or starved elephants which have to be propped up, were presented. Nothing but the highest class circus acts and features worth looking at were on display and the big audience thoroughly enjoyed itself." By the mid-1920s, however, the circus had added all sorts of animal acts, and had a herd of about fourteen elephants in the caravan. Sells Floto also had circus music, and at one time employed the famed bandmaster Karl King, whose first conducting job was with the circus in 1914-1915. Later on, he was bandmaster for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. By the end of his career, King had composed more than 300 works, including nearly two hundred circus pieces. In the photo above, Karl King appears with the Sells Floto Circus Band.
Sells Floto's tours generally began from their headquarters in Peru, Indiana, and then either went out west or made a huge loop through the mid-west, northeast, and southern states. Other circuses often followed basically the same schedule and intentionally set up their shows in the path of their competitors to try and steal the crowds, even going so far as papering over rival shows' playbills. Curiously, several of the traveling circuses ended their season in Mississippi. For example, in 1924, Sells Floto played in Gulfport on November 21 and then ended their tour with shows in Jackson, Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian. The same year, the John Robinson Circus went to Meridian on October 29 and then closed its season in Tennessee. Other towns visited by Sells Floto throughout the 1920s include Brookhaven, Natchez, Yazoo City, Kosciusko, Greenwood, Greenville, Water Valley, Clarksdale, Corinth and Holly Springs. No doubt, the circuses, in particular the elephants and other wild animal acts, were quite a treat for folks in small-town Mississippi. In 1929, however, the Sells Floto Circus found they were no longer welcome in the City of Jackson.


Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Floto:
(2) Sells:
(3) Circus poster:
(4) Band: 
(5) Elephant:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Little Locomotive

Located in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, nestled under gigantic displays of airplanes and passenger trains from the glory days of the railroad industry, is a small engine named the “Mississippi.” Although nearly lost amidst the glitz and glamor of more modern modes of transportation, the little locomotive nonetheless has an interesting story.

The locomotive “Mississippi” was built in 1834 during the early days of railroad expansion. A small engine even for its time, the “Mississippi’s” exact origin is a bit of mystery. The locomotive is generally credited to the English firm of Braithwaite and Milner, although there is some dispute on that score. If the company did manufacture the “Mississippi,” however, the firm was at the time known as Braithwaite and Ericsson. Both men were ahead of their time and made several advances in engineering. John Braithwaite, for example, designed and built the first steam-powered fire engine. Although the contraption was capable of pumping two tons of water per minute, the jealousy of the human fire brigades ultimately sank the project (no doubt they feared replacement by a machine). He also obtained a patent for extracting oil from shale, a fairly widespread practice in the mid-19th Century (and once again a topic of debate).  The Swedish-born John Ericsson collaborated with Braithwaite to produce a number of early steam locomotives. Ericsson is best known, however, as the designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Although not a particular admirer of the Union war effort, Ericsson (above) sold his design to the United States and the ship was built in 1862 in just 100 days and launched in time to take on the Confederate ironclad Virginia. Ericsson had tried to sell the design to the French government in 1854, but to no avail.

Whether designed by Braithwaite and Ericsson or not, the “Mississippi” was most likely assembled in New York City before being shipped to Mississippi, where the engine operated on the Natchez & Hamburg Railroad, a 19-mile long line from Natchez to Hamburg, Mississippi, located in Franklin County south of Fayette. It was later purchased by another railroad company and used to deliver cotton on a line near Vicksburg, and may have been used to transport supplies during the Civil War. After the war, the little locomotive operated on a short line between Vicksburg and Warrenton and reportedly derailed in 1874. Left submerged in mud and nearly forgotten, the engine was purchased in 1880 by J.A. Hoskins, who repaired the locomotive and put it back in service on a line near Brookhaven known as the Meridian, Brookhaven & Natchez Railroad, all of seven miles in length. James Hoskins was no stranger to railroads. During the Civil War, he was a captain in command of the Brookhaven Light Artillery. In June, 1862, men from Hoskins’ Battery, as it was known, converted a locomotive and rail car on a rail line near Grand Gulf into an armored train (perhaps the first in history), firing an artillery piece mounted on the car at the Federals. It’s at least possible that the engine used in this affair was the “Mississippi.” Regardless, when the Illinois Central Railroad purchased Hoskins’ Brookhaven railroad line in 1891, the now-outdated locomotive was no longer of much use. Rather than sell it for scrap, however, Hoskins had a better idea. He donated the engine as a piece of railroad history.

In 1893, the “Mississippi” traveled under its own steam power to Chicago to be part of the World's Columbian Exposition. Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the exhibition was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. More importantly, the Exposition put on display the latest in technological advances and cultural achievements, as well as to promote the wonders of Chicago. The event was funded in part by prominent businessmen, including the Chicago shoe tycoon Charles Schwab. Covering 600 acres, the fair included hundreds of exhibit halls from around the globe and attracted more than 27,000,000 visitors. During the event, the “Mississippi” was housed at Jackson Park.

After the 1893 fair ended, the locomotive was moved to a building that had been used as the Palace of Fine Arts (above) during the World’s Fair. The “Mississippi” was displayed again, after being refurbished, at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-1934. Four years later, the engine was permanently installed in the Museum of Science and Industry, which was the brainchild of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who gave more than $3,000,000 in 1926 to help restore the former Palace of Fine Arts building, which by that time had fallen into disrepair, and create a world-class museum of science. Due to Rosenwald’s influence the building was saved and the musuem was opened in 1933. Rosenwald is perhaps best known for establishing the Rosenwald Fund, which provided millions in matching monies to support the education of black children in the rural South. Since 1938, the locomotive “Mississippi” has been on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. With all likelihood, she will never make a return trip.

Interestingly, there is another Mississippi connection to the 1933-34 World’s Fair, also known as “A Century of Progress,” the purpose of which was to celebrate Chicago’s centennial and to highlight technological innovations. The fair's somewhat curious (and a bit disturbing) motto was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”  Among the technological innovations at the World’s Fair was an experimental gasoline-powered railroad car called the Pullman Railplane (right). Designed by an engineering firm in Dearborn, Michigan, and built in 1933, the streamlined, self-propelled railroad car had an aluminum body and was powered by two gasoline engines. At full speed, the car was capable of reaching speeds of 90 mph. After its unveiling at the World's Fair, the car was leased to the Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad (later to form part of the G.M.& O.) in 1935 and used – of all places –  between Tylertown and Jackson, Mississippi. Although the railplane saw some commercial use, the experimental car failed to attract any investors and was eventually shelved. By the time World War II arrived, the idea was a thing of the past. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Mystical Seven and the Temple of the Star

The Mystical Seven was once a secret society founded on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1837. A social fraternity, membership was kept secret and was confined to upperclassmen of a certain social status. Within four years, the Mystical Seven expanded its membership to other campuses. In 1841, Henry Branham, who transferred from Wesleyan to Emory, was given permission to start a chapter (or “temple”) there and he convinced Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, the college president, to join. Longstreet (1790-1870) was a graduate of Yale, a lawyer and a prominent Methodist minister. A prolific writer, he wrote a series of articles which were later compiled into a book called Georgia Scenes, a book of Southern humor. More significantly, he wrote several treatises in defense of slavery and in support of a separate Methodist Episcopal Church in the South.  In 1839, he became president of Emory College, and later Centenary College in Louisiana. From 1849-1856, Longstreet was chancellor at the University of Mississippi. He was an uncle of James Longstreet, the future Confederate General.

When Branham brought Longstreet into the fold of the Mystics, Longstreet’s two daughters also joined (the society was co-ed at the time). The members met each week in the “Temple of the Wand,” located in the attic of North College building on the Wesleyan campus. The rituals apparently included marching through cemeteries with a cavalry sword, rolling cannon balls across the North College floor and wielding the seven foot “Mystical Wand.” In 1906, the North College building burned, leaving a smoldering pile of ruins (top right), supposedly due to a candle and was replaced with a seven-sided building with seven-sashed windows and a seven-paneled door. This building, dedicated in 1912, burned to the ground in 1995, also due to an unattended candle. A rival secret society’s building (the Skull and Serpent’s), still stands on campus. This building (lower right), known as “The Tomb,” was designed by architect Henry Bacon, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

When Augustus Longstreet (left) moved his family to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1849, they decided to bring the Mystical Seven with them, and formed a chapter of the society at the University of Mississippi. Naming it the Temple of the Star, the initiates included L.Q.C. Lamar, Longstreet’s son-in-law. Although the Temple of the Star apparently lapsed due to a lack of suitable membership, the chapter was revived in 1859 under the direction of members from Emory University’s Temple of the Sword. During the Civil War, most of the Mystical Seven chapters died out, either because the students had gone off to war or the campuses closed. Of the original Mystical Seven organizations, only The Temple of the Star at Ole Miss survived into the post-bellum years. In 1868, the University of Mississippi exported the society to the University of Virginia, where the Temple of the Hands and Torch was founded. By 1878, however, the Temple of the Star had once again become inactive. The next year, a chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity was established on the campus of the University of Mississippi. That same year, a number of the inactive members of the Temple of the Star petitioned to become members of Beta Theta Pi, thus joining the two organizations together by membership. By 1890, a number of members from other Mystic temples, both active and inactive, also began to join Beta Theta Pi at other campuses. Eventually, the two societies merged under the banner of Beta Theta Pi, with chapters also being established at Wesleyan and Syracuse. A historical marker (above) recognizing the Temple of the Star has been erected on the Ole Miss campus in front of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.

The Mystical Seven, or least the name, continues today however (actually two rival groups with the same name now exist at Wesleyan University). Other similarly named but not directly related secret societies also exist, including the Seven Society, founded at the University of Virginia in 1905. Membership in the society is secret and is revealed only upon the death of a member, when a banner appears at the funeral, and in years past a wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a ‘7’ would be sent to the funeral service. Communications with members of the society at UVA are traditionally left at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue inside the Rotunda. A group known as the Mystical Seven is also the University of Missouri, although it does not appear to be related to the original society.

Photo and Image Sources: