In the first few decades of the twentieth century, when the show wasn’t on the road, chances are it was in Peru, Indiana. As a railroad hub, Peru served as home base for some of the greatest shows on earth in an era when the circus industry relied heavily on rail travel.
One of the greatest was the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which at its peak was second only to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. In 1882, Peru livery stable owner Benjamin Wallace bought what was left of a bankrupted circus, hired entertainers from the best troupes and constructed a fleet of fancy caravans.
Though he lost most of his menagerie to a fire only months before opening, Wallace put on the act’s first show in 1884 to great fanfare. Peru’s brass band led a parade attended by five thousand spectators, and the show’s matinee and evening performances were packed.The one-ring operation started off as a so-called “mud show,” touring the region in horse-drawn wagons, but within two years, The Great Wallace Show graduated to train travel.
During the off-season, the company retreated to its winter quarters, situated between the Wabash and the Mississinewa Rivers, on land Wallace purchased from the Miami Indians in 1890. Townsfolk became accustomed to the sight of clowns wandering the streets and elephants bathing in the river.
A merger in 1907 with a circus founded by pioneering animal trainer Karl Hagenbach gave the company its new name and made Wallace one of the wealthiest men in the business. After ceding many of his animals to the rising waters of the Wabash in the flood of 1913, however, Wallace sold his interest in the company. Though the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus did go on, its story took another turn for the tragic when, in 1918, it was involved in one of the greatest circus train wrecks in history. A locomotive driver who fell asleep at the wheel plowed into the rear of a train carrying four hundred employees of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which had made an emergency stop near Hammond, Indiana.
The damage wreaked by the collision was intensified by the fire it ignited, which blazed through the wooden cars, killing 86 people and injuring 127. Corralling help from several other companies, the circus was back on its feet after only two cancelled performances. The outfit survived a subsequent consolidation with Ringling Brothers in 1929, but the Depression took its toll on the circus industry. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus pulled up its tent stakes for the last time in 1938. Although a few artifacts were preserved, most of its property was sold and at least 150 circus train cars were burned in 1941, their scrap metal going to the war effort.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus counts among its alums some of the industry’s most illustrious entertainers, including the clowns Emmett Kelly and Joe Skelton—Red’s father—and the lion tamer Clyde Beatty. The company’s winter quarters in Peru have been designated as an historic landmark and serve as the Circus Hall of Fame Museum.
This Moment of Indiana History is a production of the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations in association with the Indiana Historical Society.
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