Monday, July 14, 2014


Did the Kid Survive his “Murder” in 1881?

On July 14, 1881, lawman Pat Garrett shot and killed the outlaw William H. Bonney – the legendary “Billy the Kid” – at Fort Sumner in present-day New Mexico. Or did he? Over the years, rampant speculation, strange stories and a lingering mystery have all combined to suggest that perhaps that day in 1881 was not the end of the line for Billy the Kid after all. In 1948, a mysterious old man appeared who called himself “Brushy Bill Roberts” and there were many people who believed that he was actually “Billy the Kid,” still in hiding after all of years that had passed. Was he? And if not, then why did so many people who knew the Kid claim that it was him? And how did he have the same scars that William Bonney had? And how did he know stories that only the Kid could tell?

Bill Roberts may have lost his day in court, but many still believe that he was really Billy the Kid. Read the story and decide for yourself…

The most famous image of Billy the Kid

The outlaw known as Billy the Kid, although both colorful and legendary, may be one of the most overrated characters of the Old West. The Kid -- whose real name might have been William H. Bonney, or William McCarty, or Henry Antrim -- was an accomplished rustler and horse thief but his prowess with the gun has been greatly exaggerated, starting with sensationalized dime novels and continuing into modern day films. Billy was credited for killing as many as 21 men, one for each year of his life. However, it is difficult to prove that he actually killed more than a dozen. In spite of this, Billy did become a major part of the conflict that came to be called the Lincoln County War, a volatile series of events that claimed many lives and wreaked havoc in New Mexico.

What came to be known as the Lincoln County War is remembered today mostly because of the part that Billy the Kid played in it, but the conflict itself had much greater significance. It was a full-scale war that was conducted by rival banking, mercantile and ranching interests in which ordinary cowboys made up most of the casualties. There were passions and personal hatreds involved that gave it the aspects of a blood feud, especially in the case of Billy the Kid and the murder of a man that he considered his adoptive father.

Lincoln County, New Mexico, was a remote and lawless section of the territory when one of the West’s great cattlemen, John Chisum, known as the Cattle King of the Pecos, pushed his herds into the area in the early 1870s, taking over huge sections of government land. At the time, the area was dominated by a businessman named Lawrence G. Murphy, who ran a mercantile store in Lincoln called The House. Because of the importance of the store, Murphy was able to literally hand-pick the lawmen and public officials in the area. He later sold his business to two tough Irishmen, James Doland and Patrick Murphy, who made The House even more dominant in the region.

The real power in the county came from controlling government contracts for supplying beef to Army posts and Indian reservations. Through The House’s close ties to influential officials in the territorial capital – known as the notorious Santa Fe Ring --- the profits from such contracts were enormous. The Santa Fe Ring was comprised of corrupt Republican officials, while Doland and Murphy, the owners of The House, were Democrats. Their alliance was probably the first proof that Republicans and Democrats can work well together, if there is money to be made.

Chisum resented the control of cattle marketing by mere merchants and so he formed an opposing alliance with an attorney named Alexander McSween and John Tunstall, a young, ambitious Englishman who had established a large ranch. It was Tunstall who recruited Billy to work as a cowboy on his ranch. In the conflict that arose between the two factions, a number of small ranchers were caught in the middle. Many resented Chisum for taking over the public lands and lined up with The House, but others, who detested the businessmen for buying their cattle cheaply and then selling the beef at exorbitant prices to the government, sided with Chisum and the insurgents.

John Tunstall, the English rancher who became a father figure to Billy the Kid. His murder inspired the Kid’s first bloody rampage and involved him in the Lincoln County War.

The owners of The House had the initial advantage in the conflict. One of their puppets was Sheriff William Brady who, on their orders, harassed their opponents and charged the cattle barons with numerous offenses. As a counter move, Tunstall opened a rival store in Lincoln that offered better terms to farmers and small ranchers. He soon rallied more men to the side of Chisum, McSween and Tunstall.

The Doland and Murphy faction did not stand for this for very long. In early 1878, Sheriff Brady was ordered to execute an arrest warrant against Tunstall. He gave the job to a hastily organized posse of gunman while he remained conveniently behind in Lincoln. The posse rode out to the Tunstall ranch and, catching him alone and on foot, shot and killed him.

It was this event that created the legend of Billy the Kid. Billy had likely already shot and killed at least one man by this time, but now his murderous urges had a purpose as he vowed to avenge the death of the man who had shown him kindness. He and some of Tunstall’s other cowboys formed a renegade band they called the Regulators and went looking for trouble. The two members of the posse who had done the actual shooting, William Morton and Frank Baker, were soon captured by the Regulators. The pair surrendered on the promise that they would be returned to Lincoln alive. Of course, that was not allowed to happen. Three days after their capture, Billy gunned down both men and began the bloodbath that turned into all-out war.

With Tunstall dead, Billy transferred his loyalties to McSween and became the leader of the warring faction. More murder and gunfighting followed and in the spring, Billy led the men in a memorable battle against Brady and his cohorts at Tunstall’s store. Sheriff Brady was shot down during the fight. In July, the two factions fought another pitched battle with Billy and his men barricaded inside McSween’s adobe house in the center of Lincoln. On the fifth day, most of them escaped but McSween was killed.

After the attorney’s death, the owners of The House and the Santa Fe Ring won the Lincoln County War. Chisum remained a powerful cattle baron but never achieved complete domination of the region. Billy the Kid didn’t stop killing. He went to become a western outlaw legend as he led his pursuers on a wild chase across New Mexico.

According to the history books, Sheriff Pat Garrett killed Billy on the night of July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In truth, though, an impressive amount of evidence exists to say that Billy wasn’t killed that night at all. This evidence seems to show that he actually escaped and managed to live for another 69 years, longer than Pat Garrett and all of the other participants in the Lincoln County War.

Sheriff Pat Garrett

In March 1878, Garrett became the sheriff of Lincoln County. One of his campaign promises had been to rid the county of the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. Garrett handily won the election and soon had Billy locked up. He had been captured at Stinking Springs and arrested for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang on April 28 in Lincoln. But to Garrett’s embarrassment, Billy escaped from jail, killing two deputies in the process. Eventually, Garrett and his men tracked the Kid to Fort Sumner, where Billy had a girlfriend.

Garrett allegedly killed Billy around midnight on July 14, 1881. According to his story, he was visiting with Pete Maxwell in the rancher’s bedroom when a stranger stepped through the doorway. Wearing only a pair of socks and carrying a knife, the stranger whispered, "Quien es?" (Who is it?) Garrett, believing the stranger was Billy the Kid, raised his pistol and shot the man in the chest.

A moment later, Garrett ran out the door and shouted to his deputies outside, "Boys, that was the Kid, and I think I have got him!" One of the lawmen, John Poe, leaned in the doorway and looked at the body on the floor and then turned to Garrett. "Pat, the Kid would not come to this place. You have shot the wrong man!"

The word quickly spread through Fort Sumner that the dead man was not Billy. Of the three officers present, only Garrett had ever seen Billy in person but the other two men quickly went along with his identification. With Billy "officially" dead, Garrett could claim the reward as well as the fame and prestige of having killed the famous outlaw.

But things would not go smoothly for Garrett after that.

Strangely, two different inquests followed the killing, one of them on that same night and the other the following morning. The inquests only made things more confusing. The first was "lost" and the second appears to have been slanted by Garrett to make himself look good. Some have even claimed the second inquest documents are forgeries. According to one author, only three of the six witnesses who signed the report could even identify the body and one of these later stated that it was not the Kid. Neither document was ever recorded, so technically, there exists no legal proof of the death of Billy the Kid at the hands of Pat Garrett.

The burial of the dead man was as controversial as the shooting and the inquest. The body of the man who was buried had dark skin and wore a beard. Billy had been described by newspaper editor J. H. Koogler as "a mere boy... with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip,” and having "light hair and complexion."

Who Pat Garrett actually killed that night is unknown, but it seems unlikely that it was Billy the Kid.

As time passed, things grew much quieter in Lincoln County -- almost quiet enough to hear the whispers that circulated about how Billy the Kid was still alive and that someone else had been killed in Fort Sumner. In the years that followed, many of those who knew Billy reportedly claimed to have seen him alive and well after his alleged death. In addition, there were many who claimed to be him, especially on the sideshow circuit of the early 1900s. Most of them were not taken seriously because they were clearly imposters. Now and then, though, one would come along that had to be looked at a little closer. One of them was a man named John Miller, who died in Ramah, New Mexico, in 1933. Many of the old-time residents of the area believed that Miller was the Kid, but there was little evidence to support the idea. Miller’s claims would pale when compared to those of another man, who came to public attention in 1948.  His name was William Henry Roberts, and there is a very good chance that he was Billy the Kid.

In 1948, an attorney named William Morrison was working on an estate settlement in Florida when he accidentally learned about a man in Texas that some people claimed was Billy the Kid. Morrison became intrigued and set out to find him, driving across several states and interviewing dozens of people. He eventually found Roberts in a small town called Hamilton. He arranged an interview and told him that he had heard rumors that he might be Billy the Kid. Roberts immediately denied it, but he did admit that the Kid was his half-brother and that he was alive and living in Mexico. After the two men talked for a few minutes, Morrison thanked him for his time and got ready to leave. Roberts walked him to the door and they stepped outside into the sunshine. As they shook hands, Roberts leaned forward and whispered to Morrison. He said he didn’t want his wife to hear him. Could the attorney come back the next day and speak to him in private?

William Morrison (right) with Bill Roberts, the man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.

The next morning, Morrison returned to the house and Roberts sent his wife out on an errand. When the men were alone, he confessed that he really was Billy the Kid. He said he did not want his wife to know about it, but he was anxious to be pardoned for the crimes that he had committed in New Mexico. He had long ago been promised a pardon by the governor but he had never received it. Even though it was 1948, Roberts said he feared that he was still under the death sentence that he had been given for the murder of Sheriff William Brady.

Morrison explained that he would try to help if he could, but that he was going to need some proof to show that Roberts was actually the Kid. He told him that he knew of some bullet wounds that had been suffered by the real Billy the Kid and he asked Roberts to show him any scars that he had. Roberts obliged him by removing his shirt and trousers and by showing Morrison not only the scars that he knew about, but 20 others as well!

Morrison reminded the man that the Kid was known for being able to slip out of a pair of locked handcuffs. Roberts didn’t hesitate to show how it was done. He held out his hands, and in a double-jointed move, tucked his thumb inside his palms, making his hands narrower than his wrists.

While Morrison could still not be certain, he was starting to believe that Roberts really might be Billy the Kid. He made arrangements to take the old man to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he could question him in detail about certain aspects of the Lincoln County War and ask him about the people, places and incidents from that time. Amazingly, Roberts was able to come up with information that was unknown to historians who had studied the war, as well as much that could be confirmed as accurate, although not general, knowledge.

“Brushy Bill” Roberts – was he Billy the Kid?

Morrison then asked Roberts to recount what had occurred on the night of July 14, 1881. Roberts explained that it was not he who had gone to Pete Maxwell’s house, but a friend named Billy Barlow. Barlow was about the same age as the Kid, but was half-Mexican. The two were about the same size, but Barlow was darker skinned. Barlow, along with Roberts (the Kid), Saval Guiterrez and a woman stopped at the home of Jesus Silva after a dance that night. As Silva prepared a meal for his guests, he mentioned that a side of freshly cut beef was hanging near Maxwell’s room. He sent Barlow to bring some back and the young man left in his stocking feet, carrying only a knife. It was Barlow, Roberts said, that Garrett mistook for the Kid.

When Roberts heard the shooting, he grabbed his guns and ran towards Maxwell’s house. He was fired on by Garrett and his deputies and was struck in the lower jaw and in the back of his shoulder. A bullet also grazed the top of his head. He was stunned and bleeding badly but managed to make it to the home of a Mexican woman who kept him hidden while she tended his wounds. In the early morning hours, a friend brought him his horse and told him that Garrett had killed Barlow and had passed the body off as the Kid. He and his friend rode off into the darkness and the Billy the Kid vanished for the next 67 years.

The famous outlaw was gone and William Henry Roberts took his place. During the next several decades, Roberts told Morrison that he worked on ranches in Mexico and in the United States, served with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, rode with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, worked for a couple of small-time Wild West shows and had even served as a law officer for a short time. He married three times but never had children and was 88 years old when Morrison found him in Texas.

On November 15, 1950, Morrison filed a petition for a pardon for William Henry Roberts, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, with New Mexico governor Thomas J. Mabry. The governor agreed to meet with Roberts and Morrison on November 30, assuring them that the meeting would be kept private. The meeting turned out to be anything but private. Mabry turned the whole thing into a publicity stunt. He invited the press, along with descendants of Pat Garrett and other figures from the Lincoln County War. Questions were asked of Roberts that had nothing to do with seeking the truth and it was clear that Mabry never really intended to consider the petition filed by Morrison. The pardon was ultimately denied.

Heartbroken, Roberts returned home to Texas and died from a heart attack two months later. He had tried to make amends, but forgiveness had eluded him.

Could William Henry Roberts have been Billy the Kid? It’s very possible that he could have been. Even those researchers who were skeptical of Roberts’ claims admit that the existing of history of Billy the Kid is badly flawed and contradictory, especially when it comes to his alleged death in 1881. It had long been determined that what most people believe they know about Billy the Kid comes from a single source: Pat Garrett. Garrett spent time on both sides of the law, and as a born politician, had little use for the truth. Even his book (used by many of the subject’s foremost researchers), The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, was written by someone else, an alcoholic newspaperman named Ashmon Upson. Time has not been kind to Garrett’s book and dozens of errors and outright lies have been discovered in it. But for some reason, it is considered the best reference on the life of Billy the Kid.

In 1998, authors W.C. Jameson and Frederic Bean began unraveling the many problems with Garrett’s book and also began digging into the story told by William Henry Roberts. They found some pretty amazing evidence to show that Roberts may have really been the Kid, including a genealogy (reconstructed from a family Bible owned by relatives) that, among other things, shows that Roberts was related to people named McCarty, Antrim and Bonney. These were all names that Billy the Kid used as aliases and prior to Jameson and Bean’s research, the origin of the name “Bonney” had eluded researchers. They also tracked elements of Roberts’ story, starting with his escape from Fort Sumner, and where documents could be found, were able to follow his trail for years. In the end, it turned out that Roberts’ credibility far exceeded that of Pat Garrett.

Billy the Kid’s grave – but is the Kid really buried here?

Even after all of this, some questions remain. One of the most important is whether or not Pat Garrett knew that he had not killed Billy the Kid? If he did, why did he pass off another body as Billy, knowing that the Kid might return? It’s possible that Garrett’s quest for fame and glory caused him to throw caution to the wind. Or perhaps he believed that if the Kid escaped, he would feel safe enough with people believing him dead that he would leave and not come back. Or perhaps, as many believe, Garrett and the Kid concocted the scheme and Garrett knew all along that Billy had gotten away.

We’ll probably never know the answers to these questions, but we still have to wonder why Garrett’s deputies, Poe and McKinney, backed up Garrett’s version of events if they knew it was not the Kid who had been gunned down. The truth is, the statements attributed to Garrett, Poe and McKinney on that night do not agree with each other at all. It was Poe who first informed Garrett that he had gotten the wrong man and in 1933, he published a book called The Death of Billy the Kid that while supportive of Garrett, referred to the circumstances of Billy’s death as a “mystery.” According to a cousin of McKinney, he often spoke of that July night in his later years and admitted that the Kid got away and that Garrett had fabricated the events that he claimed happened that night.

Will you find a conservative history book that admits Billy the Kid was not killed by Pat Garrett in 1881, but survived until 1950? It’s unlikely, to say the least, but believe it or not, the death of Billy the Kid remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the West.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Raise a glass to Adolphus Busch

In 1929, Gerald Holland wrote in the American Mercury magazine, “whatever odium may be attached to beer in other parts of the Republic, its status in St. Louis is as firmly grounded as James Eads’ span across the Mississippi... beer made St. Louis.”

And he was right. There has not been a time in St. Louis’ history as a frontier station, fur-trading outpost, hard-living river town and gateway to the West that there has not been beer in the city. Dating back to 1809, when a man named John Coons set up a primitive brewery on the riverfront, and continuing today, St. Louis is a city where beer is king. Over two hundred breweries have existed in and around St. Louis during the past two centuries. Many were small, long-forgotten operations that lasted only a few years while others grew to be national, and international, companies that are still in existence today. To ghost enthusiasts, the most famous beer in St. Louis history was, of course, made by the Lemp family, but the greatest surviving brewery of the “golden age” is undoubtedly Anheuser-Busch.

The company really got its start under another name entirely – Hammer and Urban. They were a small contender among the city’s 49 breweries in 1860.  The brewery’s production capacity far exceeded the demand for its product and the partners were forced into bankruptcy. During the legal proceedings that followed, two of the brewery’s creditors took over its operations. E. Anheuser and Company, the new operator, was made up of a partnership between Eberhard Anheuser, a successful candle and soap maker, and William D’Oench, a wholesale medicine supplier. They called it the Bavarian Brewery but neither man had much of an idea of what to do with it. D’Oench quickly turned over control to Anheuser and as luck would have it, the Civil War (and the hard drinking soldiers in St. Louis) turned it into a lucrative business, despite the poor quality of the beer they were making.

When the war ended, though, he knew he was in trouble. His partner had sold out in 1864, leaving Anheuser to run the brewery on his own. Anheuser had never claimed to be a master brewer. He knew everything there was to know about making soap, but beer remained a mystery to him. Union troops and thirsty laborers had been willing to drink his beer but the discriminating Germans of St. Louis didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t have to settle for a mediocre brew when there were a dozen other breweries in the city turning out far superior lager for the same price.

While Anheuser may not have known much about beer, he had become rich by knowing how to run a business. He knew that he needed help right away and he knew where to find it – with his talented and charismatic son-in-law, Adolphus Busch.

Adolphus Busch arrived in St. Louis in 1857 and found his first employment among the commission houses on the levee. Born in Germany on July 10, 1839, Busch was the well-educated son of a successful businessman. The second-youngest of twenty-two children, some of them half-siblings, he attended school at the Gymnasium of Mainz, the Academy of Darmstadt and the Collegiate Institute of Brussels. He spoke, in addition to German, fluent French and English and was proficient in Italian and Spanish, as well. Within a couple of years, he began specializing in malts and hops and as a supplier to Eberhard Anheuser, he came to admire Anheuser’s blonde, curly-haired daughter, Elisa, known as “Lilly.” On March 7, 1861, Adolphus and seventeen-year-old Lilly were married in a double-ring ceremony with Adolphus’ brother, Ulrich Busch, Jr., and Lilly’s sister, Anna. Legend has it Adolphus was twenty minutes late for the wedding because he had stopped to close a business deal. Despite the inauspicious start to their union, Adolphus and Lilly went on to have fourteen children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Shortly after the wedding, Ulrich and Anna moved to Chicago, where Ulrich went into the brewery supply business. Adolphus enlisted in the Union Army, where he joined up with one of the regiments from the south side of the city and was sent to fight in southern and western Missouri. When he returned to St. Louis, he went back into the supply business and in 1864 he began working part-time as a salesman for the Bavarian Brewery.

Adolphus Busch and Elisa “Lilly” Anheuser Busch

In 1869, he sold his shares of the supply company and used the funds to buy into the Bavarian Brewery. The company was restructured, with Anheuser continuing as president and Busch becoming secretary. Anheuser turned most of his attention back to soap manufacturing and placed the management of the brewery into the hands of his capable son-in-law. In five years, Busch increased the production of beer from eight thousand barrels per year to eighteen thousand. Busch also seized upon many of the latest scientific and industrial innovations including pasteurization, which allowed the brewery to package, ship and store beer with a much longer shelf life, and artificial refrigeration, which allowed brewers to store beer in warehouses, making the lagering caves obsolete. Under Busch’s guidance, the brewery began bottling its beer in 1872. In 1883, Busch would become a full partner in the company and its name would be changed to the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.

 In those days, brewing was still a local industry but there was a huge amount of money to be made in St. Louis. Busch was determined to corner the market. Unfortunately, he could not make claim to having the best brew in town; that honor was held by the Lemp family. However, even bad beer, if marketed correctly, could make the brewery a huge amount of money. In those days, the sales strategy for beer revolved around the “beer collector,” who bought beer but did not sell it. All brewers had such spending agents, but Busch gathered together an accomplished group of men and soon his beer was selling as well as the Falstaff brand from the Lemp brewery. Every saloon that sold Busch beer was favored by a visit from the collector once each month. He would travel from saloon to saloon, spending an amount proportionate to the saloon’s monthly beer purchase. This made the collector an important person with high social standing among men from all walks of life; indeed it was the habit of loafers to follow the beer collector’s carriage from saloon to saloon, hoping to be treated to free drinks at each stop. The usual protocol was for the beer collector to buy a man a Busch beer as long as that man turned around and bought two more for himself and his friends.

Busch was a consummate salesman who became known for his clever and innovative advertising. He gave away watch fobs, chinaware and other Victorian-era novelties advertising his product. Among the promotional items was a jackknife that doubled as a corkscrew, a useful item since beer at that time was corked rather than capped. On the handle was the E. Anheuser & Co. logo and at one end was a peephole through which could be viewed a portrait of Adolphus Busch. Another popular promotional item was a tray embellished with a picture of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery with flags flying proudly from every cupola and tower. Seated in a prominent spot was a zaftig young lady with a modest wisp of veil covering her lap, her pulchritude winsomely promoting the virtues of Busch beer.

One of the original “Bud” girls – seductive advertising for the late nineteenth century

During the years that the breweries were running at full stream, there was probably more beer consumed in St. Louis than in any other city of its size in the world. With beer sold at a nickel a glass (which also included the customary free lunch), it was a luxury that was within the reach of almost everyone.
Despite all his ingenious plans and clever marketing schemes, Busch was still trailing the Lemps in popularity and sales when the great beer revolution began and it became possible to bottle beer for a longer shelf life. Busch immediately installed bottling facilities at its brewery. Soon, though, it would be a brand of beer that would bring even great acclaim to Busch and his thriving brewery.
In 1876, Budweiser lager beer came on the market, brewed by the Anheuser brewery and bottled by Carl Conrad, a local wine and liquor merchant. It went largely unnoticed at first. According to the story, Conrad was traveling in Europe in the early 1870s and dined in a small Bohemian monastery, where he was served the most wonderful beer he had ever tasted. He offered to buy the recipe from the monks but they gladly gave it to him for free. After returning to America, he asked his friend Adolphus Busch to make the beer for him. It was dubbed “Budweiser” after the small town of Budweis where Conrad had discovered it. He bottled the beer that Busch made for him and sold it in his shop. Not long after, he ran into financial trouble and borrowed money from Busch to stay afloat. In January 1883, he declared bankruptcy and licensed the Budweiser name, bottling and marketing rights to the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Busch had been his largest creditor and had a $94,000 lien on his property. In January 1891, Busch legally acquired all rights to the Budweiser name and trademark and Conrad, with whom Busch maintained a lifelong friendship, joined Anheuser-Busch as a technician.

Budweiser was different from the other beers being produced because it was brewed with rice rather than corn grits for natural carbonation. It was then subjected to a second fermentation process and aged, as a true lager must be. Despite its higher price, it was soon in such demand that Busch was scarcely able to get enough bottles to its suppliers. So, the brewery invested in glass factories. Busch founded the Adolphus Busch Glass Factory of St. Louis and Belleville, Illinois, and the Streator Glass Company of Streator, Illinois, remaining chief stockholder in both to keep the cost advantage for the brewery.

A Budweiser bottle from the 1870s

Now, Busch not only had bottled beer to sell, but he had the best bottled beer in the country. His innovations were disastrous to the small breweries that were left in St. Louis and by 1900, only nineteen of them remained. Brewing had changed from a neighborhood business to one with the potential to reach markets everywhere, which is just what Busch began to do. While his competitors in St. Louis were struggling, he invested deeply and became a “traveling ambassador of beer.”

The genial mustachioed Busch was impeccably dressed and portly, as befitted a successful man of his day. While he appeared dignified he wasn’t a bit snobbish and had friends from all ranks of society. He loved a good laugh and didn’t mind poking fun at himself. He especially enjoyed pulling pranks on his friend and frequent traveling companion, St. Louis restaurant owner Tony Faust. One time, the two of them were in a restaurant in France. Busch, who spoke French, was teaching his friend how to order a meal. When they finished dining, Faust asked what he should say to ask the waiter for cigars. Bush spoke a phrase in French and Faust repeated it to the waiter, who obligingly brought Faust the check. Busch roared with laughter and his friend realized he’d been had.

Word of Budweiser beer began to spread and Busch began marketing and advertising in every state in the growing nation. The plant in St. Louis began to expand, employing as many as 7,500 men. Each year, Anheuser-Busch produced 1.6 million barrels of beer. Nearly all was consumed in the United States, but even the small amount sent abroad exceeded the entire sales, domestic and foreign, of most of the company’s rivals.

Busch continued to expand and bought railroads, a coal mine and several hotels, all to further the cause of his beer. He had agents in every major city and owned property in every state in the union. With Budweiser now the chief product of the brewery, he reduced his sixteen brands to just four: Budweiser, Michelob, Faust and the standard pale beer. At that time, Michelob was the finest beer being made in America and was also the most expensive at twenty-five cents a glass. Like Budweiser, it originated in Bohemia, and it was Adolphus himself who discovered it. He bought a glass of beer one day for the equivalent of a few cents and it struck him as being even better than Budweiser. He returned home and ordered his staff to duplicate it. Michelob was the result, but it cost so much that sales were always low. This brand would not be bottled for many years. The Faust brand was named in honor of Tony Faust. One of Busch’s daughters, Anna Louise, later married Faust’s son, Edward.

Eberhard Anheuser died in 1880, stunned by the success that his son-in-law had achieved. At the time of his death, only the Lemps could continue to compete with Anheuser-Busch. They had also expanded into national distribution and, like Busch, were using refrigerated railroad cars to ship their acclaimed Falstaff brand across the country. The two companies battled for domination in the market for years but by the middle 1880s, the Lemp Brewing Company had started to fall behind. Anheuser-Busch soon had no true rivals in St. Louis – but the same could not be said on a national level.

In the late 1800s, worldwide competition for medals at expositions and fairs was fierce. At the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, regarded by brewers as the most prestigious competition of the century, the rivalry between Busch and his closest competitor came to a head. At the time, the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee (operated by Frederick Pabst, a close friend and relative by marriage of William Lemp) was the largest in the United States, with Anheuser-Busch a close second. At one point in the competition, Anheuser-Busch had been awarded six medals for its beer and Pabst had received five. The grand prize was still to be awarded and the judges’ scrutiny was intense. A dispute began over the makeup of the panel of judges and the method they were using of awarding points. The brewers, interested only in product quality, were upset that points were to be given for “commercial importance.”

Ultimately, Budweiser was given the highest award over Pabst’s Blue Ribbon beer but the decision was later reversed based on a chemical analysis that showed Budweiser contained impurities. The award was then given to Pabst. Outraged, the hot-tempered Busch appealed the decision, angering the exposition commissioners so much that they decided that no award would be given at all. After Busch threatened legal action, the commission reversed itself again and gave the award to Budweiser. Pabst complained and, after yet another reversal, he was declared the winner.

Adolphus Busch was bitter over what he felt was unfair judging at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After a reversal, he lost out to his closest competitor, Pabst in Milwaukee. His anger over the judging caused him not to enter any beers in the competition at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Enraged, Busch pursued one of the judges across Europe to try and get him to change his mind. In late 1894, the commission announced its refusal to reconsider the decision. Busch sputtered in rage in the newspapers, “Prizes are not given to the goods meriting same but are secured by money and strategy.” This statement offers a hint as to why no Anheuser-Busch products were presented for judging during the World’s Fair held in St. Louis in 1904.

The controversy over the judging at the Columbian Exposition certainly didn’t damage Anheuser-Busch’s business. In fact, it helped it and the brewery continued to expand. As Busch made more and more money, he began to spend it quite freely. He maintained his family in luxury and constructed a mansion known as No. 1 Busch Place. It was located in a park-like section of the 142-acre brewery grounds. The spacious rooms were known for their color schemes -- the Rose Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, etc. On the gleaming parquet floors were dazzling Oriental rugs. Stained glass windows admitted filtered light, and walls, tables and shelves were jammed with a massive array of art objects, as was the fashion of the time. As was fitting for the home of a merchant prince, expensive imported furniture filled every inch of space and frescoed ceilings, antique tapestries and artwork added to the overall majesty of the decor. Murals of plump, scantily clad women appeared to float across the ceiling of the main salon, where the walls were covered with paintings from some of the prominent artists of the day. Busch was one of the first to recognize the talents of American landscape artist William Keith. He was also an admirer of John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler.

Anyone of note who visited St. Louis visited with the Busch family, including Enrico Caruso, Theodore Roosevelt, Edward, Prince of Wales, and many others. They often entertained local friends and held grand parties at the house. The exuberant Busch loved children and holidays. Every year, during the first week of December, a brewery watchman dressed as St. Nicholas visited the Busch children, filling their stockings with fruit and treats to start the holiday season. On Christmas Eve, a huge tree on a revolving stand was the center of activity for everyone. Easter brought even more festivity when Busch decided to have an egg hunt for his and his neighbors’ children. It turned out to be a huge success and each year brought ever-larger numbers of “neighbor” children until the event was eventually moved to Forest Park.

Busch loved animals, especially horses, as is evidenced by the brewery’s enduring reputation for its outstanding Clydesdales. It was in Adolphus’ day that teams of the majestic, high-stepping animals first pulled the red and green Busch delivery wagons. Busch worried so much about the care of horses that he could not stand to think of his guests’ carriage horses standing outside in bad weather. After the passengers had been discharged, Busch gave orders for the carriages to be driven into a large rotunda in the carriage house. There the horses were comfortably stabled and the coachmen could relax in a recreation room, where plenty of food and Budweiser beer were kept on hand.

Busch maintained one of the finest stables of riding and carriage horses in the United States. The stable building, located just across the drive from 1 Busch Place, could house up to thirty horses at a time. He also kept a large collection of wheeled conveyances: carriages, coaches, barouches, landaus, shooting wagons and the like. Sets of gold- and silver-mounted harnesses were displayed in glass cases along the stable walls.
In the early 1900s, Busch also became interested in the “horseless carriage” and developed a fascination for motorcars. He commissioned one of the first automobiles in St. Louis, an ornate Pope-Toledo with a specially built wicker body and brass fittings.

The Busch family lived in sumptuous luxury but unlike some of the tycoons of his day who were notoriously tightfisted, Adolphus was gave freely of his fortune. His gifts included large donations to Washington University in St. Louis and to Harvard. He contributed relief funds to the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and every Groundhog Day, he gave $5,000 to a convent in St. Louis. He also gave freely to charities in Germany, a habit that would come back to haunt the family with the advent of the First World War.

Employees of Anheuser-Busch lived well. Not only did the brewery pay a good wage, every man was entitled to a generous portion of free beer each day, which he was expected to drink. The trips to the keg were seen as an important part of the day’s routine, an affirmation of the employees’ dedication to their product. It was thought that a man needed a certain amount of beer each day to maintain good work habits and vigorous health. One man was actually thrown out of the brewers’ union for failing to drink his daily quota of beer. He took his case to court and it was decided that it wasn’t necessary to drink beer in order to do a good day’s work. Union members shook their heads in disbelief, but the man was reinstated.

The Anheuser-Busch Brewery

The new century got off to a great start for Anheuser-Busch. In 1901, it finally overtook the annual production levels of Pabst. With preparations being made in St. Louis for the World’s Fair in 1904, Busch accepted the position of fair director. Many of the local brewers, led by Busch, came together to create a gigantic entertainment venue -- a replica of the Tyrolean Alps. Located at the end of the “Pike,” next to the main entrance, the Alps covered more than six acres of Forest Park and proved to be among the fair’s most popular attractions. But behind the scenes there were numerous disputes between the operators of the Alps and the fair’s management, including issues of trash pickup, blocking of the service entrance by railroad cars, squabbles over the width of the walkways and the amount of water and electricity used by the attraction. The problems festered all summer, leading to Busch’s resignation as the fair’s director in November 1904.

After the fair closed down, most of the state and national buildings were sold off or demolished. Busch purchased the Belgium national building and had it moved onto the brewery property, where it was reconstructed for use by the Adolphus Busch Glass Manufacturing Company.

Busch’s hard work and generosity led to him being popular with the people of St. Louis, especially the lower and middle classes. In spite of his vast wealth, he encountered coolness from members of the city’s upper crust, who refused to accept the brash German as one of their own. But Busch couldn’t have cared less. He gathered his own circle of friends around him and managed to stay in the good graces of those who were buying his beer.

By the Buschs’ golden wedding anniversary in 1911, most of the daily operations of the brewery had been turned over their son, August. He had become so skilled in running the company’s business affairs that Adolphus and Lilly had time to indulge their love of travel. They toured Europe and visited many parts of the U.S., spending considerable time in their houses in Pasadena, California, and Cooperstown, New York.
Adolphus and Lilly wanted to make sure that each of their eight surviving children had their own home. Their eldest son, Adolphus Busch, Jr., nicknamed “Bulfy,” had died of a perforated appendix in 1898. He had been named a corporate director at twenty-one and if he had lived, he might have taken over the company. August and his wife, Alice, received a grand home that had been built at Grant’s Farm, southwest of St. Louis, the former home of Ulysses S. Grant; Edmee Reisinger and her husband, Hugo, received a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York; Clara von Gotard, who was married to Baron Paul von Gotard, was given a mansion in Berlin, Germany; Mrs. J.W. Loeb received a home near Lincoln Park in Chicago; and Mrs. Edward A. Scharrer was given a house in Stuttgart, Germany.

There was a huge celebration in St. Louis to mark the Buschs’ anniversary, although Adolphus and Lilly were unable to attend. They were in Pasadena at the time, where Busch was seriously ill. Some thirteen thousand employees and friends celebrated in their absence. The brewery was closed for the day and all five thousand employees had been given the day off with pay. The party took place at the Coliseum, where a fifty-piece band played and employees paraded, sang, danced and waved flags. Lights gleamed on a center fountain that fired off a thirty-foot jet of water and the crowd partied into the night. It was reported that more than forty thousand bottles of beer were consumed, along with 100,000 sandwiches. The Buschs’ well-wishers sent them a solid gold card of congratulations. President William Howard Taft sent the couple a $20 gold piece. Former President Theodore Roosevelt one-upped him by giving them a gold loving cup.

By this time, the storm clouds of Prohibition were already starting to gather and Anheuser-Busch, along with other national brewers, began working to separate the various beer-makers from the hard liquor industry in the minds of lawmakers and temperance supporters. They eventually failed at this although they did manage to start producing low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beers. Anheuser-Busch trademarked the Bevo brand, a non-intoxicating malt-based beverage, in 1908.

Unfortunately, Busch’s health did not improve. He had suffered from dropsy, as edema was then called, since 1906. In October 1913, he and Lilly traveled to Langenschwalbach, Germany, for a stay at Villa Lilly, one of their two homes on the Rhine. He hoped that the brisk autumn weather would improve his health but it did no good. On October 10, at the age of 74, Busch suffered a heart attack while sitting at his desk. He died peacefully a few hours later. His body was returned to St. Louis and a viewing was held at No. 1 Busch Place.

A final farewell was said to Busch at the house where he had welcomed dignitaries and common people alike. It took twenty-five trucks to haul all of the funeral flowers to the cemetery. A crowd of nearly 25,000 people gathered around the brewery to pay their last respects.

The funeral procession left No. 1 Busch Place and departed for Bellefontaine Cemetery. St. Louis residents solidly lined the route. Mayor Henry Kiel requested that all business in the city be halted for five minutes during the burial. The Jefferson Hotel and the Planter’s House turned off their lights during that interval and all of the city’s streetcars were stopped. A committee of Busch employees was granted permission to carry the casket through the brewery and along the route that Adolphus had once walked to work each day. Busch was laid to rest in an ornate mausoleum resembling a miniature cathedral, complete with gargoyles and with its own watering system for plants and bushes.

Charles Nagel, one of the leading citizens of St. Louis, gave the eulogy. He was joined by a number of other honored guests, including congressmen, the presidents of Harvard and the University of Missouri and Baron von Lesner, the personal representative of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was a longtime friend of Busch. Nagel called Busch “a giant among men. Like a descendant of one of the great and vigorous ancient gods, he rested among us and with his optimism, his far seeing vision, his undaunted courage and his energy, shaped the affairs of men.”

The elaborate Busch mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis

 After Busch’s death, Lilly divided her time between Europe and California, with only occasional stops in St. Louis. The house was seldom used and after her death in 1928, the Busch children divided the contents and it was closed up for good. It was finally demolished to expand the brewery in 1929.

August A. Busch, Sr., who had been running the company for several years, continued the growth and the expansion of the brewery until the outbreak of World War I. By 1917, the United States had entered the conflict, which brought dark times to the family. The two countries to which the Buschs were devoted were now at war. Lilly Busch was actually in Germany when America entered the war and it took former senator Harry Hawes seven and a half months to get her home. The brewery was handicapped by rumors that the Busch family was pro-German. Despite purchases of large amounts of Liberty Bonds by the company and by the family, the malicious stories refused to go away. The Busch family, as well as the scores of Germans living in St. Louis, were kept under close watch but they managed to weather the storm of the war.
And then something worse came along.
By the late 1910s, Anheuser-Busch, like breweries all across America, was confronted by Prohibition. In an effort to combat the growing threat against beer sales and production, Busch filled the newspapers with ads in favor of personal liberty. But all the while, the company prepared for the inevitable. It stepped up production of Bevo, which was being sold all over the world by 1919. One year before, production of real beer had stopped, so there seemed to be little cause for concern about Prohibition. No one realized at the time that the disappearance of real beer would largely destroy the demand for “near-beer” products like Bevo. Just because liquor was illegal, it was certainly not hard to get. The horrible taste of bootleg hard liquor was usually so bad that it had to be disguised, which brought about the creation of sweet mixed drinks. People who became accustomed to the taste of these syrupy new drinks often lost the taste for the tart flavor of beer, or in this case, near-beer. And with real beer being illegally produced by bootleggers, the good stuff was still easy enough to get. So, why drink non-alcoholic beer when you could get the real thing at the local speakeasy? By 1923, sales of Bevo fell off to almost nothing, causing grave concerns at Anheuser-Busch.

The early years of Prohibition were grim across St. Louis. The Lemp Brewery, the neighbor and chief local competitor of Anheuser-Busch, closed down and sold off its huge plant for a fraction of what it had been worth a few years before. August Busch refused to give up, though. He was determined to find a way to keep the company afloat until the Prohibition laws were repealed. A short time later, Anheuser-Busch began to produce truck bodies and refrigerator cabinets and they went into the yeast business. Their superior product soon gained control of the market and money began trickling back into the coffers again. They also began bottling soft drinks, including Busch Extra-Dry Ginger Ale, and canned malt syrup, which was often used illegally to make home brew by eager customers.

But Busch was not happy just holding the company together. He wanted to make beer and he loathed Prohibition. On his own, he began investigating the corruption and hypocrisy of the law and he made his findings public. He discovered that liquor was sold aboard American flagships and discovered the failures of law enforcement and outright graft within the ranks of the Anti-Saloon League. He pressed for a uniform and effective enforcement of the law as long as it was on the books. On the other hand, he used his attorneys to appeal to Presidents Coolidge and Hoover and to Congress to repeal the law. He insisted that law-abiding businessmen were suffering while lawbreakers flourished, as long as Prohibition was the law of the land. Busch supported just about any politician who stood against Prohibition and finally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932. Roosevelt said he “wants repeal, and I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal.” Prohibition finally came to an end on April 7, 1933.

After Prohibition was repealed, Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales delivered a shipment of Budweiser to President Roosevelt at the White House. It was actually a re-enactment of the beer delivery, which had arrived by air to the president a short time earlier.

Under a permit to brew beer in advance of the date for its legal sale, Anheuser-Busch had 250,000 barrels ready and while they planned to resume business quietly, April 7 arrived in St. Louis like a combination of Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve. A jubilant crowd surrounded the brewery as the gates were thrown open and a fleet of trucks rolled out to deliver the first supply of Budweiser to the city’s packed taverns. It was a great night in south St. Louis as August Busch had brought the old brewery from “doom to boom.”

Sadly, August A. Busch would not be around to enjoy the celebration for long. As the company began to enter a new period of growth, Busch’s life came to an end. He had suffered from several heart attacks during the hard years and was pained by gout and dropsy. On the night of February 13, 1934, in tremendous agony, he wrote a letter to his family, signed and sealed it, and then turned up the radio before shooting himself.

He was succeeded by Adolphus Busch III, known around the brewery simply as “The Third.” He was a retiring man who grappled with the problems the company faced during the Depression and World War II. He died after a short illness on August 29, 1946.

August A. Busch, Jr., or “Gussie” became the fourth Busch to become president of Anheuser-Busch and is remembered today as one of the most popular and outgoing members of the family. He carefully protected the company’s reputation and further expanded its image to make it one of the best known (or perhaps the best known) brewery in the world today. In 1953, when it was thought that the St. Louis Cardinals might be sold away from St. Louis, Gussie wrote the check that bought the baseball team and turned Sportsman’s Park into Busch Stadium.

And while the Busch family and the brewery continue to thrive in St. Louis today, the family has not been without its scandals and troubles over the years, from brushes with the law, death and even kidnappings. But through it all, they have managed to prosper and to build a great legacy in St. Louis.


Sunday, July 6, 2014


The Hartford Circus Fire

On the hot, humid afternoon of July 6, 1944, a crowd of almost 9,000 people, mostly children, crowded under a huge tent in Hartford, Connecticut, for a special matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Mothers and grandparents brought their young ones to the Barbour Street fairgrounds for a day of joy and merriment and to forget about the war overseas for a while.

But later that afternoon, the day turned into horror and death as a fire broke out under the big top tent. The ensuing inferno killed 168 people and injured another 484. Five bodies still remain unclaimed and unknown in Hartford today. The Hartford Circus Fire would turn out to be the worst tragedy to ever occur in the history of the American circus – and it left a heartbreaking haunting in its wake.

People came to the circus that July day in Hartford to forget about their troubles for a few hours – they had no idea that they were coming to their deaths.

The circus began its history in American in 1790. Since then, more than 1,000 circuses have toured the country and have become a part of colorful part of America that few can resist. In the first half of the twentieth century, the mere rumor that a circus might be coming to town was enough to excite every child in the community.

Perhaps the best-known showman connected to the circus was Phineas Taylor Barnum, an eccentric promoter who became known for his novelty museums and engaging hoaxes. Barnum eventually became the founding father of the spectacular traveling show that would develop into the renowned Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Before leading the life of a showman, Barnum was a storekeeper and when he failed in business, he started a weekly magazine, which folded under the weight of several libel suits that landed him in prison.

In 1834, Barnum relocated to New York and one year later, he became involved in putting on shows. His first venture involved the exhibition of an African-American woman who was purported to be the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington (she wasn’t) and he enjoy short-lived success with this exhibition. Unfortunately, his attraction died and her age was proven to be no more than 80.

Several years of failure followed and then, in 1841, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York and he re-named it “Barnum’s American Museum.” Word quickly spread across the city about the numerous fascinating exhibits on display and it soon became one of the most popular attractions in New York.

P.T. Barnum and one of his most famous “attractions,” General Tom Thumb.

In 1842, Barnum’s museum became the talk of the town with exhibits like the midget “General Tom Thumb” and the Fiji Mermaid, a crudely concocted mummy, part monkey and part fish, which was alleged to be the preserved body of an actual mermaid. He also showcased the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, and continued to expand his offerings with the likes of Native American dancers and the giantess, Anna Swan.

Barnum may have been the first to promote the sort of exhibits that would become circus staples, but he was also the first to suffer the kinds of calamities that would also be connected to the circus – fires, train wrecks and storms. His museum burned so many times that it was nearly impossible for him to obtain fire insurance. But what would become the tradition of “the show must go on” always prevailed. After his museum burned the first time, he moved to a new building. However, a second fire put him out of business.

After the loss of his last museum, Barnum attempted to take a break from show business, but looming debt wouldn’t allow him to leave. Finally, Barnum was convinced to create a partnership with William Cameron Coup, who owned a circus in Delavan, Wisconsin. With his famous name and Coup’s financial backing, the "P.T Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" was born. His closest competition at the time, James Bailey, would later become an ally.

In 1872, Barnum coined the phrase, "The Greatest Show on Earth," as his traveling circus and sideshow toured the world, undergoing a series of name changes and billings in the process. In 1881, a significant merger took place when Barnum joined forces with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The original name, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United" was shortened to "Barnum & London Circus" for obvious reasons. A series of splits ensued until the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth" and later "Barnum & Bailey Circus" became the final name for the show.

When P.T. Barnum passed away in 1891, Bailey purchased the circus from his widow. He successfully toured the eastern part of the United States until he transported the circus to Europe in 1897 and began a lengthy tour of the continent. He remained abroad until 1902 and when he returned to the United States, he found that the Ringling Brothers, a new circus that had been formed by five brothers, had established a reputation in the east. The new rivalry forced Bailey to tour the Rockies for the first time during 1905. The next year, Bailey passed away and the Barnum's much-loved circus was sold to Ringling Brothers in 1907 for the sum of $400,000.

In a few short years, the Ringling Brothers show became the most popular circus in American. As was the method of the times, the circus traveled from town to town, setting up their tents and sideshows in whatever venue was available. They started out touring the Midwest, where they achieved great success, and eventually began traveling all over the United States. The circus eventually became so large that a train was needed to transport the bulk of their business. It is through this mode of transportation that the Ringling Brothers became known as the largest traveling show of their day.

With the combined shows, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus became the largest and most profitable show in the world.

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and kept the circuses separate for several years. In 1919, the last remaining Ringling Brothers, Charles and John, decided to combine the two circuses into one grand enterprise. The "Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" made its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 29, 1919.

Throughout the 1920s, the circus continued to generate great success and when Charles passed away in 1926, John Ringling became recognized as one of the richest men in the world. Although the circus was affected by the Great Depression of the early 1930s, it managed to do well, largely because people counted on the circus to take them away from their troubles for a while. After the United States entered World War II, the lure of the circus stayed strong. Despite travel restrictions that were created by the war, President Franklin Roosevelt made a special declaration to allow the circus to use the rail system.

People still wanted to escape from reality, which is what they came seeking that July afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut.

July 6 was a hot day in Hartford, but no one wanted to miss the show. The previous day’s performance had been cancelled because the circus had arrived six hours late from Providence, Rhode Island. The circus management had decided to offer a special afternoon show to make it up to the disappointed children and adults who had planned to come the night before.

People began arriving at the Barbour Street fairgrounds several hours before the circus was scheduled to begin. Children ate hot dogs and cotton candy and mothers purchased tickets for the sideshows and the rides. When it came time for the show to begin, thousands hurried into the tent while the Wonder Band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The nineteen-ton big top tent was almost as wonderful an attraction as the animals and performers inside. The massive canvas tent had cost more than $60,000 and was carefully maintained by the circus crews. It had been weatherproofed the previous April with a coating of paraffin, thinned with gasoline, to keep out the rain. Most of the crowd sat on bleachers under the tent, while those with reserved seats sat on folding chairs in the front. On the long north side of the tent were three exits, although all of them were blocked with chutes that were used to bring the animals into the tent. On the south side were three additional exits, one of which was blocked with cables.

The Flying Wallendas, who almost didn’t survive the fire on July 6, 1944

The performance began with Alfred Court’s wild animal act, which was hugely popular with the crowd. As the animals were being escorted out through the steel enclosures that would take them back to their cages, the Flying Wallendas, the famed aerial act that was known for their seven-person pyramid on the high wire, were climbing the poles and getting ready for their performance. Emmett Kelly, America’s most famous hobo clown, was busy going through his antics, which brought laughter to children and parents alike. He was one of the stars of the circus and a universal favorite. Ironically, he never smiled during a show, always making others laugh with his deadpan expression.
Suddenly, a cry of “fire!” was heard in the tent.

A spot of flame appeared on the tent at the main entrance. A Hartford police officer was on duty there and said that when he saw it, the hole was no bigger than a cigarette burn. Slowly, the tiny flame traveled up the canvas wall, increasing in size as it climbed toward the tent’s roof. It was still a small fire at first and most of the performers and the audience were not even aware of it. The spotlights were focused on the Wallendas.

Merle Evans, the circus bandleader, saw the fire at about the same time the policeman saw it. He instantly led the band into a lively rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the song traditionally used in the circus world to warn performers and circus employees that something was amiss under the big top.

Almost immediately, someone threw several buckets of water (which were kept in place inside the tent in case of just such an emergency) but it had no effect. Trainers tried desperately to hurry the wild animals out of the ring. All personnel knew that any impending tragedy would be made worse by animals in the tent’s center. Unfortunately, time was lost when two leopards proved reluctant to leave. Trainers had to turn a water hose on them in order to prod them into the chutes. Meanwhile, the Wallendas had descended speedily on their ropes and were hurrying to safety.

The crowds who previously did not know that the band was playing the “disaster march” now were undecided whether to watch the trainers struggling with the animals or to watch the growing fire. Buckets of water were still being thrown on the blaze, which had now climbed to a height of five or six feet. Circus hands ran back and forth, trying to decide what to do. Perhaps this was why there was no panic from the audience – the fire was still small and it was being dealt with by people who surely knew what they were doing. Though the fire was still growing, and was about two feet in width, there was no mass migration toward the exits. Before that actually happened, a strong wind whipped into the enclosure and the fire suddenly swept across the top of the tent with alarming speed. It rose across the west end and moved toward the northeast corner. Soon, the “entire top became a mass of flames,” as one witness later recalled.

The circus big top became an inferno, certain death for those trapped inside.

Burning bits of canvas and liquid paraffin began to rain down onto the now-panicking crowd, inflicting severe burns on everyone they struck. The band gave up on their music and proceeded to march calmly from the tent in hopes of encouraging the audience to do the same – but it was too late for that. As support ropes burned, the tent’s six huge poles began to fall, taking flaming pieces of canvas with them as they toppled over. Screams filled the tent as the frightened crowd began to run. Hundreds climbed around the circus wagons, stumbled over the animal chutes and became tangled in the metal folding chairs that had been tossed aside in front of the bleachers. Parents tossed their children into the open arms of strangers at the bottom of the grandstands. Some of these parents and children left the black smoke unscathed, while others were trampled and burned amid the confusion.

Many children, separated from their parents, wailed and screamed. One little boy tried to shield his fallen grandmother from the stampeding crowd, begging someone to help him get her to her feet. Pieces of flaming canvas continued to fall and women, their hair and dresses on fire, shrieked and wept. The human barricade that had been caused by the knocked-over folding chairs prevented many from reaching the exits. Many rushed to the entrances on the north side, only to arrive there and find them blocked by the animal chutes. Hundreds of bodies were later found piled there.
One by one, the heavy support poles crashed over. As the sixth and final pole toppled, the entire tent, which was now engulfed in flames, swooped down on the crowd, blanketing them in fiery canvas. Those trapped and screaming beneath the collapsed tent were doomed and soon they fell silent. It had taken the fire only ten minutes from the time the first warning cry had gone up to wreak its havoc.
Sirens screamed at the five alarms triggered and fire trucks raced to the fairgrounds, but they were too late to save lives. All they could do was spray water on the charred ruins. To make matters worse, there were no hydrants on the fairgrounds and the firefighters had to use hydrants located almost three hundred yards away.

Ambulances lined up to take victims to the hospital. Hartford hospitals were prepared for such a disaster. It was wartime and major hospitals were instructed in burn treatment in case of enemy air raids. Victims were given morphine, wrapped in sheets and given plasma injections.

Volunteers and rescue workers carry out the survivors – and the dead.

The dead numbered 168 – half of them children. All of them had come to the circus that day for an afternoon of carefree fun. All of the circus people escaped alive, although the Wallendas had barely made it out safety. The villainous and heroic acts of the fire became apparent in the hours, days and weeks following the disaster. Some threw chairs at others to clear from their escape route. Some jumped from the tops of the bleachers into the crowds of people, not knowing or caring if they hurt someone. On the other hand, Emmett Kelly, the famous clown, rallied performers to get buckets of water and help however they could. Some grabbed scared and crying children and stayed with them until they could be reunited with a loved one.

The aftermath of the fire was grim. The Connecticut State Armory was turned into a temporary morgue and families filed through, lifting white sheets and trying to identify the charred remains. State and city investigators followed clues about the causes of the fire, which ranged from a tossed cigarette, a motor that was left running near the tent that ran out of oil, and even arson. The likely cause was determined to be a cigarette that was tossed into some dry grass at the edge of the tent. The rapid spread of the fire was blamed on the improper weatherproofing of the canvas and the use of highly flammable materials. State investigators listed eight causes of the fire and issued citations to Ringling Brothers for various offenses, including failure to flameproof, location of the animal chutes, insufficiency of personnel, failure to maintain an organization to fight the fire, lack of firefighting equipment, failure to distribute firefighting equipment, and the location of the supply wagons. Five circus employees were charged with manslaughter and arrested and warrants were issued for four more. Later, seven of the defendants received one- year prison sentences. Legal claims against Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey totaled nearly $4 million.

The fire captured America’s attention in 1944 and was ranked tenth among all stories reported by the Associated Press that year. It was the only one not related to the war.

Funeral parlors were forced to hold services for the dead in fifteen-minute intervals and services were conducted for several victims at the same time.

In Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley, the story was more than just a news report. It was a heartbreaking occurrence that touched almost every family in the region in one way or another. Flags flew at half-staff for weeks and funeral parlors were forced to hold services at fifteen-minute intervals. The burning of the big top on July 6, 1944 was the worst circus disaster in history and it continues to haunt the people of Hartford even now, more than 65 years later.

And not all of those haunting memories are physical scars, mental trauma and bad memories.

Several legends grew in the wake of the fire, including one that stated that the ghosts of the fire victims remained behind at the site of the tragedy. Two years after the fire, a housing project was erected nearby and many claimed the place was haunted. Residents told of hearing screams, strange cries, disembodied weeping and they spoke of seeing apparitions of people who seemed to be smoldering, or on fire. One man stated that he was unlocking his door one night and looked up to see a little boy go running past his apartment. The boy left a trail of smoke behind him, as though his clothing was burning. The man dropped the bag of groceries that he was carrying and hurried off to see if the boy needed help. When he turned the corner in the direction the “burning boy” had gone, he was shocked to see there was no one there. The man who recounted the story had recently moved to Hartford and was unaware that the 1944 fire had occurred a short distance away.

A few years later, the housing project, which had been a temporary arrangement to ease the home shortage being experienced by returning war veterans, was torn down and replaced by a school. The weird haunting tales also plagued the school and it was generally accepted that the ghosts were victims of the fire.   

A memorial to the fire victims now stands at the site and some say the ghosts remain, lingering at the place where their lives were cut short so tragically.

From the book, AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse