Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tips for Researching Performers and Showmen


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The Circus and Traveling Performer
Our traveling performing ancestors - dancers, circus performers, magicians and musicians – did not leave a permanent resident, except for their final resting place. So what are a few tips to researching these transient ancestors? Many of these performers were only known by their stage name. As the proverbial phase goes they may have “ran away to join the circus” and most often were estranged from their families; no longer having contact, unless their show came through town. The culture of the traveling showperson requires innovative research skills especially after the popular 1793 inception of the American circus.

Where to Begin Research?
Circus World Museum Foundation. Circus World contains “a huge collection containing rare photographs, posters, manuscripts and artifacts and information on over 2,800 American circuses, and a reference file of over 300,000 names of circus performers and employees,” according to the website. The Wisconsin Historical Society owns Circus World and its collections are independently managed by the not-for-profit Circus World Museum Foundation

Circus Historical Society. This society has a comprehensive listing of Circus History Collections & Research repositories: http://www.circushistory.org/collections.htm. The CHS also has an index of the Bandwagon, CHS's journal, publishes captivating articles relating to circus history. Researchers may find their showman ancestor. Some articles are published online: Bandwagon 

Showmen’s League of America
  • Founded in 1913 the Showmen’s League was dedicated to carnival showpeople.  There are various Showmen’s Rests Cemeteries:  
  • Mount Olivet Cemetery, Hugo, Oklahoma. Hugo a winter circus home of many circuses to include Carson & Barnes Circus and Kelly Miller, earning the name Circus City, USA. . Mount Olivet Cemetery  is also the final resting place for many professional bull riders:  Bull Rider's Reprieve the final resting place of rodeo star Freckles Brown.
  • Showmen's Rest in Forest Park, Illinois holds a 750 plot section at Woodlawn Cemetery where a mass grave of 56 (or perhaps 61) employees of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were interred.
  • Showmen's Rest at Southern Memorial Park, Miami, Florida boasts the largest cemetery plots.
The American Museum of Magic, Marshall, MI.  The largest magic museum in America holds an impressive collection of posters may assist the researcher in identifying an ancestor and the stage name. This is often needed, when performers (especially women) changed their names and can only be rightfully identified via photos and character. The researcher may find his magician ancestor among the “2,009 heralds, handbills, and window cards, 587 showbills, and over 5,000 programs, 10,000 books, 24,000 magazines, 46,000 photos and many letters.” 

Newspapers. Local newspapers often shared news while circus was in town.

A Circus Wedding Readers of the Seward Reporter on August 9, 1883, learned of a recent wedding in the community in which the bride and groom were not area residents, but members of a traveling circus then performing in Seward. "Last Sunday evening nearly all of the employes [sic] of S. H. Barrett & Co.'s show were at the Grand Central Hotel," said the Reporter, "to witness an event which is a novelty in circus performances-the wedding of Mr. Frank Whitlock, one of the attaches of the circus, and Miss Lottie Grant, the fat woman.
"Landlord Underhill gave the party the use of his dining-room for the ceremony, and the circus people filled it to overflowing. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. T. L. Sexton, after which the happy couple received the congratulations of their friends, refreshments were served, and a merry time generally was enjoyed.

"The bride and groom received many handsome and valuable presents, among which were a diamond ring, an engraved gold ring, a gold locket, a fine photograph album, an autograph album, a dressing case, several articles of silverware, and a large number of smaller articles. Accompanying the gifts was a letter of congratulation from the members of the company.

"The bride is an attractive feature of the show, being remarkable for her size. She is 27 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall; and weighs 593 pounds weight. He is a fine-looking young man, and is spoken of very highly by his associates. He is superintendent of the annex or side-show department. The bride is said to be quite wealthy, although probably she is hardly worth her weight in gold."

The groom, Frank Whitlock, listed in contemporary entertainment publications as a "museum ticket agent" and "side show talker," was probably not as well known as his new wife. Elizabeth Charlotte Stice Whitlock, who used "Lottie Grant" as a stage name, was a well-known circus fat lady, who traveled with several different shows during the 1880s and 1890s. Her circus career did not prevent her from marrying three times and giving birth to several children.

Such a wedding seldom takes place," concluded the Seward Reporter, "and while the bridegroom has certainly assumed a 'heavy' responsibility, he has also secured a wife who is able to protect and defend him. May their shadow never grow less." (See photo above
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Some newspapers, like the New York Clipper (later Variety), 1853-1920, published circus articles of interest, often naming performers. 

 

National Fairground Archives, UK. Whereas the UK has a National Fairground Archives housed at the University of Sheffield, the USA does not have an equivalent. The Archives houses the following newspapers (microfilm) and will also assist in the research of your UK performer: World's Fair, 1904; The Showman, 1900-1912; and The Era.


Kathleen Brandt
a3Genealogy.com
Accurate, Accessible Answers
a3genealogy@gmail.com

Disclaimer: a3Genealogy has completed extensive research on the Stice Family.

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