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The Circus Fight

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
What one historian has called "the most famous circus fight in history" unfolded in 1873 as Robinson's Circus was preparing to leave Jacksonville in East Texas.

Jacksonville was a fledgling community in those days. It had been founded with a post office in 1849, but moved to its present site in 1872 on the International & Great Northern Railroad.

The story of the fight first appeared in a Dearborn, Michigan, newspaper and was reprinted by the Jacksonville Daily Progress years later.

Here is what apparently unfolded.

Robinson's Circus of Cincinnati, Ohio, opened on a raw, cold day in November of 1873. The circus' hands had some words with a rowdy crowd of Jacksonville men before the show opened and, when the show began four or five local men plopped down in the circus ring where trained horses usually performed.

When the horses were brought into the ring, the local men stopped them, forcing two circus hands to remove the unruly group.

Later, the group went to the bars in Jacksonville, started drinking and decided they wanted to arrest a circus manager named De Vere. They obtained a warrant and went looking for De Vere. Circus officials, meanwhile, hid De Vere.

Circus owner Jack Robinson, fearing something worse could happen, ordered his men to pack up their wagons and drive them to a railroad loading area. There, they were met by a Jacksonville mob.

As a circus employee was supervising the loading of the wagons on the train, a shot was fired and the powder of a pistol burned the face of a circus employee, touching off a melee of additional gun shots, fights and threats.

The circus employees chased the mobs into the town's business area, where they hid behind the barred doors of a store. When the circus hands battered down the door, the locals fled out the back door.

As the riot continued, a circus hand was stabbed in the back, a local man fired a shotgun at the circus men, but missed and killed a circus animal, and a circus employee poured a bucket of coal oil on a store and threatened to set it afire if the mob persisted in their anger.

As the circus train pulled out of town on its way to Houston, more shots were fired. About a mile and a half out of town, as the train crossed a trestle, the Jacksonville mob mounted another gunshot battle, wounding a circus hand.

The mob then telegraphed Houston officials, asking them to arrest the circus, but the telegraph operator in Jacksonville never sent the message.

The Robinson Circus didn't return to Texas for years, but when a group of Texas lawyers came to Cincinnati, Robinson arranged for city officials to wine and dine the lawyers. One of the lawyers promised to help wipe out the charges against the circus in Jacksonville.

However, reports claim that when the Robinson Circus returned to Jacksonville years later, a circus man injured in the l873 riot killed a Jacksonville man.

After the passage of years, Jacksonville forgot about the Great Circus Fight and settled down as a quiet, law-abiding community.

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Bob Bowman's East Texas
Bob Bowman
A timely gift for any East Texan. Sample a little of East Texas here, a little there--and come away with a good helping of stories you might not know if you didnít read this book.
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All Things Historical >
December 24, 2006 Column.
Published with permission
A weekly column syndicated in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.

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This page last modified: December 24, 2006