I often stagger down the halls of history, careening off the walls and sometimes stumbling into a cobweb-filled room that has been long forgotten. Such was the case recently when I tried to match up a cool photo of a circus parade in Blackfoot with a story from contemporaneous newspapers. It turned out there wasn’t much more to say about the Blackfoot photo but searching for the circus name turned up a story from Twin Falls that is graphic enough for me to warn those who might have delicate constitutions to turn back. Now.
On May 26, 1907 the Sells-Floto Circus set up tents in Twin Falls. They advertised “100 startling, superb, sensational and stupendous surprises.” The number of surprises might have been off a bit, but surprises there were.
The circus had some headliners named Markel and Agnes, a pair of tigers. Handlers were in the process of feeding the big cats when Markel began to beat furiously against the cage door with his front paws. The door gave way and the tiger leapt on the nearest thing that looked like food, a Shetland pony, and began tearing at its neck. The tiger keeper whacked Markel between the eyes with an iron bar. The cat jumped off the little horse and onto the back of a second Shetland. The keeper tried the trick with the bar again, causing the tiger to repeat his retreat, only to leap onto the back of a third pony. A third whack to the face with an iron bar drove the tiger off the Shetland and into the crowd, perhaps not the result the keeper was hoping for.
As the news service story stated, “A panic followed. Women grasped their children and dragged them from the path of the maddened animal.
“The screams of the frightened spectators mingled with the trumpeting of the elephants and the cries of excited animals in the cages.”
Mrs. S. E. Rosell tried to pull her four-year-old daughter, Ruth, out of the way, to no avail. The cat knocked them down. “Holding the mother with his paws the tiger sank his teeth in the neck of the child.”
Local blacksmith J.W. Bell pushed his own family aside then aimed his .32 caliber revolver at the tiger from three feet away. The big cat took six bullets before finally collapsing.
Sadly, Ruth Rosell died from her wounds a couple of hours later.
Devastating as the experience must have been, the circus—the same circus—was back in Twin Falls for another show the following year. You’ve heard the saying, “The show must go on,” right?
UPDATE: Since I first posted this story in 2019, Carol Barret, great-granddaughter of J.W. Bell contacted me with a little more detail about the story.
It seems that the custom of the time regarding firearms was changing. Many venues, including the circus, discouraged sidearms at public gatherings. John Bell “felt naked” without his gun, so he put it on underneath his trousers.
There’s little humor in this story, but one moment of it might have been when Bell ducked behind a tent pole to drop his pants so he could get the pistol out.
The tiger got close enough to Bell that some of the entry wounds showed powder burns.
The owner of the tiger made some noise about suing John Bell for destroying his valuable animal. That was ridiculous on its face, so never happened. I couldn’t track it, but I would be surprised if the family of the girl who died didn’t sue the circus.
Carol Barret said that her great-grandfather had a tiger claw on his watch chain for some years. She heard that a newspaper in Colorado displayed the pelt from the tiger on an office wall. I couldn’t find confirmation of that.