The Circus that saved a Jewish family

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I stumbled across this story by accident. I was actually doing research on a Jerry Lewis movie called “The Day the Clown Cried “The film was met with controversy regarding its premise and content, which features a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis has repeatedly insisted that The Day the Clown Cried would never be released because it is an embarrassingly “bad work” that he is ashamed of..

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In Europe, circuses used to travel across national borders, spending weeks moving through forests and little-used trails, and then set up shop in small villages. During the direst parts of World War II, villagers would flock to see the circus–especially in Germany. “Even during the Third Reich, a traveling circus meant a diversion from the daily drudgery of work.

Adolf Althoff, the young heir of the famous Althoff circus, with a family tradition reaching back to the 17th century, directed the circus during the Nazi period. The circus continued its regular activity throughout the war years, traveling from one place to another.

He was born into the family in Sonsbeck, Germany. At age 17 he became publicity director for his families of the circus.

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In his twenties Althoff and his sister formed their own circus, of which he was the ringmaster for 30 years. In 1940, Althoff began five years work in concealing four members of the Danner performing family in his circus. Althoff provided the Danners with false identity papers and had the family working under pseudonyms.

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In the summer of 1941, the circus stopped for a prolonged round of performances at a camp site near Darmstadt in Hesse. One of the visitors at the site was a young girl by the name of Irene Danner. She was a descendant through her mother’s side of the Lorches, a celebrated German-Jewish circus dynasty that had settled in the small town of Eschollbrücken near Darmstadt in the 19th century.

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Although he was well aware of her Jewish descent, Althoff agreed to engage Irene, a gifted acrobat in her own right, in his circus under an assumed name. She soon fell in love with another circus artist, the young Peter Storm-Bento, also a member of a famous family of acrobats and clowns from Belgium. In 1942, the persecution of the Jews of Darmstadt entered a new, lethal phase. On March 20, the first deportation to Lublin in Poland took place, which was followed by the next two deportations in September 1942 and in February 1943.

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Irene Danner’s beloved grandmother was among the deportees, but her mother and sister could still escape in time to make it to Althoff’s circus camp, where they were received with open arms. They were later joined by Irene’s Aryan father, who was granted a temporary release from the army on the pretext of arranging a divorce from his Jewish wife. Harboring four illegals during the war years was at best a high-risk undertaking, although the camp’s relative seclusion did afford some protection from inquisitive eyes.

The Althoff couple had to reckon with the ever-present possibility of a denunciation by one or another disgruntled worker. The threat actually materialized once, but the wily circus director, who had been tipped off in advance by a good friend, knew how to distract the Gestapo officers’ attention with a drink or two, giving the illegals extra time to disappear for a while. The Althoffs also saw to it that Irene received proper medical care during her two births. This was especially complicated because they were both Caesarean sections. The Althoffs assumed this risk as a matter of course, without requesting any material remuneration, even though they had never met either Irene Danner or her family before the war. 

Althoff warned the people he rescued with the code Go Fishing.

On January 2, 1995, Yad Vashem recognized Adolf and Maria Althoff as Righteous Among the Nations.

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Mary ,the murderous elephant

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Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant, also known as Murderous Mary, who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. After killing a trainer in Kingsport, Tennessee, she was hanged in 1916. Her death is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale of circus animal abuse during the early 20th century.

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On September 12, 1916, a hobo named Walter Eldridge, nicknamed Red because of his rusty-colored hair, was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. A drifter who had been with the circus only a day, he had no experience of handling elephants, but the only qualification required was the ability to wield an ‘elephant stick’ — a rod with a sharp spear at one end. Eldridge led the elephant parade riding on the top of Mary’s back; Mary was the star of the show, riding at the front. There have been several accounts of his death. One, recounted by W.H. Coleman who claimed to be a witness, is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stepped on his head, crushing it.

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As the terrified spectators screamed and fled, a local blacksmith shot Mary with a pistol, unloading five rounds of ammunition into her thick hide to little effect. She stood still, suddenly calm again and seemingly oblivious both to the bullets and the commotion as the townsfolk encircled her with chants of “Kill the elephant, kill the elephant!”.

The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the elephant in public. It was decided to hang the elephant by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Unicoi County, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town’s children) assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.

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As she was led to the railway yard, Mary was followed by the circus’s other four elephants, each entwining their trunk in the tail of the animal in front just as they had done on countless parades. Charlie Sparks hoped that their presence would keep her compliant but, as a chain was placed around her neck at the “scaffold”, they trumpeted mournfully to her and he feared that she might try to run away. To stop this happening, one of her legs was tethered to a rail. No one thought to release it as the derrick whirred into action and, as she was hoisted into the air, there was an awful cracking noise, the sound of her bones and ligaments snapping under the strain. She had been raised no more than five feet when the chain around her neck broke, dropping her to the ground and breaking her hip.

The industrial crane was powered up again and this time Mary was raised high in the air, her thick legs thrashing and her agonized shrieks and grunts audible even over the laughter and cheers of those watching below. Finally she fell silent and hung there for half an hour before a local vet declared her dead. Her gruesome end is recorded in a photograph so horrifically surreal that some have suggested it must be a fake — but, all too sadly, its authenticity has been confirmed by other reports and photographs taken at the time.

The Hammond circus train wreck.

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In a quiet cemetery outside Chicago lies a mass grave of clowns, strongmen, and acrobats who died in one of the worst circus tragedies in history.

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, the members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were fast asleep in the wooden cars at the back of their train.

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The Hammond Circus Train Wreck occurred on June 22, 1918 during World War 1 and was one of the worst train wrecks in US history. Eighty-six people were reported to have died and another 127 were injured when a locomotive engineer fell asleep and ran his train into the rear of another near Hammond, Indiana.

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In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, Alonzo Sargent was operating a Michigan Central Railroad troop train pulling 20 empty Pullman cars. He was aware that his train was closely following a slower circus train. Sargent, an experienced man at the throttle, had slept little if at all in the preceding twenty-four hours. The effects of a lack of sleep, several heavy meals, some kidney pills, and the gentle rolling of his locomotive are thought to have caused him to fall asleep at the controls.

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At approximately 4:00 am, he missed at least two automatic signals and warnings posted by a brakeman of the 26-car circus train, which had made an emergency stop to check a hot box on one of the flatcars. The second train plowed into the caboose and four rear wooden sleeping cars of the circus train at a rail crossing known as Ivanhoe Interlocking (5½ miles east of Hammond, Indiana) at an estimated speed of 35 miles per hour.

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The circus train held 400 performers and roustabouts of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. Most of the 86 who were killed in the train wreck perished in the first 35 seconds after the collision. Then, the wreckage caught on fire. Among the dead were Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn of the Great Dierckx Brothers, a strongman act, and Jennie Ward Todd of The Flying Wards. There were also 127 injuries.

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Five days later, most of those killed, burned beyond recognition, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, at the intersection of Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, Illinois, in a section set aside as Showmen’s Rest, which had been purchased by the Showmen’s League of America only a few months earlier. Few of those buried were formally identified, and so the graves of most of the casualties are marked “Unknown Male” or “Unknown Female.” One grave is marked “Smiley”, one “Baldy”, and another “4 Horse Driver”. The section is surrounded by statues of elephants in a symbolic mourning posture.

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