A Wholly New and Novel Act, with Monsters • Amber Sparks

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In late 1956, the classic circus died and so did Susan Malone, the world’s youngest lion tamer. At ten, she’d retired to Pensacola and taken possession of the defunct King Circus’s auctioned-off lions. She was bitten in the thigh and arm before being dragged off into the family’s bushes and eaten for breakfast. She had been known in her circus days as The Laughing Maid, for taunting the lions, leaping lightly out of the way of their subsequent rage.

In early days, the circus featured aquatic acts, aerialists, equestrians, clowns, and races. There were bands and ballets and even sea battles fought in wide, water-filled arenas. The beasts languished in cages, more portable zoos than animal acts. Joseph Handler’s eighteenth century show, “A Wholly New and Novel Act, with Monsters as Seen in their Natural Environs, TERRIFYING AND SHOCKING,” was in fact just a small, barred wagon crowded with malnourished leopards illegally smuggled in from Madagascar.

Then Isaac A. Van Amburgh stuck his arm and head into a cage of lions in 1862. And the crowd, as they say, went wild.

Famous Ringling Bros lion tamer Daniel Descartes was killed in 1892, exactly ten years to the day after his brother. Both were mauled by the lions they worked with, in what observers said were unprovoked attacks. Daniel had his arm torn off and died later of his injuries. Three other family members were hurt or killed by the family business in the intervening years. One cousin told his local paper it was the price one paid to make bargains with the wild. Animals rarely honor such bargains, and humans even less often. He had chosen to open a butcher shop instead.

Elephants and bears were introduced to circuses well after the big cats, to significantly more fanfare. They were also more dangerous, their attacks more sensational. Some claimed, of course, that this was the whole point. Revenge as a story, attack as an art form. A wholly new and novel act.

In all instances, the animals’ revenge was short-lived. Topsy was, of course, electrocuted, and Mary hung from a crane. Dino and Barry were shot, Marvin poisoned, the King Circus lions all quietly sold for their meat and bones. In some cases the executions were public and publicized; in some cases the deaths were kept quiet. In a few cases the animals were allowed to live – not because trainers were softhearted, but owners were thrifty and refused to buy new animals. In all cases the animals were eventually pronounced destroyed, and in all cases they probably were.

By the turn of the century there were hundreds of circuses and menageries traveling America, coast to coast. When the circus came to town, the town was closed down in holiday fashion, while everyone turned out to watch the parades and head to the big tent for the main attractions.

Thomas MacCarter, known as Massarti, was scalped and torn apart by four lions in front of a full house in the late eighteen hundreds. Children suffered nightmares so severe they said they carried them in the blood, like a disease. Their descendants claim they still dream of dreadful sounds and empty rings, blood scattered over the sawdust-covered floors.


Amber Sparks author photoAmber Sparks is the author of the short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which has received praise from The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Paris Review, among others. She is also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies,  as well as the co-author of a hybrid novella with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish, titled The Desert Places. She’s written numerous short stories and essays which have been featured in various publications and across the web – find them here at ambernoellesparks.com, and say hi on Twitter @ambernoelle. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, infant daughter, and two cats.

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  1. Pingback: Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Amber Sparks Fiction, Steven Soderbergh on Narratives, Helen Phillips, Joan Aiken Revisited, and More

  2. I loved this article! Great galloping sentences about everything I like best. Will be giving it to my Human/Animal studies students this fall.

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