Here Now Some History #23– Seattle Welcomes the Circus

By Michelle Wen

August 24, 1862 was a remarkable day in the history of Seattle. It was the first time a circus had ever come to town.

Reader, I hear you gasp in shock, “Why?” “Why did we suffer such deprivation?” “Is it not a truth universally acknowledged that there is no greater joy than a tiny monkey in a dress riding a shetland pony?”

A circus in San Francisco and Boston would make grown men weep with joy, animate the bedridden, fill all with special excited tingles. Not so in Seattle! In 1862, Seattle was full of proud, lumbering, bearded men and tough, salty women; folks who eked out a living from the unforgiving sea and the cruel dark forests of the hinterland; folks with no patience for clowning around.

The Barnum and Bailey Circus was the first to venture to Seattle. Some say the BBC had no choice but to resort to Seattle after it had packed one too many pachyderms into party cannons – news of which spread across the circus hubs of the Eastern seaboard.

Regardless, the show began immediately upon the unveiling of a giant orb by a monocled man and his loping gibbon sidekick Murphy Brown, which was met with boos and other naysayings. Local reporter Filbert S. Fitzgerald said of the scene:

0 Stars. Utterly uninspired, charmless and wretched! One could spend a better morning scrubbing mildew down the bottom of a well, or flagellating in the rectory. 


According to the adjacent diary page of one Wilhelmina Burley, a salmon husbandry expert who had been pulled away from her morning fish milking by the ruckus, the tipping point was an anchor hurled by her friend “Big” Bertha Hargraves.

The news reports indicate that Bertha and the many others who joined her in tormenting the circus folk were widely seen as heroic defenders of the public trust. A series of popular cartoons were printed in the newspaper that week to illustrate this barrage, and used the dictation of town square stenographer Marlin Weighins for all the dialogue. Though the images have been smudged beyond printable quality, the speech bubbles remained legible and are transcribed below.

Fie! Ye dare throw an anchor at me, I make an anchor of you! In time the name Bertha will not be for a human, but for an anchor! One that cannot go backward, one that cannot progress forward, one that is, as said, an anchor, but to the entire city, not merely a single ship!

You ne’er do well! Begone the likes of you! Everyone toss fish in his general direction!

A fish? Ye dare toss a fish at Mystophocles, but cannot even hit me? Hark, be it known that for fishes come to land by way of mariners, this city will forever be beset by a ragtag group of mariners ever capable of pitching but never any good at hitting!

Oy, this will cut ye down to size! Boys, throw yer axes on 2. Two!

What convenience to have weaponry delivered to me at the moment when I most need it! Ye shall all luxuriate in instant delivery of goods and services, ignorant that like waters of a mighty river rising and rising, your homes and food will grow costly, and you’ll all be drowned like those fools who linger in the Amazon basin during floodtimes… but in debt!

Tax records show that "Big" Bertha Hargraves was the foremost cobblestone maker and road-layer in Seattle and had quite an arm on her.
Tax records show that “Big” Bertha Hargraves was the foremost cobblestone maker and road-layer in Seattle, and had quite an arm

Boiling with rage at these insults, the crowd determined the ringmaster ought to be put on trial by ordeal. With an axe in his leg, a head wound from the anchor, and fish guts in his eye, Mystophocles could hardly flee (as the rest of the circus had done). Tarred and feathered, he was left for dead by the waterfront.

This was the end of Master Mystophocyles.

Or was it?

In the early days of excavation for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, journal fragments were unearthed. A local group known as Mystopho-clites believe these to be belongings of the hapless ringmaster based on entries such as this:

Have decided to head to Seattle on August 24. Dreamed of mountains spewing fiery rivers of lava, flurries of ash falling. Not even endless rain could quench such disaster… Can better predict year and time of occurrence if I go there in person. Will save the city and be such a hero…

President of the Mystopho-clites Pleace Butterall said in a statement at the excavation site, “Some say Master Mystophocles’ words were predictions – others say they were curses. Either way, they will come true. If only we had not thrown that anchor. Or those axes. Or the fish. Or tarred and feathered him to death”.

President of the Mystopho-clites Pleace Butterall smiling contently after delivering a best man speech that got two laughs and several claps at his sister’s wedding. This photo was obtained legally.

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