May 10, 2021

Pages 2200-2202
Whole Number 110

Baraboo, Wisconsin
The year 1928 marked the last season that the Sparks Circus was oed and


(Editor' s Note: From time to time, queries have been received about the SPARKS CIRCUS which was well known in the eastern part of the United States during the early part of this century. In general, these questions have been concerned with the origin of the founders of the circus-who they were, where they came from, and what happened to them. The account which follows was given to us by Robert L. Parkinson, Chief Librarian and Historian of the Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin. We are grateful to him for furnishing this information.)

The founder of the SPARKS CIRCUS was John H. Wiseman, born in Pennsylvania in 1863. He operated a small novelty show in the early 1880's with his headquarters in East Brady, Pennsylvania. Later, his show became an Uncle Tom's Cabin show and ca. 1889 he converted it to a circus operation.

In the meantime, Charles Sparks was born in Park City, Utah, in 1882, became orphaned, and was adopted by John H. Wiseman. Wiseman then changed his own name to that of his adopted son, Charles, and was known thereafter as John H. Sparks. The first circus he operated in 1889 was called SPARKS BROS. CIRCUS, although there were no brothers, and he was the sole proprietor. Subsequently, John H. Wiseman, now John H. Sparks, had a son whom he named Clifton Sparks.

by 1894 the circus had assumed the name of JOHN H. SPARKS SHOWS, and after the turn of the century the title was expanded to JOHN H. SPARKS OLD VIRGINIA SHOWS. It consisted of a circus which moved on three railroad cars.

John H. Sparks died on January 29, 1903 (one report gives the year as 1905), and the circus came under the management of his adopted son, Charles Sparks. Charles was assisted in the management by his foster brother, Clifton Sparks. The operation was now called the JOHN H. SPARKS SHOWS, a name that it kept until 1914, when the name was shortened to SPARKS CIRCUS.

The circus prospered and enlarged. It grew gradually to nearly a dozen railroad cars and by 1923 it used twenty cars, placing it in the category of a major railroad circus. (As an example, the Ringling-Barnum Circus used 90 cars; Sells-Floto used 40 cars; Hagenback-Wallace used 30-40; and John Robinson used 25 cars.) The Sparks Circus continued its operation under the management of Charles and Clifton Sparks. Its winter quarters were at times: Carthage, Ohio; Salisbury., North Carolina; and, finally, and for many years, Macon, Georgia.

Following the season of 1928, Charles and Clifton Sparks sold their circus to the American Circus Corporation of Peru, Indiana, operated by three men: Mugivan, Ballard, and Powers. These men also operated the Hagenback-Wallace Circus, Sells-Floto Circus, John Robinson Circus, and others. The following year, the circus again changed hands and the owner became John Ringling, owner of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He operated the Sparks Circus during 1930 and 1931 and then retired it from the road. It was revived (by title) in 1946 and 1947 by James Edgard, but the name SPARKS CIRCUS has been inoperative since.

The SPARKS CIRCUS was known as an eastern show throughout its career, rarely venturing as far west as Illinois, and usually confining its route to New England and the South. Its reputation in those areas was excellent. It was famous and recognized always as a "Sunday School" show, meaning that it was clean, with no grift, gamblers or short-change artists. It was popular with circus fans and its name was at the top in excellent performance. Its equipment was heavily loaded and efficiently planned, so that it looked as large as a 25-railroad-car show when set up on the lot.

After Charles Sparks sold the Circus in 1928, he became restless and in 1930 he bought the motorized Downie Bros. Circus from Andrew Downie. He continued the Downie Bros. Circus name (actually he could not use the name of SPARKS CIRCUS any longer), but he gave wide-spread publicity to the fact that the proprietor was Charles Sparks, because of his extensive clientele throughout New England. The Downie Bros. Circus became the largest motorized circus of that time. Sparks discontinued its management in 1938, and in 1939 it closed down and was never reopened.

Charles Sparks lived in retirement until his death in 1947. He left behind him an enviable record as a circus manager, and a reputation within the profession that has been surpassed by few showmen.

(Editor's Note: We have not been able to learn whether Charles Sparks or his foster brother., Clifton Sparks, had children. We would be happy to hear from any descendants who might provide further details regarding them and their families.)

The Sparks Circus wagon shown on page 2201 appears on a colored post card issued by Confection Cabinet Corp., 372 W. Ontario Street, Chicago, Illinois. (60610) as no. 3-2. The following description appears on the card: "Wagon #33, a beautiful tableau, was used "by the Sparks Circus 50 years ago. Sparkling with white and silver paint, it was no doubt pulled by six black horses in the street parade. It is now in the vast collection of the Circus World Museum at Baraboo, Wisconsin. It was presented to the Museum by the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin."

Another item of interest pertaining to the Sparks Circus was sent to us a year ago in the form of a clipping from the National Enquirer, date not known, regarding the execution by hanging of an elephant owned by the Sparks Circus. The strange event took place on September 13, 1916, in Erwin, Tennessee. According to the account, the circus owned a 30-year-old elephant named Mary who was known for her bad temper. On September 12, 1916, "Murderous Mary," as she was called, killed her trainer, 36-year-old Walter Eldridge, as she was being led to water just before the parade down Center Street in Kingsport, Tennessee, was to begin. She performed that night, much to the concern of the townspeople. Many of the local citizens who had witnessed Eldridge's death demanded that she be destroyed, but the circus moved next morning to nearby Johnson City. During the performance there that afternoon, "Murderous Mary" tore the coat off the circus manager and it was decided she would have to be killed. Because she had committed murder, the local people demanded that she be hanged. She was taken to the C & 0 Railroad yard in nearby Erwin and, although she weighed over five tons, a 100-ton railroad derrick was used successfully to hang her. Bud Jones, now 90 years old, was the operator of the derrick and he recalls: "The circus men threw a chain around her neck and we hoisted her. She started hollering, but when she got about three feet off the ground the chain broke and she fell. But she was stunned, so the men put a heavier chain around her neck and we hung her again. That time the chain held. She kicked for awhile, but it finally killed her. There was about 1,500 people watching-the biggest gang ever in Erwin, I reckon."

A witness of the execution, Mrs. E. H. Griffith, was quoted by the National Enquirer: "I don't believe any of those who saw the event felt it was inhumane; Mary paid for her crimes just as anyone else would." A photograph of Mary suspended by the derrick appears in the paper along with the story.