Clinton, like most small towns, has seen its share of parades, carnivals and circuses. But, according to old accounts, one of the most unforgettable was the circus that showed up in 1899.
The event happened around October 1899. Crops had sold well that fall and everybody seemed to have a jingle in their pockets, so there was a good turnout for the highly advertised circus.
The lion act had been billed as the main attraction, and there was considerable excitement over such a daring venture. The audience was especially alert when the lion trainer himself, strutted out, dressed in a cape (and little else,) and told the crowd how “mean and vicious the lions were; and how many folks they had attacked in other situations.” (Words he would later regret).
As if on cue, the lions suddenly began to roar and bang against the bars of their cages, showing how wild they really were. With a great show of courage, the trainer entered the arena and proceeded to “whip” the lions through their tricks.
After about 40 spine-tingling minutes the trick ended and the lions were whipped toward the door to their cages. Much applause, as the crowd breathed a sigh of relief. A bit premature as it turned out; it seems that while jumping from the arena into the cage, one lion struck the cage door, knocking it just far enough away that he fell to the ground and easily escaped his anxious trainer.
Pandemonium broke loose!
The circus performers quickly hiked themselves up to the trapezes in the tip-top of the tent, and called down to the folks to please be ‘perfectly calm, that the lion would never harm anyone. However, one spectator called attention to the fact that “they were certainly in no position to offer assurances since, “they” were speaking from a safer, vantage point! Words like, “cowards” were thrown around. Meanwhile the worked-up crowd was out of control.
Judge Henry E. Faison grabbed a large sledge hammer that lay nearby, and stood fast, like a conquering soldier ready to defend his friends and relatives, especially his poker buddies.
Frank Armstrong pulled out a small penknife, and stood ready with open blade to defend his loved ones, at all costs, even his personal safety.
Doc Crumpler just reached down and with one mighty effort pulled up one of the tent pegs. Ready and armed, he stood ready to kill the beast if it should come to that!
Press McCullen, a hefty gent weighing over 200 pounds, went out the front door of the tent at double-quick-time and ran face to face into a lady who asked pitifully for help gathering her child: Press said, “My Goodness, woman, this is no time to fool with children, the lion is loose!” He climbed the nearest tree.
Joe Butler, who had been blind from birth, was at the show with his wife, Sabra. Hearing all the commotion, he asked Sabra what the problem was and she replied calmly, “Why Joe, it appears the lion is loose.” Upon receiving the revelation, Joe said, “Sabra, all these years you have been leading me around, but if you don’t hurry now you’re gonna get left!” Joe yanked her by the hand and ran across a 2×12 plank that was laid across a field. He did not miss a step or fall. Second sight, some said.
Mrs. John Turner fell into a deep ditch and broke her collarbone. She called weakly out to Dr. Holmes for aid as the doctor scampered by. But the doc. running as fast as his short legs would let him, rubbed his hands together and said, “Ahhh, come down to my office, this, umm, madam, is not a good time for an examination.” And he continued his flight to the safety of his office.
John Peterson, who had recently married lovely Bertha Marshburn, was so upset that he actually forgot he had a wife, and ran quite a way towards their home on the Wilmington road, apparently giving ‘nary a thought to poor Bertha. He did go back to find her, and thinking he would slip under the tent at one side; he got down on all fours, crawled to the tent and lifted up the lower flap to slide under. There he met the lion about three feet from his face. It might as well have been an inch. John forgot his wife a second time, as he took off-making better time than a marathon runner.
Some Yankee cousins of the Faisons were visiting at the time and had gone with the family to see the show. They were so terrified that they ran out of the tent and hid under a bed in the Gus Smith house, near the railroad crossing on Lisbon Street. This same house, being much in demand for its convenience, was crowded to the rafters with other folks who had the same idea.
As for the poor old lion, he ran until he was no doubt exhausted. Eventually, he headed back to the dressing rooms of the actors and simply laid down, panting for breath. The trainer, finally showing a bit of spunk, managed to persuade some of the other performers to assist him in putting the cage in front of the lion. The lion, tired, and bored, promptly leaped into his cage, offering no resistance, and stretched out at once for a well-deserved rest.
Needless to say, the night performance of the circus was sparsely attended and indeed for many years, inhabitants of the Clinton area were wary of animal acts in any shows.
Duplin, upon hearing details of the “great escape,” hastily cancelled any planned performances and decided wisely enough, to have instead a tent revival!
Sources: Oscar Bizzell writings and word of mouth. Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.