Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tragedy at the Circus

Elephants and big cats were among fatalities when 1913 floodwaters swept through Peru, Indiana. By environmental historian Ron E. Withers

[Location is destiny. In the mid-19th century, the town of Peru sprang up in northeast Indiana just below the confluence of the Wabash and Mississinewa Rivers, and grew to bustling affluence during the heyday of the Wabash and Erie Canal. When the railroads arrived decades later, the canal’s business plummeted, but Peru became a convenient crossroads for several major railroad lines linking Cleveland and Chicago with Indianapolis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.  When Peru businessman Benjamin Wallace became a circus owner over an unpaid livery bill in 1891, he built a winter headquarters for his new circus on an island between the rivers [see map]; the 220-acre farm grew crops for the animals and had permanent buildings where tents were repaired and acts developed.  Problem was, Peru was on low flat flood plain. Originally the fertile soil drained slowly until settlers built dikes and other structures, which increased runoff. Moreover, the elevated railroad beds acted like walls: in the 1913 flood, they channeled a flow nearly equivalent to that over Niagara Falls directly into downtown Peru. Environmental historian Ron E. Withers tells the tragic story of Wallaces circus in this guest installment. – T.E.B.

Circus performer atop carcass of elephant drowned in 1913 flood in Peru, Indiana. Credit: Miami Co Museum

The 1913 flood dwarfed any previous flood in the history of Peru. By Saturday, March 22, the ground was already saturated from previous storms and the Wabash River was near flood stage. Over the next five days, almost 8 inches of rain and snow fell on the water-soaked Upper Wabash Valley, overwhelming the capacity of the ground to absorb any further moisture. 

Colonel Ben Wallace was worried. Hundreds of exotic animals were in danger at his winter quarters just east of town. His circus had many big cats and elephants, not to mention hundreds of head of livestock, horses, and other animals. Because the farm was just a mile above the confluence of the Wabash and Mississinewa rivers, it was one of the first places cut off by rising floodwaters. Wallace, at his gracious two-story home in Peru, was unable to get there. When a reporter from the Peru Republican asked Wallace if there was any news, he answered, “I would not be surprised to learn that the whole show property is washed into the Mississinewa River, and that the seventy five men, as well as all my animals and horses, are dead.” 

Map of Peru, Indiana, on the eve of the 1913 flood shows where Ben Wallace’s circus winter quarters were located on land between the Wabash and Mississinewa rivers (blue), which flow from right to left. It also shows how the elevated railway embankments (red) acted as walls that confined and funneled the floodwaters into downtown Peru.
By Tuesday morning, March 25, workers at the Wallace farm knew they had a huge problem. Animals normally kept outside were standing in three feet of rising water. The water also got inside a heated barn where lions, tigers, and other big cats were housed in cages. The animals began to suffer from the cold when rapidly rising water extinguished the heater. The same thing happened in other barns containing llamas, kangaroos, and deer. Workers tried to move the terrified indoor animals to lofts in the barns. In spite of their efforts, many drowned. The outdoor animals were left to fend for themselves. Most found high ground, but at least eight horses drowned and many other animals died from exposure. 

Emil Schweyer, a wild animal trainer from Switzerland, had only been in Peru for two weeks. Wallace hired him because of his reputation for fearlessness, a reputation he demonstrated on his first day at the winter quarters when he walked into the cage of one of the most unpredictable cats on the farm and proceeded to pry open its jaws and place his head in the mouth of the surprised beast. Schweyer wasn't sure what to do about the flood, but he knew something had to be done for the big cats. He entered the cats’ dens and at great risk to his life, hastily tried to build elevated makeshift platforms. The water continued to rise; his efforts were too little, too late. All the cats drowned. One Bengal tiger managed to squeeze through the bars of his cage and escape, but jumped into the frigid water and drowned.

Force of 1913 floodwaters in Peru. Credit: Miami Co Museum
The floor in the elephant barn was a foot below ground level, allowing floodwater to pour in. When elephant trainer John Worden and his three assistants entered to unshackle the animals, the water was already waist high. The elephants, nervous and trumpeting loudly, settled down when they saw the men coming to help them. As the water rose and the current pulled at them, the four men struggled to release the heavy chains that fastened the legs of the elephants to the floor of the barn. The men dove under the water and hammered at the pins holding the shackles until they came free, releasing the elephants. Cool-headed Worden put the elephants’ circus training to life-saving use. Barking out a command, Worden had the pachyderms line up behind a big female named Tess. The men opened the door to the barn so the elephants could walk out. But when the wind and snow slashed at them, the animals panicked and retreated back into the barn. Worden and his assistants prodded and yelled commands, but the elephants repeatedly fell back at the prospect of going out into the cold wind and water. 

Worden was up to his shoulders in the current when his leg cramped up on him. He lost his balance and started to go under when an elephant named Nellie stuck her foreleg out for him to grasp. Worden grabbed the huge leg and held on for dear life. Nellie then wrapped her trunk around his waist and helped him to climb onto her back. Worden coaxed her into braving the current to make it to some high ground next to the house. Nellie refused to stay there without the other elephants and after Worden got down, she returned to her companions at the barn. As the water continued to rise, the men abandoned their rescue efforts and retreated to the foreman’s house. 

About an hour later, Nellie left the barn leading a line of elephants. They marched through the water and up to the house. They tried to get into the house by breaking down the doors and knocking out windows, but failed. The men could do nothing for them. As the water rose through the first story, the people in the house climbed up to the second floor. “We watched the elephants walk around the house time and again,” Worden later recounted, “but it was not long until we noticed their numbers were decreasing. Then we knew that they had become the victims of exposure, had sunk beneath the waves, and were drowned.” Five elephants died; three of their bodies floated away and came to rest in a field near Peru. Four others, including Nellie, survived. 

Elephants drowned in 1913 flood were skinned for umbrella stands. Credit: Miami Co. Museum

Not all the circus animals perished. Wallace's nine polar bears thought the flood great fun and splashed around happily in the cold water. The tank of a large hippopotamus named George was completely under water for at least twelve hours straight, with no apparent ill effects on the animal. Three camels found high ground and survived. Still, the loss to Wallace’s circus was horrendous. Besides the death of so many valuable animals, most tents, circus wagons, train cars, and other equipment needed to run the show suffered damage. The loss to Wallace amounted to over $150,000 in 1913 dollars (over $3 million today). Showmen from around the country quickly banded together to replace the equipment and animals that Wallace lost. His circus was delayed only a short time before it hit the road for the 1913 season, but Wallace soon sold the show and the winter quarters. 

By the time the waters receded from Peru, eleven people had drowned and two-thirds of the town was damaged or destroyed. Two of the town’s three bridges were destroyed and every business within three blocks of the river suffered major damage. Material losses to Peru totaled a staggering $2,000,000 in 1913 dollars according to Arthur Bordurtha in his 1914 History of Miami County, not counting business losses due to lost production or the permanent closure of factories and stores. The manufacturing heart of the town didn’t recover until 1941 and the population of the town never again exceeded that of 1913. The town continued to flood periodically until a series of dams in the 1960s finally harnessed the Wabash River.

Environmental historian Ron Withers (M.A. Indiana University 2010) is the author of Nature’s School: The Role of the Wabash River in the Early History of Peru, Indiana, 1829–1913, Bloomington, iUniverse Publishing, 2013. This installment is based in part on the last chapter of his 2010 master’s thesis. 

©2013 Ron Withers. For permission to reprint or use, contact Ron Withers or Trudy E. Bell

Many thanks to Elise Kordis, director of the Miami County Museum in Peru, Indiana, for her gracious permission to feature some of the photographs in their collection. Many images will be displayed in the museum's upcoming special centennial exhibit "Submerged: The Great 1913 Flood in Peru, Indiana," running from March 23 through May 25. More information is at "1913 Great Easter Disaster Centennial Update."

Next time: Death Rode Ruthless...’” 

Selected references

Bodurtha, Arthur L. History of Miami County: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People, and Its Principal Interests. Vol. 1. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1914.

Brown, Robert M. "The Ohio River Floods of 1913." Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 45, no. 7 (1913): 500-09.

History of Miami County Indiana. Edited by Brant and Fuller. Chicago: Brant and Fuller, 1887.

Stephens, John H. History of Miami County: Illustrated. Peru, IN: The John H. Stephens Publishing House, 1896
Coppernoll, Marilyn. Miami County, Indiana: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach: The Donning Company, 1995.


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