Six Sioux Chiefs in the Jail Yard
Part Seven: The Circus
In June, the seven Indians arrived in Lawrence with Dodge City Sheriff, legendary gunfighter, Bat Masterson. Old Crow had been released from prosecution, and he was returned to the reservation in Oklahoma. But the state was continuing its prosecution of the remaining six—Wild Hog, Porcupine, Tangle Hair, Blacksmith, Noisy Walker (Old Man), and Strong Left Hand. The men were jailed in Douglas County until the next district court session—in October. Throughout the summer, the local papers reported on the men’s activities. They were regularly taken outside for air and exercise—and probably to give people a chance to catch a glimpse of them. Reporters from papers as far away as New York City came to interview them and tell their stories. Quarters were close inside the jail and sanitation was inadequate, at best. On July 12, a doctor was called to treat one of the men for nausea. By the time he arrived, all of the men were ill.
If you’ll remember back in Part I, this entire series began with a memory that my great grand uncle wrote about in his 1932 autobiography, Changing the Skyline. (It was this this one small paragraph that began this entire series!)
My brothers and sisters and I were all born in Lawrence. Our early life was lived in an America now completely gone. Through the vista of the years I look back to prairies which the Indians, with their squaws and papooses, were still crossing on their single-file trails. I remember standing one morning with a group of scared children in the city jail yard, where the six Sioux chiefs captured after the Custer massacre were incarcerated. As clearly as I see the aeroplane overhead today, I can see the long trains loaded with buffalo hides going through to the East.
In my youth the old West was already vanishing. Its passing was, in fact, already under way.
It was probably one of these jail yard outings that Paul recalled in his memoirs—these six Northern Cheyenne prisoners were the Six Sioux Indian Chiefs in the Jail Yard. Paul would have been 12½ years old that summer, Theodore would’ve been 14, and Ralph would have just turned 11 (my great grandmother would’ve been about 7). The boys and their friends would’ve been the perfect ages for adventures to the jail yard to see if they could catch a glimpse of the infamous Indian chiefs. Although they were all Cheyenne (except Wild Hog, who was reportedly half Sioux), the tribes’ closeness would’ve explained his confusion. Because of their ages, the boys probably would’ve had a limited understanding of the entire situation. They merely would’ve been excited at the opportunity to safely see a real Indian chief up close.
The Great London Circus
In 1879, the only thing that could possibly have upstaged the excitement of Indian prisoners in Lawrence was the arrival of the circus. On July 22, Cooper & Bailey’s Great London Circus leased a bit of land in town, and almost immediately, 2,510 posters were pasted in and around Lawrence advertising the “biggest, best, and grandest show on earth.” (And it was— the following year, Cooper & Bailey was acquired by legendary showman PT Barnum.)
As daylight broke on Friday morning, massive crowds gathered along Massachusetts and New Hampshire Streets to see the circus parade through downtown Lawrence. At 10:00, July 25, 1879, a herd of ten elephants—including the new baby elephant, the first born in captivity in the west— fancy tableaux cars, chariots of lively musicians, and hundreds of skilled performers made their way through town. Several thousand Lawrencians were said to have purchased tickets for each of the two shows.
The Starrett Kids and the Circus
Since the Starrett kids didn’t have much money, the child’s ticket price of 25¢ would’ve been unaffordable. Initially, I thought the boys may have spent the money they’d earned from selling the fruits from their melon patch to buy tickets, but in my research, I found a totally different story—one that definitively answers the question.
The following January, 1880, Helen Ekin Starrett, the kids’ mother, accepted a position as the editor in chief of the Western Magazine, a prestigious literary publication headquartered in Chicago. The family relocated there that February. To keep production costs low, during her first year with the Western Magazine, the Starretts and their friends wrote much of its content. To maintain the its professional image, they often used noms de plume. Having extensively studied the family, I’ve been able to crack their pseudonym code. In the May 1880 issue, the Starrett boys’ experience with Cooper & Bailey’s Great London Circus in the summer of 1879 was published for all to read.
In May’s “For the Children” column, “Aunt Mary,” (probably Helen, but it conceivably could’ve been one of her sisters or her sister in law) wrote an editorial as the loving aunt who’d been the confidant to her nephews in the days “when they lived on the outskirts of small town in the west.”
In her piece, “Aunt Mary” recounts how one summer, the circus came to town, and her nephews were excited to see it. But they knew that the ticket price was too much to spend on leisure activities. Finances had been strained since their father had taken ill, and the money spent on tickets would’ve been enough to buy two weeks’ worth of flour. So, instead of paying to see the show, they’d been given permission to see the circus parade. With freshly laundered clothes, the barefoot boys ran into town to see the procession from the railroad to the site where the tents would be erected. Aunt Mary and the boys’ mother expected them home for lunch, but mealtime came and went without them.
At about 3:00 that afternoon, the boys dragged into the kitchen, covered in dirt and sweat, their faces flushed and sunburned, and they were exhausted, hungry, and visibly upset. As any mother and favorite aunt would do in this situation, the ladies pressed the boys for an explanation of where they’d been any why they were do disheveled.
After tall glasses of milk, some bread and butter, and a little time to cool off, the sad little boys were ready to share their story.
They and their friends had been so excited by the morning procession from the railroad tracks that they followed the parade across town to watch the men put up the big tents. As they watched, a strange man approached them and asked if they’d like to see the show that night. Since none of the boys had the means to afford tickets, they all eagerly accepted his proposal to pull weeds from the grounds as payment for doing the backbreaking work.
For two hours, the six little boys pulled weeds in the sun, working as hard as they could to earn their reward. When they were almost finished with their job, the man reappeared with a large leather whip. Cracking it in the air, he angrily ordered them off the property and threatened to whip them if they didn’t hurry. The frightened boys ran home as fast as they could.
Aunt Mary was mad. The boys didn’t really want to see the circus anymore, but Aunt Mary was angry that her boys had been used for free labor and swindled out of the payment they’d been promised.
Without saying a word, Aunt Mary quietly got up, put on her bonnet, and headed into town. You see, Aunt Mary wrote for the town newspaper. If she hurried, she could make the paper’s afternoon deadline, and she was bound and determined to something in the afternoon edition.
She arrived at the newspaper office, went straight to see the editor, and asked him if she could write a piece on the circus for the evening edition. He was just leaving, but told her it sounded like a wonderful idea, and suggested that she take a seat at his desk and write it since he was on his way our. So she sat in the editor’s office and wrote her piece.
Just as Aunt Mary finished her account of the boys’ experience, a man she didn’t recognize walked into the newspaper office and inquired about placing an advertisement for the circus in the afternoon paper.
“Are you the proprietor of the circus?” asked Aunt Mary.
“Yes,” replied the man, “are you the proprietor here?”
“I have just written a free advertisement of your circus,” said Aunt Mary, ignoring his question. “You can read it.”
He looked Aunt Mary’s article, and his demeanor quickly changed. “Upon my word, madam, I am very sorry, but I supposed those were just little scamps that had no friends. Will you not accept tickets for them and drop this?”
“No, sir,” Aunt Mary, flatly. “They don’t want tickets.”
“Well, what will make amends?” he asked?
“You can pay me 50¢ apiece for the boys’ work if you wish to right the matter. They fully earned it.”
The man realized that Aunt Mary had him exactly where she wanted him. She wielded the power now, and the power of the newswoman’s pen was much mightier than the carnie’s whip. He paid her for the boys’ work, and then she charged him a dollar for advertisement in the paper.
When she returned home, the boys had washed up, changed out of their dirty clothes, and they’d had a chance to rest. Mary was anxious to tell them about her experience with the man from the circus. She gave the boys their well-earned money, and the boys had a good laugh at how their aunt had avenged them.
But the boys never asked to go to the circus again.
With her column, “Aunt Mary” warned all the boys reading the Western Magazine to always get payment from the circus before agreeing to do any work for them.
But back to the Indians…
Since the circus was always up for publicity, proprietors Cooper and Bailey did manage to hand out free tickets to the Indians. In the preceding weeks, the men had seen one of the hundreds of advertising posters in town. As “Aunt Mary” was securing her nephews’ payment, two guards from the jail accompanied the six Indians to the afternoon performance of the circus. The men marveled at the elephants, tigers, lions, and camels in the cages outside the show tent. They indicated that they’d seen American lions, red tailed deer, and brown bears in their own travels.
As they were escorted inside the tent, all eyes were on them. The memory of recent events was still fresh, and many Kansans— especially women— were still afraid. Mothers held on to their kids—two moms were said to have grabbed their children and left. Once the crowd was assured the Indians were well guarded, fears were eased and the show began.
The Northern Cheyenne men thoroughly enjoyed the circus—especially the clowns. Blacksmith reportedly laughed so hard he cried. They were treated to handheld fans and all the lemonade they could drink. Afterwards, they returned to the jail, but the rest of the town enjoyed the circus under the lighted tents long into the night hours.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I inadvertently post an image from an incorrect source (or the image is incorrectly cited from my source), get images mixed up, or accidentally leave something out. Please email me at email@example.com with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.
Images: Stereoscope of the Seven Northern Cheyenne Prisoners on the Ford County Courthouse Steps, the National Archives; my personal copy of Paul Starrett’s autobiography, Changing the Skyline; all of the circus images, the Circus Historical Society (via Pinterest); Downtown Lawrence, Kansas, kshs.com; Newspaper clipping from the Kansas Daily Tribune, Lawrence, Kansas, July 25, 1879, newspapers.com; the Western Magazine, HathiTrust.com.