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Circus Lightning Deaths

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Wahpeton was in a tizzy on June 10, 1897 as the Ringling Brothers Circus train pulled into town. A crowd gathered to watch the unloading of the flashy white horses, the exotic animals, and the gaudy circus wagons. Children gathered, hoping to be chosen as temporary help, since the circus gave free tickets to boys who helped to hoist the big main tent.

People were not deterred by the dark storm clouds that began to fill the sky. They weren’t about to let a little rain spoil a once in a lifetime chance to see such a well-known circus. They would be safely under the cover of the sprawling circus tent. It never occurred to anyone that the day would end in tragedy.

The storm rolled in. The rains came. During the arrival parade, wagons pulled by horses bogged down in mud and elephants had to push them out.

As the boys began to hoist the big tent, they were no match for the wind and rain. The crew foreman had to cut holes in the canvas to free the water and lighten the load. The boys still couldn’t handle the job. The circus roustabouts pushed the boys aside saying, “This is man’s work.” They didn’t realize that in putting up the main pole they had erected a giant lightning rod. When the center pole was struck, Charles Smith and Charles Walters were killed instantly. Foreman Charles Miller would later die from his injuries. Several other roustabouts and performers were stunned.

Spectators took shelter under the big tent. Despite the terrible accident the show went on. After the show, the men who had been killed were buried in Riverside Cemetery. Pieces of the shattered tent pole marked their graves.

On this date in 1897, the Langdon Courier Democrat informed readers that Ringling Brothers had replaced the broken tent pole with a marble monument. It represents the remains of the original tent pole, wound with a rope and pulley. A hammer and tent stake are at the bottom of the monument.

Even today, when the circus is in town, members of the circus crew will go to the cemetery and pay their respects.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher

Courier Democrat. “North Dakota.” Langdon ND, 10/14/1987, Page 6
The Democratic Advocate. “News of the Week.” Westminster MD, 6/19/1987, Page 4.
Atlas Obscura. “Tent Pole Monument to Circus Dead.” https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/tent-pole-monument-to-circus-dead Accessed 9/21/2021.
InForum. “On With the Show.” https://www.inforum.com/news/157595-On-with-the-show-Tale-of-little-known-1897-Wahpeton-circus-tent-tragedy-lives-on-through-monument Accessed 9/21/2021.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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