Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Death by Tiger: It Happened in 1899 in Washington, DC

Circus Tiger by Maureen Siegart (no relation to Charles)

When one begins to explore the “cause of death” among the 65,000 interred at Congressional Cemetery, your imagination begins to recreate the ultimate demise from myriad illnesses, murders, train wrecks, auto accidents, drownings and the like.  But one really stood out to me recently: an 1899 death “by tiger bite.”  The cemetery is also competing for a share of $1M from AmEx and the NTHP until May 10, 2013 by popular vote.
How was that possible in Washington, DC?  Well, the Wallace Circus was in town, and so were its many animals.  21-year-old Charles Siegert was in charge of the shows ponies, but developed a strange and dangerous habit of sleeping on top of the tiger cage, which ultimately led to his demise.  As he slept atop a Bengal tiger named “Old Ben” the evening of September 4, 1899, he turned in his sleep shortly after 1:30 am and his leg dropped down the side of the cage.  The Washington Post reported:

A Wallace Circus animal cage
                “The beast appears to have put out one great paw through the bars, and with its long, sharp teeth clutched Siegert’s leg.  Siegert felt the horrible grip on his leg, realized what had happened, and, as the tiger pulled his leg into the cage, Siegert was dragged over its side.  The beast had his calf between its teeth and Siegert’s body caught at the knee of the imprisoned foot and hung full in reach of the tiger.  His cries awakened the whole tent and while men ran to his assistance the other animals roared and growled at the uproar.  Torches were pushed at the tiger; employees who were familiar with similar accidents got clubs and pushed them hard against the tiger’s nose.  He hung on till his own pain caused the grip of his teeth to relax and the instant they did so Siegert was pulled away.  His wounds were hastily dressed and the police notified.”

Siegert, ironically a butcher by trade, had joined the circus just eleven weeks before, when it rolled out of Tolleston, Indiana.  He had endured the horrible accident for a full ten minutes.  He was taken to Emergency Hospital, where the reality of his wound was revealed.  The Post described that “part of the calf had been torn away, and at the knee and the exposed bone showed indentations of the great teeth of the beast.  Muscles, sinews, and flesh hung in ribbons from the great wound.”                 

                An employee of the circus visited the hospital, but it was reported that he had no interest in Siegert, and coldly announced that he was only there to reclaim the bloodied quilt which had been wrapped around Siegerts leg.    

                Surgeons initially thought they could sew the wound back together, but eventually, at 8 pm on September 5, 1899, the leg was amputated below the knee by William P. Carr.  The stress, blood loss, and infection took Siegerts life just five hours later, at 1 am on September 6th.  

As they say in the business, “the show must go on,” and the Wallace Circus pulled out of town that morning.  Little was known about his family, and after several days of local media attention, a local insurance man named Robert Cook took pity on the situation, purchased and buried him in Congressional Cemetery on September 7th.  The site remains unmarked to this day (at Site 130/Range 250).   

A week later, the circus finally located his father Julius G. Siegert in La Porte, Indiana (who had been born in Russia about 1847), and sent him a telegram about the death of his son.  He wrote a letter to the Washington Post which was received on September 12, offering to pay for his son’s internment, but the funeral had already taken place. 

If you want to assist in creating a marker, now is you chance!  The cemetery has a kickstarter project where you can contribute, vote on a design, and finally get a monument installed at the site.  Think of the design possibilities!  Be part of the process HERE         

The Wallace Circus

                Benjamin Wallace, a livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana, and his business partner, James Anderson, bought a circus in 1884 and created "The Great Wallace Show."  The show gained some prominence when their copyright for advertising posters was upheld by the Supreme Court in the Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Company case.  

Wallace bought out his partner in 1890 and formed the "B. E. Wallace Circus.”  It later merged with another circus and became the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. 

In 1913, the circus lost 8 elephants, 21 lions, 8 horses and several tigers in the Wabash River flood.   Its unknown if one of the tigers drowned included "Big Ben," the Bengal that killed Charles Siegert.

Another tragedy struck the circus just before 4:00 a.m. on June 22, 1918, when a locomotive engineer fell asleep and ran his empty troop train into the rear of the circus train near Hammond, Indiana.  A fire broke out and quickly spread through the wooden sleeping cars.  86 persons died and another 127 were injured, with many victims were burned beyond recognition.  Most are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois in a section set aside as Showmen's Rest, marked by large elephant memorials.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

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