Thursday, October 31, 2013


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So here is a sad story.  It’s a very interesting story, but still, quite sad.  It took place in Riverside, California in 1908. 

On the morning of April 16 of that year, the Sells-Floto Circus arrived in town via the railroad.  Stopping in an area just northeast of town, the area filled with people watching the circus set up.    The first event of the day was a parade of all the costumed performers, caged and uncaged animals and the circus band at the head of the line.  Into the town it went, and then it circled back to finish setting up.  Between the band and the calliope there was music everywhere, and the townsfolk were excited about this year’s event.

Sells-Floto Circus was lucky enough to have six trained elephants in their menagerie: Old Mom, Trilby, Floto, Snyder, Alice and Frieda.  In the parade they carried banners advertising local businesses. 

While it seemed like the whole city had turned out for the parade, there were still plenty of businessmen who had jobs to tend to and chores to complete.  One of these was a deliveryman who had a tank on his delivery wagon and he needed to fill it with gas.  This wagon was pulled by four horses.  His first stop of the day was at the Standard Oil Company storage yard, which was about a block southwest of the circus grounds. 

Leonidas J. Worsley, a 62 year old Civil War Veteran and resident of Riverside, was refilling his delivery tank with distillate when there was a sudden explosion and fuel shot out all over Worsley and his wagon.  Fire followed and quickly spread to the storage yard.  The blast set the horses running toward the empty lot over by the circus tents and it tossed Worsley on the ground about 20 feet away.  People nearby ran to help Worsley; about all they could do was to roll him in the dirt to put out the flames.  He was alive, but horribly burned.  He was put in a wagon and immediately was taken to County Hospital.  He died of his burns an agonizing three days later.

In the meantime, the horses were caught and separated from the burning wagon.  Some embers set a few small fires around the circus grounds but they were quickly put out.   It would still be an interesting story if this were the end of it. 

But it went on.

After the parade, two of the elephants (Old Mom and Trilby) had been put to work moving the crates and other storage items to a corner of the lot.  The four remaining elephants had been “staked to the ground in a picket line.”  The big animals sensed the danger and one by one the four elephants, “trumpeting, twirling and pulling…pulled their stakes from the ground and fled…” Hoping to find and calm the elephants, the elephant handlers took Old Mom and Trilby with them as they headed out to capture the marauding beasts.  Three of them were fairly easily caught, but Floto was enraged and he led them on a not-so-merry chase.

To make a long story short, he saw a woman alone on a front porch and he headed for her.  She tried to get inside the house, but the door was locked.  Floto lumbered up the stairs, head-butted her, picked her up with his trunk and then threw her down on the ground, after which he stomped on her.  She didn’t die then but by 9 p.m. that evening she was dead.  The elephant proceeded to run amok through the streets of downtown Riverside, trashing everything he could see.  He tore up the barbershop in the Mission Inn, destroyed a camera shop, a music shop, broke a horse’s leg, tore up fences and trees and finally found himself in a stable.  From there he was trapped.  The handlers caught up with him and after more than an hour they were able to calm him enough to lead him back to the circus grounds.

Amazingly, the circus was able to give the evening performance and the town settled back to normalcy.  The circus had an insurance representative with them and he settled all the claims, including burial costs for the lady killed by the elephant to everyone’s satisfaction.  Within a few days, the circus packed up, loaded back onto the train and chugged off to their next booked event.

End of story.

Being a good, snoopy genealogist, I have already learned what more there is to know about poor Leonidas J. Worsley, who he married, his child’s name and his grandson’s name.  I also know that he was buried in a local cemetery, although the death date on the stone is off by one year.  When my life slows down a little bit I’m going to make a trip down to that cemetery and get a snapshot of his stone to add to the Findagrave posting.

I learned about this story from a fine article researched by Aaron Maggs and Allison Maggs and published in the Journal of the Riverside Historical Society.  They did a beautiful job of documenting the tale and as I read their Notes, which is where they show their sources, as late as 1988 the story had been written up in the local newspaper.  Although this is not a “good” story, it IS an interesting one.  I wonder if many Riverside residents know about it now?

You wonder what my interest is in all this?  Aside from it being a very interesting run of events, I had a distant relative, Traber Norman Dobbins, grandson of my great-grandpa James Sellers Dobbins, who played clarinet in the Sells Floto Circus, though many years after this above episode happens.  And learning about all the traveling circuses that criss-crossed the country before the biggies of my own childhood -  Clyde Beatty, Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers - did was a big surprise to me.  These circuses came by train, too, and many times before I was even a teenager I watched the circus train pull in just north of the interesection of Cherry and Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, California, and unload everything -- just like the Sells-Floto had been doing for years.