The Wahpeton Circus Grave

At Riverside Cemetery in the North Dakota city of Wahpeton, one grave marker towers above the others. At first glance, the strange monument appears to be a crooked, misshapen obelisk, but as you walk closer it becomes evident that it is something else entirely-- a splintered pole, draped in rope and chains.

The names carved into the stone are those of two young men, Charles Walters and Charles Smith, who died on the same day in 1897. It now becomes clear this grave marker memorializes some awful tragedy. Up close, the monument resembles the shattered mast of a ship, but what are the chances of a shipwreck on the North Dakota prairie? If you ask one of the locals, they'll tell you that the monument is a granite replica of a circus tent pole, and the men buried here were two unfortunate laborers with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

On the morning of June 10, the canvas crew of the Ringling Brothers Circus had just begun erecting the main tent when the skies darkened over Wahpeton. One of the laborers was Eddie Williams, a 12-year-old local boy who was helping to hoist the main tent in exchange for a free ticket. Rain began to pour as Eddie and the boys struggled with the heavy canvas. To lighten the weight, foreman Charles Walters ordered the workers to cut holes out of the canvas.

"I was pulling on the rope when one fellow pushed me aside and said, 'This is a man's work'," related Williams in 1960. A moment later, a bolt of lightning sizzled across the sky, striking the tent pole and knocking a dozen workers to the ground. The man who had pushed Eddie aside and took his place was a roustabout named Charles Smith. Smith, along with foreman Charles Walters, were killed instantly when the lightning shattered the pole. A third canvasman would due later of his injuries. Relatives claimed the body of the third victim, Charles Miller, but no one could find anyone who was related to Walters and Smith, so they were buried later that afternoon in the tiny graveyard in Wahpeton, which at the time was known as the Bohemian Graveyard.

As the saying goes, "the show must go on", and the circus performed just hours after the tragedy. Though every clown and acrobat's heart was filled with sorrow, they put on a good show, but the June 10 performance came with an added bonus-- a double funeral, the likes of which Wahpeton had never seen.

Since circusfolk are a tight-knit group, no expense was spared for the funeral; the Knights of Pythias fraternal order attended in full regalia while seven thousand guests looked on, and the circus workers took up a collection for a monument, raising $400. The monument which stands today was copied from a black and white photograph that had been taken immediately after the tragedy, and is astonishingly accurate in detail. Every rope, chain and pulley has been carved in painstaking detail, and one can even trace the path of the deadly bolt in the splintered granite pole.

The circus has always played a big part in the history of Wahpeton, which was an early railroad hub on the edge of the western frontier. Over the years, virtually every major circus stopped at Wahpeton. Sometimes rival circuses would stop in the city at the same time, leading to the occasional fracas. In 1894, for instance, advance men posting bills for the Forepaugh Circus ran into bill posters from the Lehman Brothers' Circus. A lively melee ensued, and one of the local newspapers reported that "several of the men were so badly hurt that they can't leave town, and it was found necessary to draft a large force of extra police to preserve order".

Rival circuses weren't averse to brawling with each other, but, overall, carnies and circusfolk stick together like one big (albeit dysfunctional) family. Over the years, the "circus grave" at Riverside Cemetery became a shrine, visited by performers whenever a carnival or circus train pulled into Wahpeton, and it remains so to this day.