Thieves, Pickpockets, and Sex: The Dark Side of Circus Life

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While today we think of the circus as something fun, colorful, and family-oriented, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, before the Progressive Era, the circus was considered adult entertainment and not very savory entertainment at that. Even in later years, Hollywood liked to portray the circus as a place filled with vice and crime. For example, the film noir Nightmare Alley (the 1947 version, not the 2021 version) opens with a view of some typical circus side shows with thieves lurking in the crowds and a swindling spiritualist. The police suddenly raid the circus, making accusations of soliciting crime and claiming one of the performers’ costumes is indecent (as defined by the standards of the 1940s). Of course, the circus manager has an explanation for everything, but the police order them to move to another town anyway.

The circus worked hard to clean up its act (no pun intended) in the 20th century. The circus in America really began in the 18th century and for two centuries, was considered the place for crime, vice, and sexual titillation. Circuses were rumored to have made deals with pickpockets who roamed the crowd and then gave the circus manager a cut of whatever they got. Men could come and ogle women in tights and leotards in eras where women kept their entire bodies covered and even a curvacious table leg could be considered risque. There were rumors of prostitution, though there is no evidence that this actually occurred. 

This cartoon is taken from a book called Peck’s Bad Boy at the Circus by George W. (Wilbur). According to the caption, the boy Peck’s father is run out of the circus by the police because he was caught standing behind the lion’s cage creating the animal’s roar when the lion had a sore throat. This is an example of how even in the early 20th century, circuses were still seen as dishonest places that were always trying to swindle the public.

Photo Credit: Image from page 108 of “Peck’s bad boy with the circus [microform]” by George W (Wilbur), 1907, University of California Libraries: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr/ CC0 1.0 Universal

Circuses started to reassess their image in the late 19th century and move toward the more family-oriented entertainment we know today. Circus managers became very strict about things like drinking and men and women socializing together. They included more children-friendly acts such as animals and clowns. The more adult entertainment moved away to the side shows rather than the main circus tent. 

Why did the circuses change their image in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? First, these eras marked a period of change and reform in America. America had prospered in the Gilded Age but with it came the baggage of greed, corruption, and extravagance. These reformers wanted a cleaner, better America and pushed for reform in the entertainment field as well, including burlesque, vaudeville, and circuses. And second, they changed for the same reason Las Vegas changed in the 1990s: money. This era also was the birth of leisure and family fun and circus managers shrewdly realized, just as the Vegas hotel managers did, that children were a lucrative market they were missing by entertaining only adults. 

Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, which turns a year old this month, is all about the circus. The conflict between the circus as vice and the circus as decent entertainment unfolds within the mystery of the death of the star performer. If you want to grab your copy, you can do so here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Release Day Blitz for Adelel Gossling Mysteries Box Set: Books 1-3!

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Title: Adele Gossling Mysteries Box Set 1: Books 1-3 (Adele Gossling Mysteries Box 

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: November 25, 2023

Can a forward-thinking woman help the police solve crimes in a backward-thinking town?

“Great new series!”

Smart, inquisitive, and a firm believer in Progressive Era reforms, Adele Gossling seeks a new life after the devastating death of her father. She flees San Francisco for the town of Arrojo, planning a life of peace and small pleasures. But both elude her when she and her spiritual sidekick, Nin Branch, get involved in helping the local police solve the case of a dead debutante, a poisoned schoolteacher, and a family matriarch who may or may not have left a generous will.

The Carnation Murder: Adele Gossling has barely been in Arrojo for a week when she discovers her neighbor’s dead body in her gazebo. Can Adele and Nin solve this puzzling case involving a striped carnation, a diamond ring, a note, a muddy pair of boots, and a broken promise?

A Wordless Death: Millie Gibb, the new teacher at the local girl’s school, is found dead and everybody in town assumes the homely, unmarried spinster committed suicide. Can Adele and her clairvoyant friend Nin prove Millie’s death was foul play based on a cigar stub, a letter fragment, and a cigarette lighter before the case is closed for good?

Death at Will: When the affluent Thea Marsh dies unexpectedly, the trail of suspects leads to Thea’s beloved and favored eldest son, Theo. Will Adele make a case against Theo’s guilt for the police out of a stained teacup, a fountain pen nib, ashes that should have been in the fireplace, and daisies that should have been fresh?

Pick up this box set of the first three Adele Gossling Mysteries and immerse yourself in turn-of-the-century Northern California in all its dynamic and chaotic glory for a fun and cozy read!

You can get your copy of this box set at a special price at the following online retailers.


About the Author

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.


Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

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A Safe and Sane 4th of July

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Today is Independence Day in America, also known as the 4th of July. Americans have always been enthusiastic about their freedom, especially when you consider that it’s an integral part of the American philosophy of life. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no exceptions. America was coming into its own during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in commerce, politics, and society. 

But Americans may have carried their enthusiasm a little too far when it comes to Independence Day celebrations. We know the staples of 21st century 4th of July celebrations (before COVID, that is). It’s a social holiday with family BBQs and fireworks to boot. The latter is especially synonymous with Independence Day for most Americans. I’ll never forget the first fireworks display I saw when I was living in San Francisco in 1995. My brother took me to Crissy Field to see the fireworks over the bay. It was a marvelous show of country spirit and dedication.

Photo Credit: Drawing of a skeleton dressed up for the 4th of July celebrations, 1899, lithograph, created by L. Crusius, Welcome Collection: Look and Learn/CC BY 4.0

It’s hard to believe some politicians were pushing for a “quiet” 4th of July in the Progressive Era, encouraging Americans to stay home instead of going out into the streets and celebrating. But they had good reason. Children were going around shooting off toy guns to join in the fun and sometimes their aim wasn’t so careful. Fireworks, as you might imagine, weren’t exactly sophisticated in those days so safety wasn’t a priority. In addition, there were canons, firecrackers, and other explosives people set off that caused injury and even death. And we’re talking serious statics here. In 1903 (the year my Adele Gossling Mysteries opens), more than 400 people died and 4,000 were injured during the nation’s 4th of July celebrations around the country. Many of these came from tetanus as a result of shrapnel wounds from dangerous explosives or careless toy guns.

These well-wishers of what was dubbed the Safe and Sane movement weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. We know many Americans made fun of reform movements taking place in the early 20th century and they resented these politicians who wanted to take away their fun on Independence Day. Many cities began to implement ordinances to try and curtail these dangerous celebrations. In San Francisco (where part of my series takes place) women’s clubs worked to get toy guns out of the hands of kids younger than seventeen.

This movement encouraged other cities to implement more community-related events around the 4th (like the yearly firework display at Crissy Field in San Francisco that I saw in the 1990s). Other events besides fireworks were sports, games, and picnics. These events gave Americans a chance to celebrate the holiday in a social environment that was, well, safe and sane!

Want to see more Progressive Era politics in action? Read the Adele Gossling Mysteries!  Book 1 is now available for free on all vendors. Book 6 will be out in August but you can get it now on preorder at a special price.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The Dispensable Working Girl: Murder at Moose Lake

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Working girls didn’t have it easy in the early 20th century. Employers exploited them shamelessly because they were cheaper labor than men, and they could get them to do the dirtiest work for less money (see my blog post here about the wage gap). They worked long hours in very dangerous conditions for employers who skirted safety laws to save money and had no regard for their workers’ safety. They were, in a sense, dispensable labor, more so even than men.

This was never more obvious than in the rise of crimes against working girls in the early 20th century. There were several cases of working girls who came to a bad end. I was browsing YouTube last year and came upon a miniseries made in 1988 about the murder of Mary Phagan in 1915. In my newsletter last year, I talked about a case in 1908 of a schoolteacher in Upstate New York who was murdered by her former student. There is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy which I wrote about here

Photo Credit: Photo of Grace Brown, date unknown, author unknown: King Rk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

But perhaps the most famous Progressive Era murder of a working girl was the tragedy of Grace Brown. This case became famous for two reasons. First, author Theodore Dreiser was so deeply touched by it that he wrote a fictional account in 1925 under the title An American Tragedy. Second, this story was turned into a film in 1951 that marked the first of three collaborations between lifelong pals Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

The story begins in 1905. Chester Gillette, a young man born to ultra-religious and poor people, took a job at his wealthy uncle’s skirt factory in New York. There he met an attractive girl named Grace Brown. Despite the strict factory rules that working men were not to socialize with their female coworkers, Gillette and Brown had a relationship that ended up with Brown becoming pregnant in 1906. This was still a time when the separate spheres were honored which meant a woman who had a child out of wedlock was shunned and disgraced. To avoid this, Brown wrote letters pleading with Gillette to marry her so she wouldn’t be a social outcast. He avoided responding to her for as long as he could.

Gilette finally agreed to take a trip to Moose Lake in the Adirondacks where Brown thought they would get married or at least engaged. But instead, he took her out on the lake and, knowing she couldn’t swim, made sure she drowned. The case became a sensation as Gillette was caught, tried, and convicted in 1908 and died by the electric chair.

The sixth book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, The Case of the Dead Domestic, is also based on a case of a disposable working girl in the early 20th century. Rather than factory work, Hazel Drew was a domestic servant, and her death, unlike Mary Phagan’s and Grace Brown’s, remains unsolved. If you want to find out all about this unsolved classic true crime (and how it inspired one of the 1990s hit TV series), consider signing up for my newsletter here, as I’ll be doing a series of emails all about this case before the book comes out in August. Plus, you’ll get a free book as a gift just for signing up!

And you can preorder The Case of the Dead Domestic at a special price here

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The Vague Origins of Father’s Day

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Today is Father’s Day in the United States. If Father’s Day sometimes seems like an afterthought, it sort of was, though not because fathers aren’t worthy of honor. I trace this back to the residue of the 19th century separate spheres where home and family brought up images of mothers more than fathers. So we can understand in this light why Mother’s Day gets a lot of attention.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little uncertain. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that is thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, mainly wanting to commemorate her own father. Dodd’s father had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened two years earlier, in West Virginia when a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who had been killed in a local mining explosion.

But official lobbying and support were slow in coming. National political figures such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge supported a national Father’s Day, but it didn’t get much traction. Lobbying for a Father’s Day continued, and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Why was Father’s Day almost an afterthought? As they say, follow the money. Mother’s Day was a commercially viable holiday from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th centuries was more of a disciplinarian. The sentimentality given to mothers seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis of the Gilded Age. 

Talk about famous fathers! This photo is of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and his three kids. He doesn’t look much like a disciplinarian dad here, does he?

Photo Credit: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his three children, 1900, Bain News Service, publisher, Library of Congress: Picryl/No known restrictions

Fathers are just as complex as mothers (something I discuss in my blog post about Mother’s Day) and Adele’s father is no exception. Although deceased when the series opens, Otis Gossling still profoundly influences his daughter and his son, Adele’s brother, Jackson, but in very different ways. As a highly-revered San Francisco criminal lawyer, it was his position that gave them their well-to-do standing. But Adele sees him very differently than her brother Jackson. Who is right and who is wrong? You’ll have to read the Adele Gosslng Mysteries to find out! 

And you can start right here with Book 1, The Carnation Murder, which is free on all bookstore platforms. Book 6 is coming out later this summer, so check that out here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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