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The traveling circus was a staple of small-town life on the Delmarva Peninsula in the early 1900s. Here are three stories that show just how strange things could get with those shows and their performers.

Circus Act #1! The brawl in Seaford, Del., 1908 (with flying snakes!)

You’ve seen old Westerns, right? The ones with scenes where two guys start fighting in a tavern and before you know it 50 guys are doing battle and the brawl spills out into the streets of town. No one expected that to happen when the Queen and Crescent Circus arrived in Seaford, Del. on a May day in 1908, but …

According to an article in the Seaford Democratic Messenger the fracas started with a misunderstanding. The circus had a bareback rider named Mademoiselle Levere. Busy with her horse she asked a local man named Charlie Jones to buy her some whiskey.

Charlie returned with the whiskey, but there was a misunderstanding. Apparently, Mademoiselle Levere expected that the gentleman from Seaford would buy that drink for her. The gentleman from Seaford expected the bareback rider to, uh, pony up.

Their discussion got hot. Someone did something to spook the horse, which then threw  Mademoiselle Levere to the ground. All heck broke loose. Circus performers came to Mademoiselle Levere’s aid. Locals sided with Charlie Jones. Many of those locals were drunk. The brawl was on.

The Seaford side got the best of the fight. The circus performers retreated. In an effort to keep the local drunks at bay, a snake charmer threw all of his snakes into the advancing crowd.

It’s not clear how, but the circus performers either knew or learned while retreating that the Seaford City Council was meeting that night. The circus stars made a mad dash for council chambers, bursting into the meeting to demand protection from the drunks of Seaford.

There was no mention of serious injuries in that Democratic Messenger article, but the unrest in of Seaford apparently continued for quite some time to come: “The streets were paraded until after midnight by the mob, and not until early this morning was order restored.”

Circus Act #2: The seasick elephant of Harborton, Va.

Steamboat Docked at Harborton Va 1934 from Eastern Shore Public LibraryThere is a photo here from the collection of the Eastern Shore Public Library that shows a steamboat docked at the wharf in Harborton, Va. in 1934. I have no detailed information about the photo, so the chances are slim that it was taken on Oct. 19 of that year, which is the day steamboat passengers had a rather eventful ride, according to the Richmond News Leader newspaper.

HEADLINE: Sick Elephant
SUBHEAD: Ferry Turns Back As Animal Charges About in Boat

“Seasickness is never exactly welcome, but when an elephant gets seasick there is something stirring indeed.

“After giving shows [on Virginia’s Eastern Shore], a circus started to cross the Chesapeake Bay on the ferry from Harborton to Deltaville. Soon after the boat left Harborton, the elephant was taken sick and began charging around. The situation became so exciting that the ferry had to turn back and deposit the circus on land again.

The crossing was successfully negotiated on the next trip of the ferry, without additional ‘mal de mer’ afflicting the elephant.”

Circus Act #3: The Black Lion Tamer from Milford, Del.

You know that saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction?” It’s bound to come to mind in learning about the famous lion-tamer who performed under the stage name of “Ledger Delmonico.” Newspapers all over Europe hawked his shows and sang his praises in the late 1800s.

Snake Charmers for Seaford Circus Riot

Snake Charmers!

What does this European circus star have to do with the Delmarva Peninsula? In a short autobiography, Ledger Delmonico wrote that he was born in Milton, Del. The meticulous historian Phil Martin, who specializes in all things Milton, has looked into this story. So has Lyn Brown, a Brit who discovered while doing genealogy that this lion tamer was a great-great-grandfather.

The tale they spin is a wild one. Ledger Delmonico was the stage name of one Joseph Ledger. Martin couldn’t locate a record in Sussex County of Ledger’s birth, but such records are often incomplete for blacks in slavery times. Martin asks a logical question: Why would a European celebrity make up Milton as a birthplace? It seems so unlikely to be a lie that it’s probably true.

Martin and Brown’s educated guess is that Ledger was born about 1841, probably to free black parents. He probably moved with his family to Philadelphia when he was a young boy. In that autobiography Ledger spins a wild tale—almost certainly false—about how his father was a dealer in exotic wild animals and introduced his son to the joys of taking safaris through Africa.

Ledger also mentions serving in the Civil War—and that’s probably closer to the truth. Most likely he was not a soldier, but some sort of an aide to an all-white Union Army regiment headed by a German-born general, Mordecai “Max” Einstein. Gen. Einstein eventually got booted from that post, but President Lincoln later appointed him to serve as “Consul General” (a sort of ambassador) in Nuremberg, Germany.

The theory here is that when Einstein returned to Europe he brought Ledger with him in some sort of servant capacity. This was the early 1860s. Family legend over in Europe says that Ledger trained under a man named Carl Hagenbeck, but Hagenbeck wasn’t a lion tamer at all—he ran a business buying and selling exotic animals.

Somehow, Ledger Delmonico also started associating with Gottlieb Kreutzberg, who owned a traveling “menagerie” of exotic animals and performed throughout Europe. In fact, Ledger seems to have stolen the heart of Kreutzberg’s daughter—there is a record of the couple’s marriage in England in 1866. They would have four children.

Ledger Delmonico 1875 Poster

An 1875 promotional poster for Ledger Delmonico

There are lots of old posters and newspaper articles that mention Ledger Delmonico the lion-tamer. He says in his autobiography that he performed before many kings and other royal personages—and that might be true. As far as Martin and Brown can tell, Ledger Delmonico’s first performance was in 1866, his last in 1891. At various points during his career, Ledger Delmonico performed with lions, tigers, hyenas, and even zebras. The newspaper report on his last performance talks of him being “badly torn and bitten” when a lion sprang at him during a rehearsal.

Joseph Ledger, aka Ledger Delmonico, died on July 30, 1901 in Hampshire County, England. His journey from slavery times in Milford to international fame in Europe lasted 59 years.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the twists and turns here, here is Mr. Martin’s story about Joseph Ledger. History buffs be warned: You might end up spending quite a bit of time reading other pieces on Mr. Martin’s “Blogger on the Broadkill” site.

–posted by Jim Duffy in October 2023 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Thank you for spending time with this piece and on this site. If you’re so inclined you can show a little appreciation by buying one of my books and simply dropping a little something in The Tip Jar.

NOTE: I have one more wild-and-crazy circus story on this site, an excerpt from one of my books titled “The Day an Elephant Tromped Through Saxis, Virginia.”

One Comment

  • John Somers says:

    Speaking of elephants and circuses, don’t forget the time in WWII that future president George Bush, flying low over Crisfield in an effort to impress his girlfriend, stampeded a circus elephant.

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