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Circus was dangerous 100 years ago

Madera County Historical Society 100 years ago Deputy Sheriff Welton Rhodes confiscated the cash box of a visiting circus to pay for an injury to a Madera lad.


For more than 20 years, the Barnes Circus delighted the young and old in Madera, but 1918 was special. Little 10-year-old Charlie Smith was going to get to see the circus free; they gave him a job to earn his ticket.

Charlie’s duty was to carry metal stakes to the workmen who would then drive them into the ground and set up the tents. Things were going along pretty well until Charlie got a little careless. He set the stake in place, and before he could move his hand, the pounder brought the heavy sledge down on top of the stake. Charlie jerked his hand away, but the sledge hammer got the index finger on his right hand.

They rushed him to Doc Ransom, who did what he could. The finger, however, could not be saved. The case was reported to the circus management, and they were presented with a bill for damages. Everyone was sure the Smith family would be compensated by the insurance company for the accident.

However, two years passed without any word from the circus, so Charlie’s dad, blacksmith C.E. Smith, went to see attorney Joe Barcroft, who in turn filed a claim with the State Industrial Accident Commission. The commission ruled in favor of the Smith claim. Shortly after the commission issued its ruling, Barnes’ Circus returned to Madera in its annual swing through the Valley. It reached town on March 30, 1920 with a huge hoopla. Barnes announced that he was bringing enough wild animals to Madera to start a New York zoo. It was advertised that he had more lions, tigers, zebras, and panthers than any other circus in the world. The press representative of the show asserted Barnes had trained a number of lions and tigers to perform a series of remarkable acts, which would be performed in special barred cages at the risk of the trainers’ lives. “It’s the best and biggest circus on the road today” the promoters claimed.

While the tents were being set up and the food vendors prepared their wares, however, Barnes got a big surprise. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, Sheriff John Barnett and Deputy Sheriff Rhodes drove onto the grounds and went into Barnes’ tent. With very few words, Rhodes picked up the circus owner’s strong box and opened it up. He counted $281.86.

Barnett turned to a chagrined Barnes and informed him that Madera County was placing a hold on the lock box and its contents. The money was being held to satisfy the circus’ unpaid debt to the Smiths, which had been determined by the commission to be $271.14 including medical and legal costs. Barnett reminded Barnes that for more than a year the local authorities have been chasing his circus around from one town to another with the paperwork in an attempt to satisfy the judgement. In every instance, however, they were always too late, or something happened that prevented the collection of the money.

At that point, Barcroft had gone to work. He learned that Barnes was scheduled to bring his circus back to Madera again in March of 1920, so he prepared the necessary papers and gave them to Sheriff Barnett. When the lawman saw the circus come to town, he gave them a day or two and then paid Barnes his visit.

Barnes said he intended to fight the case on the grounds that the judgement was faulty. It had been issued against the A. O. Barnes Circus, but the show had changed its official name to the A. G. Barnes Amusement Company. That argument, of course, did not hold water.

In the meantime, Sheriff Barnett put the money in the County vault for safe keeping and said he would not turn loose of it until ordered to do so by the courts. In a few days, he got his orders. The judgment, which had been rendered by the Industrial Accident Commission of California against the A. G. Barnes Circus in favor of Charles Smith, son of C. E. Smith, the local blacksmith, was filed in Madera County. Judgement for the injury received by the Smith boy gave Dr. Ransom the sum of $26.50 for medical attention and C. E. Smith, as guardian of the boy, the sum of $244.64. Attorney Joe Barcroft got $20 for his trouble.

So Barnes had to come up with another $9.28 to satisfy the judgement, but it is doubtful it pained him to pay. He must have made a haul in the 1920 season, for he was back several times in the next few years.

Actually, the only real loser was little Charlie Smith who wound up minus a finger, but let’s not forget, he did get into the circus free.


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