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The Great Forepaugh Show

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The first circus arrived in Rock Island less than ten years after the city was founded, and since then, each new circus that arrived promised local citizens new wonders unlike anything they had even seen. By the time the Adam Forepaugh Shows came to town in July of 1891, these exaggerated claims seemed impossible to top.

But not for Adam Forepaugh. Advance news releases announced that his show, arriving in four trains of fifty special cars, would not have a mere parade through town, as previous shows had done; the Forepaugh Shows would demonstrate a "free public display of processional splendor." All 1,200 employees, 200 performers, 400 horses and 200 rare animals would pass by in tableaus wherever telephone lines were high enough to let them pass.

What reality could match this level of hype? And it is true that the performance in the tent on the afternoon of July 15th might have been a letdown, had it not been for the last act. At 4:30, as the packed audience was filing out of the show tent toward the menagerie tent, a young man in his twenties, in a brown derby hat, with a look of terror on his face, suddenly shouted "Get back, for God's sake! Run for your lives, there is a lion loose in this tent."

Fortunately, there were enough level heads in the crowd to calm things down after a few minutes before anyone was hurt in the stampede. Only then did many of the ladies present discover their purses and jewelry missing. Pickpockets had made fast work of the few minutes of confusion. The young man may have been one of them.

But if the crowd did not stampede, the rumors did. By late that same evening, houses, bars, businesses, and street corners were full of accounts of the lion cage collapsing, freeing lions to eat several people, eyewitness accounts of the elephant stampede which killed a number of citizens, and a complete list of the names of all the ladies who had fainted in the melee.

After that kind of excitement, what could any future circus heading for Rock Island possibly have to offer?

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.