The Ringling Brothers Circus crisscrossed the middle of the country several times in 1897. They brought a full day of entertainment to large and small towns across the plains from Montana to Minnesota. If residents were up bright and early, they would see the circus arriving in town and unloading everything needed to put on the show. As workers began putting up tents, booths, and cages for the animals, the performers parade through town, drumming up business for the afternoon and evening shows under the big top. By 10:00 a.m, the performers and animals would arrive back at the circus grounds to see the majority of the tents up and everyone preparing for the afternoon show at 2:00 p.m.
On June 10, however, heavy rain and severe weather were rolling through Wahpeton, North Dakota. Many worried that the show might be delayed if the workers couldn’t get the tents set up in time. The wind was so fierce that workers called for anyone around to help them hoist the big top. As 22 men pulled with all their might, lightning struck one of the main poles.
Everyone in the vicinity was knocked to the ground, some stunned, others unconscious. As word spread around the circus grounds about the incident, everyone rushed to help. Although most were able to walk away, several others were severely injured. Two men, Charles Smith (age unknown) and Charles Walters (age 26), were killed instantly.
The weather cleared, and the afternoon show went on as planned. After the show, the two dead men were buried nearby at Riverside Cemetery, with everyone from the circus and many residents in attendance. After the evening performance, the circus packed up and moved on to their next show in Fergus Falls. The deaths of the two men barely made the news outside of Wahpeton.
Circus workers pooled their money and covered the funeral expenses for the men and purchased a memorial marker for their graves. The monument is a replica of a shattered center pole adorned with the ropes, chains, and tools used to raise the tent that day. The names of the two men were carved into the base. It was placed over their graves on September 29, 1897.
Charles Miller – one of the men found unconscious after the lightning strike – died shortly after the season ended from the injuries he sustained on June 10, 1897. He’s buried elsewhere.
In 1948, Herbert “Duke” Joseph Walker – a worker with the Daily Brothers Circus – died while the circus was in Wahpeton. This time it wasn’t an accident; it was a ruptured appendix that killed Duke. He was buried next to the Ringling Brothers monument before the circus moved on to their next show.
Interested in learning more about the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1897? Take a look at their route book. It shows all of the performers, some of the workers, the towns where they performed, and a lot more.