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Circus disasters

by Tom Dillard | March 20, 2016 at 2:19 a.m.

While growing up in the rugged Ouachita Mountains of Montgomery County, I heard stories about a circus truck wreck in 1951 which had set loose several large carnivores. The stories were generally told in a jocular manner, but the escape of the animals was the second disaster to strike the circus in two days, a child having been killed in the first incident.

The circus was an important form of entertainment in Arkansas, going back to 1838 when the Waterman Circus raised its tent in Batesville--only two years after Arkansas became a state. The creation of a railroad system in the late 1800s allowed larger circuses to visit Arkansas' major cities, but smaller circuses continued to travel the state, performing even in tiny hamlets.

One of these smaller companies was the Campa Brothers Circus from Texas. On Tuesday evening, Oct. 30, 1951, as it was finishing a tour of western Arkansas prior to returning to winter quarters in Texas, the circus performed in Mena, the county seat of Polk County near the Oklahoma border. As the local Mena Star reported the next morning, "tragedy stalked the circus in Mena . . . when a 9-year-old Mexican girl performer was fatally clawed and chewed by a half-grown lion cub . . ."

Newspapers throughout the country reported the grim news. The Mena Star told a chilling story: "Sheriff Hobart Hensley, who was attending the night showing . . . heard the girl scream outside the main tent and investigated and found the lion had dragged the little girl under a truck and had the back of her neck in his mouth. Circus attendants beat the animal with clubs and poles, but the girl was not released until the lion trainer forced the brute's mouth open with a stick."

The girl, Maria de la Campa, was rushed to the Polk County Memorial Hospital where she died 30 minutes later. The child was the daughter of two tightrope performers who had a total of 13 children. The girl's funeral was held the next morning at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Mena. According to the Mena newspaper, "Although the family was not acquainted in Mena, much interest was shown by local residents who sent flowers, and attended the funeral service."

Even before the funeral, most of the circus departed Mena, bound for Mount Ida, the county seat of neighboring Montgomery County, where it was scheduled to perform that evening. The circus owner and business manager stayed behind because they had been charged with negligent homicide. Those charges were dropped a few hours after the funeral when it was established that the lion had not been running loose as first reported, but was chained to a truck. Alas, this was not the end of problems facing the circus owners.

A cold rain was falling when the circus departed Mena before sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 31, in a convoy of trucks. The downpour worsened as the convoy wound its way southward on Highway 270, and at about 7:30 a.m. one of the vehicles turned over, freeing a number of exotic animals.

Initial reports said the escaped animals included the lion which killed the Campa girl; however, that was an error. But the truth was scary enough since the escapees included a huge polar bear, two black bears, and two leopards, as well as a few monkeys. A passing bus driver reported that the polar bear had been injured.

Unfortunately for the animals, Montgomery County was then, as it is today, home to a multitude of heavily armed hunters. Sheriff Wilburn Tidwell of Mount Ida organized a large posse to track down the beasts. It seems that no effort was made to capture the animals alive, although one of the black bears was quickly retrieved by his handler. Later in the day the circus owners did offer a $200 reward for the capture of the polar bear, which was valued at $800.

The first animal killed, a leopard, was shot within 150 yards of the accident site when it appeared on the roadway around 3 p.m. the day of the wreck. State Trooper Clarence Montgomery and posse members John Dunaway of Pencil Bluff and Lem Chambers of Oden "loosed a volley which killed him instantly," according to the Arkansas Gazette.

The most dramatic confrontation involved a single hunter, Roiston Fair, who used two dogs to track down the remaining leopard. One of Fair's dogs, "a game little cur," was killed during the confrontation. Though shot three times, the leopard charged Fair--who "used his rifle as a club and finished off the wounded leopard," breaking the bolt-action rifle.

The fate of the polar bear was not known for three weeks. Math Singleton, "a stockman living near Oden," dispatched the great white bear with a single shot two days after the wreck. Singleton generously shared the polar bear meat, so it is not difficult to find people who tasted the meat, including my late brother-in-law, Wayne A. Hopper of Pencil Bluff, who recalled it as being tough.

Another Pencil Bluff resident, Billy John Ballentine, recently told me the meat was not only tough but had an exceedingly strong taste. "It was the sorriest meat I ever put in my mouth," he drawled.


Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 03/20/2016

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