Dayton’s street carnivals: dancing girls, scary beasts and monkey feet

The bizarre and the whimsical can be found in captivating images of street carnivals that entertained the Gem City at the turn of the century.

Two carnival elephants were photographed bathing in the Miami and Erie canal in 1899. Two men sit astride a camel drawing a small crowd of curious onlookers and a bear, standing on its hind legs wearing a flowered hat and skirt, are among the vintage images.

The early scenes seem somewhat curious today as does an advertisement in the Dayton Daily News for the Elks Carnival, “the biggest carnival ever attempted,” with “absolutely no immoral features,” published May 31, 1902.

A story accompanying the ad, written by F.P. Sargent, a representative of the Gaskell-Mundy Carnival Co., claimed street carnivals originated in Dayton in 1899.

“That street carnivals have come to stay is a fact that no one can dispute,” he wrote. “Some people go so far as to say that they will in time take the place of the circus.”

The weeklong 1902 Elks Carnival, billed as the “biggest event ever held in the city,” had more than a dozen acts. “Every act a feature. Every feature a novelty,” declared Sargent who detailed the acts: “Kilpatrick,” the famous one-legged bicycle rider, took a “death defying” trip down an inclined stairway 110 feet long. He also entertained crowds with the “cycle dazzle,” an act that included four riders flying around a miniature track.

Crowds watched performing ponies, dogs and monkeys. “These little equine and canine actors can do everything but talk,” wrote Sargent.

A new act, the International Congress of Dancing Girls, replaced the unrefined Koochee dancers of the past and visitors admired a “troupe of Royal English Gypsies, a very picturesque and interesting race of people who are very nearly extinct.”

The “Wild Rose,” was a “peculiar freak,” according to the account. “She is a girl about 15 years of age, perfect in stature, with the exception of the head and hands and feet which are those of a monkey.”

The carnival’s show stopper, according to Sargent, was “Sultano, the queen of the jungle, the largest, handsomest and most ferocious lioness ever taken into captivity” who had “killed 17 men, and maimed two for life.”

Nevertheless, the heroic Major P.J. Mundy entered her den four times a day, risking his life. “There is not a life insurance company in the United States that will accept Major Mundy as a risk, and after you see him enter Sultano’s cage you will be able to understand why.”

The Elks carnival took place downtown in Cooper Park. The carnival pitchman wrapped up his story with an irresistible proclamation.

“In conclusion, I will say that all of the attractions booked for the Elks Carnival for the week of June 2 are the very best that brains and money could possibly get together.

“And with good weather during that week the Dayton Lodge of Elks will present before the public of Dayton a solid week of amusement never before presented in the State of Ohio.”

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