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Into the Lions’ Den

Blog post by Randi Richardson

This sketch accompanied the circus announcement published in the Bloomington Evening World on July 26, 1924.  The caption under the sketch noted that the “biggest lion is the one that tried to kill the trainer and the smallest lion is the one that saved its master’s life.”  It was additionally noted that the trainer would enter the cage again at the matinee and evening performance on Saturday.

On Saturday morning, July 26, 1924, a circus train arrived in Bloomington over the Monon railroad pulling cars loaded with performers and animals from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus.  Its journey was a short one, just 25 miles north of Bedford where thousands were entertained under the big top on the previous day.

John Helliott, a 42-year-old lion tamer from Austria, was among the performers.  He had trained lions since he was a boy and had first gained attention by his fearlessness and wonderful control of animals in the Hagenbeck Wild Animal Show at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.  During the course of his career, not surprisingly, he had been badly injured several times.

On Friday, at Bedford, Helliott entered a steel-girded arena filled with ten lions including a surly Nubian named Caesar and a particular favorite named Wayup.  Circus managers had for some time encouraged Helliott to eliminate Caesar from the show.  He had the reputation of a “man eater,” and his disposition was consistently nasty disposition.  Helliott, however, refused to enter the cage until Caesar, “the worst of them all,” was there.  It was his goal to “conquer the beast.”

At first the day seemed like any other.  Helliott was confident as usual as he put the big cats through their paces.  Then without warning and quite accidentally, he stumbled over the toe of one of the lions and fell backwards.  In an instant, Caesar was on top of him and held him in his clutches.  Wayup, whose love for his master was one of the favorite subjects of the circus, immediately made a furious leap upon Caesar giving Helliott a brief chance to escape as Caesar turned to face his attacker.  Helliott, who retained a presence of mind gained only through experience, drew his revolver and emptied all of the blank cartridges in Caesar’s face.

Pandemonium reigned as the other lions, maddened by the sight of the fray, roared and engaged in a general fight, only being kept from the prostrate trainer by the vigilance of Helliott’s fellow workers.  With steel hooks they jabbed the cats repeatedly while pulling Helliott from the arena.  Henry B. Gentry, a Bloomington showman, saw the attack and later described the scene as the most thrilling of his 40 years as a showman.

Meanwhile women screamed and the entire audience arose.  Children made a mad scramble for the exits.  For a moment, panic seemed imminent.  Then coolness and quick work on the part of employees succeeded in holding the crowd in check.

Undoubtedly, Helliott sustained injuries, but the severity of those injuries remains a matter of question.  As news of the incident spread throughout the state and far beyond, the reports varied widely.  According to the Bloomington Evening World published the day after the event, Helliot was “not badly hurt.  His shirt was only torn off.”  By contrast, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune on July 28 indicated that Helliott was “terribly injured” with severe lacerations about the chest and arms that required him to stay in the Dunn Memorial Hospital for an indefinite time.  A week later the Santa Ana (CA) Daily Evening Register also noted that Helliott was confined in a hospital due to his arms and chest being badly torn by Caesar.

Circus history confirms that Helliott was confined in a hospital for an unspecified period of time.  According to the Bloomington Evening World, however, Helliott put his lions “through their paces” on Saturday as scheduled.  Whatever the truth, Helliott can be believed as a man who flirted with death in the lions’ den and survived.