Gunfight of 1873

According to the Jacksonville Progress, on a cold and bitter day in November of 1873, the Robinson Circus arrived in town. Jacksonville had just moved to its current location where the Great Northern Railroad had laid tracks and erected a train station. The Robinson Circus was world famous and it was a major event for the community.

The circus was a large production compared to those that visit our city today. One of the most famous spectacles throughout the Robinson circus’s run was entitled “Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.” This colossal production had a cast of at least three hundred, with one hundred girls dancing in the ballet alone. This period piece at the start of the production was a prime opportunity to introduce the exotic camels, lions, elephants, tigers, and other animals that were to be showcased later. Trapeze artists, jugglers, tightrope walkers and acrobats filled the rings.

Regrettably, it appears that some of our local residents had been warming themselves at the local bar when they decided to visit the show site. The locals had some uncomplimentary words for the circus personnel erecting the tents. Then, when the show was set to open, a few made themselves comfortable in the circus ring where the trained horses performed. When the horses were brought into the ring the unruly group refused to move, forcing circus personnel to remove them.

The group retreated to their local watering hole (probably the Two Brothers Baår) where more drinking convinced a now larger group that an injustice had been done. A decision was made to issue a complaint against the circus manager, a man named DeVere. A local judge issued a warrant and the group went looking for the manager. DeVere was hidden by his employees and could not be found. The owner of the circus, fearing that cooler heads would not prevail, ordered the circus packed up and taken to the railroad loading area. There they were met by a mob of local men who tried to stop them. Things continued to spiral out of control. As the loading of the circus wagons was taking place, a shot was fired. The shot was so close to a circus employee that the powder burned his face. This set off a full scale melee of more shooting, fighting, and a lot of vocal threats.

The circus employees had had enough and chased the mob into the business area of Jacksonville. There the mob probably took shelter in one of the businesses (again probably the Two Brothers Bar) along what is now Commerce Street. They barred the doors as best they could, but the circus hands broke through and the locals fled out the back door.

A full scale riot continued, spilling back down towards the rail yard. A circus hand was stabbed in the back, a Jacksonville resident fired his shotgun at the circus men, but missed and killed a circus animal, a circus man poured a buck of coal oil on a store and threatened to light it and burn down the whole town unless the local citizens backed down.

The circus finally got everything loaded and pulled out of town headed towards Houston, but that was not the end of it. The remains of a brick rail trestle can still be seen at the south end of town, just past of the Arron’s store at 1703 South Jackson. It was probably here that the locals mounted another attack, shooting at the train and wounding a circus hand. The train finally sped out of range of the locals guns.