Elephants, camels, lions, tigers and bears—oh my! Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the circus regularly came to Haverhill, and there was always a parade of circus performers, elephants and circus wagons that wound its way through downtown. It was a free show for the local residents to get them interested in coming to the circus. The parade ended at the circus grounds on River Street, near where the Smith Mercedes-Benz dealership is now located. Most people don’t realize that back then River Street ended at Maxwell Street, just before what is now the Jaffarian auto dealership. Those circus grounds were also home to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on 13 occasions, giving local residents many chances to see such prominent personalities as “Wild Bill” Hickok, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo, and “real” cowboys from the American West.
Long before the days of television and
motion-picture stars, circus performers were celebrities. There was a mystery and glamor about them. Is it any wonder that many of us, while growing up, threatened our parents about running away and joining the circus? I know I did, but it was usually after being disciplined for some mischief I had gotten into.
While many of us may have wanted to join the circus, one Haverhill resident, Helen “Gert” Swasey (1855–1934), actually did. Her story could be the basis for a Hollywood movie. She ran away from home, became a well-known circus star, and then fell on hard times late in life, after her money ran out.
According to Legendary Locals of Haverhill, by Christopher P. and Nancy S. Oberti, Gert was well known around Haverhill, as she loved to ride her horse and was often seen galloping around town. She went to Bradford Academy but was not happy being in school. Upon learning that any student who married would be expelled, she got married. The marriage lasted all of an hour. Her parents probably had the marriage annulled, as she was only 16 years old. They sent her to live with some aunts in Illinois, and while there, Gert saw an ad for circus performers. She ran off to Chicago and began working for various circuses, including Barnum & Bailey. Her experience with horses paid off, as she was an expert bareback rider and trained her horses to perform many stunts, including jumping through a ring of fire. Within a few years she was a star attraction in Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth and was paid as much as $20,000 per year. That’s not a large sum by today’s standards, but it was worth about $500,000 in today’s money.
As the beautiful and glamorous star aged, Gert found herself being pushed out by younger performers. She left the circus and returned to Haverhill to care for her dying father and tend to legal matters regarding his estate. Those legal matters apparently drained her fortune. With no income and her money gone, Gert took any job she could find, including scrubbing floors. She lived in squalid conditions in a two-room apartment near the railroad tracks on Washington Avenue. The once-famous circus star became known late in life for harboring stray cats and dogs. When she passed away, in 1934, Gert had no family, so the City of Haverhill paid to have her buried alongside her parents in Linwood Cemetery.
The Swasey name, however, continues to live on in Haverhill, as the city purchased 14 acres of land from the Swasey family in 1909 for what would become Swasey Field.