Of all the circuses that traveled the country in the early 20th century, only the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus could rival the popularity and fame of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Unfortunately, a series of calamities (such as the infamous Hammond Circus Trainwreck of 1918, which claimed eighty-six lives) led to financial struggles, causing the circus to change ownership, passing from the hands of Benjamin Wallace to Ed Ballard, and then to Jeremiah Mugivan and Bert Bowers (of Sells-Floto Circus fame) and, later, to John Nicholas Ringling. The Great Depression delivered the final blow to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and the circus ceased operations in 1938.
While circus historians have written much about the Hammond train wreck, one minor tragedy in the history of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was documented by only a handful of Pennsylvania newspapers, such as the following article which appeared in the Williamsport Sun -Gazette on June 17, 1913. It is the sad story of a young acrobat who drowned in Lycoming Creek.
Circus Acrobat Lost Life in Lycoming Creek
Thirteen-Year-Old Member of Moroccoan Troupe Drowned While Bathing
While enjoying a bath in the waters of the Lycoming creek together with eight of his companions and fellow countrymen, Selam Ben Abdellah, the 13-year-old Moroccoan and member of the Moroccoan troupe, which performed with the Hagenbeck and Wallace circus, was drowned last evening about 7:30 o'clock, just preparatory to the evening performance.
Selam, with the other members of the troupe, went to the creek below the trolley bridge about 7 o'clock, and were enjoying themselves in the water. Selam and one of his companions, while skylarking, accidentally walked into a hole and before his companions, who like Selam could not swim, were able to reach him he had sunk to the bottom. Robert Shultz found him about 15 minutes after he had gone down. Together with two of the circus hands he carried the body to the banks of the creek where every effort was made to restore respiration but with no avail.
The body was removed to the dressing room tent and there was later taken in charge by Coroner A.F. Hardt. It was taken to the undertaking establishment of Gage & Redmond where it was embalmed and made ready for shipment at the instructions of the members of the troupe.
Selam was an acrobat and has lately been employed with the Hagenbeck and Wallace circus. He performed with the troupe yesterday afternoon and was probably the most noticeable of the troupe because of his youth and dark curly hair. He was among the many circus people who bathed in the Lycoming creek on Sunday afternoon.
Some of the hardships of the circus life was shown last evening when not more than one-half hour after their companion and fellow worker had drowned the rest of the troupe, eight in number, were seen in the grand parade and when the time came for their act they performed as though nothing at all had happened.
Selam was formerly employed at Coney Island and a member of the troupe gave that place as his home, even though he was born in Morocco.