The 1920s ‘Circus Girl’ Who Fought Sexism—With Tigers

When the AL G. BARNES Circus came to Clovis in New Mexico in 1921, Clovis News highlighted one performer whose reputation preceded her. “Woman have achieved many amazing things in the last few years. She has invaded the hallowed halls of the legislature, courts and other sacred precincts which have been considered the exclusive property of men,” wrote the reporter. “But Miss Mabel Stark…has done more than that.” “Not only is she the first woman to achieve this feat, but no man has done it before.”

The New York Times reported 1922 that “Mabel Stark was a nurse trained by the American Red Cross.” “That was long ago. She had a nervous breakdown… so she started training tigers. Miss Stark thinks it’s much easier and simpler. Mabel Stark had a shaky life history, with vague references to a time before the circuses and little knowledge about her age. Once in the ring, her confidence and experience showed that she wasn’t to be underestimated.

Stark trained her first group in 1912 of three tigers. Ten years later, she had grown her group to 16 tigers. She orchestrated them into an elaborate pyramid where the last tiger leaped over her head. Newspapers reported that Stark would perform up to twenty tigers in the ring simultaneously.

Stark’s method for training tigers is far from the “masculine,” aggressive approach of antagonizing animals and punishing them with brute strength. Stark instead used verbal commands in conjunction with a wooden pole to “tame the beasts,” demonstrating her innovative approach to animal training and her uncanny connection with her co-stars.

Stark was a famous animal trainer of her time, but she was not the only one. Janet M. Davis, in The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, explains that this was a period dedicated to the concept of the “New Woman.” The novelty of female circus performers in the first 30 of the 20th century was crucial for selling their talent to audiences.

In the context of the first wave of the suffragette movement and the loosening of sexual restrictions for middle-class white women, circus performers were seen as exotic and vibrant. They also represented a new direction in women’s lives inside and outside the tent.

Stark joined the circus in the middle of all these changes. In her Hold That Tiger autobiography, she recounted how Al Sands told Stark, the manager of Al G. Barnes Circus, that Stark’s petite stature and her blonde hair would make a great contrast to the large jungle cats. This visual strategy was used for women such as Annie Oakley and May Wirth, whose traditional feminine appearance contrasted with masculine actions. Stark’s most famous act was her wrestling match with a lone tiger. This also influenced the marketing strategy of the little girl and big cat being unlikely partners. The wrestling act involved a tiger grabbing Stark’s head, and then they would fall together and rotate until one “won.”

Media coverage of Stark’s many injuries and accidents while working with animals she loved helped to promote her “small girl, large cat” gimmick. Reports often focused on Stark and other “circus girl” victims killed or mauled by the big cats they trained. The Herald reported 1917 that “the smell of blood coming from the leopard’s cage made the lions go wild, and they attacked Miss Stark.” “She was able to escape the cage with only minor injuries, but her fellow circus girl Martha Florene suffered severe mauling.”

Reporters also boosted the reputation of the circus girls as novelty-makers by telling stories about their eccentric behavior away from the ring. Reporters in the LA newspapers covered Stark’s eccentricities, such as her trip to downtown LA on a leash with her six-month-old pet tiger Rajah. In a 1916 Los Angeles Herald article, she said, “Tigers love people with stronger wills than they do.” This confluence between danger and excitement thrilling Stark and the other characters.

Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus removed all jungle cat acts from their shows in 1925. Stark was left to work with horses. She told the times that she found horses harder to handle than tigers.

Stark, who had been performing in circuses for many years, began to act more permanent gigs with Goebel’s Wild Animal Farm, Thousand Oaks (later Jungleland) in California. In 1952, Times reported that Stark was a star at Thousand Oaks and on her way to celebrating 40 years in the industry. She continued to work with wild cats until her 60s when she was fired by the Jungleland Complex, where she worked from 1968—the Los Angeles Times reported her death on April 22, 1968. Some scholars attribute it to an overdose.

Mabel Stark and many other women, who earned their living as circus performers in the first half of the 20th century, were icons of possibility, mainly regarding autonomy and work. Stark did not just teach tigers how to jump into a pyramid; she also led the public about different expectations of women’s entertainment abilities. This is another feat that no man would ever be able to do.

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