Every April, “our” circus returned to Santa Rosa for one glorious day. Then came the year we wish it hadn’t.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, there were other circuses that also played here; the bigger and more famous Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth blew into town every couple of years or so, and once Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show raised its tents. Six months after the great 1906 earthquake, the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers’ Circus provided much-welcomed distraction from the long slog of rebuilding the downtown. But it was the Greater Norris & Rowe Circus that kids in Santa Rosa and Petaluma counted on to roll into town every spring. “When the long circus train unloaded at the depot, Norris & Rowe received their annual demonstration of welcome,” the Santa Rosa Republican reported in 1909. “The small boy was much in evidence, as were also big boys, and they worked with unflagging interest.”

The Republican article was undoubtedly written by Tom Gregory in his finest bathetic dry humor (“It is hard to follow all the daring things they do and say in a circus, but the excitement of trying makes life worth living”) and named some acts, which gives a feel of what the show was like (hint: lots of horse riding and trapeze swinging). Thanks to the wonderful archives of the Circus Historical Society we also know the sideshow included four hootchy-kootchy dancers, “the Musical Smiths, South Sea Island Joe and wife Beno, Montana Jack and Maritana, Liza Davis and her pickininnies,” plus a mind reader, a magician, and “La Belle Carmen.”

The Norris & Rowe circus always played the town for one day only, visiting Petaluma the day before or after (the circus additionally went to Healdsburg in 1908).  Like every tent show that came to Santa Rosa, they set up on the large empty lot on College Avenue that’s now Santa Rosa Middle School. It was an ideal location, close to the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, with Fourth street just a few blocks further away for the traditional morning parade.

But this visit by Norris & Rowe was like none before. Girlie shows “for men only” were touted on the midway and children were invited to try their luck at gambling. When they left, the lot was strewn with garbage. It was as if they didn’t care if they would be in Santa Rosa ever again. And indeed, they never were.

What no one in town knew was that the circus had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier, with liabilities of about $1.5 million in today’s money. They owed workers back pay, the printing company for their posters, even the candy company that provided popcorn and peanuts and Cracker Jack. Everything was auctioned off in January, 1909; the winning bid and new sole owner was Hutton S. Rowe, one of the original co-owners.

The comments in the Santa Rosa Republican show the revived circus was a lot rougher along the seams, probably because the creditless touring company needed the cash boost from lowlife acts and barely-legal game booths. As the summer of 1909 passed, the Norris & Rowe circus found itself performing in small crossroad towns and villages on the high plains and across the Canada border, places that were tiny then, and sometimes nonexistent today. It was like the route of someone seeking to hide.

Catastrophe struck on October 22, when a storm suddenly blew up near the end of a show in Princeton, Indiana. Without warning, the big top collapsed on a thousand people. “For a few minutes the wildest excitement reigned and the cries of the people could be heard for blocks away,” the Indianapolis Star reported. Then apparently all the men and boys in the audience remembered that they were wont to always carry folding pocket knives, and the canvas was slashed in hundreds of places. No one was seriously injured, but the circus couldn’t proceed with a shredded tent. It was decided that they would winter in Indiana, far from their Santa Cruz home.

According to a memoir by one of the musicians with the circus, bad luck crushed the circus in 1910. Pockets were empty; they couldn’t even afford a splash of new paint on the wagons or signs, and train cars were “very much run-down condition.” On opening day, the wardrobe lady was jailed after she shot and killed a man peeking into the dressing tent. Over the next three weeks, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The weather was terrible, with cold, hard April rain keeping audiences away, and some days there were no performances at all. The railroad insisted on being paid in advance in cash. Performers began fielding offers from other shows. When they crossed the Kentucky state line, the circus was hit with a lawsuit from another unpaid printer. And that was that. A benefit performance was given for the stranded performers.

None of that was was mentioned when the next circus arrived in Santa Rosa. In May of 1910 came the Campbell Brothers Circus, with twenty “happy jolly funny clowns”, a lady in a cage with a bunch of snakes, and The Marvelous Renello, who could flip a complete somersault on a bicycle. It was a good, clean show, which had even more railroad cars that urgently needed unloading under the close supervision of our local kids.

Good Story About Norris & Rowe Exhibition

“Shrieking his rollicking roundelay, a monster marched through the town; he woke the echoes, disturbed the peace, and shouted defiance at the police; he frightened the horses, annoyed the dogs, and even the autos trembled; but the youngsters rejoiced at the din he made and followed his way with glee, as youngsters have done since in Hamlin town, another piper of high renown created havoc across the sea. So latter day children are wont to be entranced by the singing cal-i-o-pe.”

Again the painted wagons rolled through the streets and everybody, young and old, who could gain a vantage point, feasted their eyes on the classic spectacle of the circus parade that Norris & Rowe brought to us Monday morning. When a man or woman becomes so old as to lose all interest in circus day it is time for them to call in Dr. Osler. When the long circus train unloaded at the depot, Norris & Rowe received their annual demonstration of welcome. The small boy was much in evidence, as were also big boys, and they worked with unflagging interest in assisting men and horses to the circus lot. The big tent is filled this afternoon and for the convenience of those unable to attend the matinee, the whole thing will be repeated again tonight, when a number of attractive special features will be added. There is a set formula for modern circuses and one which departed from it would fail for want of patronage. They may vary somewhat in form and quantity, but in spirit they must follow the traditions. The Norris & Rowe enterprise is properly conducted and it offers all the ecstatic thrills and aesthetic delights demanded of a circus. It begins in the good old way. Three bands are united and march around the ring to a most inspiring air. Elephants come lumbering after, holding each other’s trail. After that it is the camels, dromedaries, and then delight of delights, shades of chivalry, the Knights and Princesses ride in graceful ranks, garbed in such glory as to outshine the pomp of power. Then come the clowns, humble Yoricks of the saw-dust and the pageant melts away, and in the two rings upon the elevated stage and high aloft toward the billowing tent-top this is a riot of daring deeds. It is hard to follow all the daring things they do and say in a circus, but the excitement of trying makes life worth living. From the shrieking of the calliope to the spieling of the concert and sideshow, Norris & Rowe’s is a real big circus, just as good as any other, and maybe better. Young or old, you cannot miss it, and if you did not go this afternoon, go tonight, and if you went this afternoon, go again. It will make your big troubles little ones and your little ones disappear altogether.

The afternoon performance was a good one and many attended and were entertained by the various acts. The principal riding acts included George Holland, the somersault bareback rider; Edw. Hocum, also a somersault and principal rider; Frank Miller, principal jockey and hurdle rider; Herbert Rumley, trick, fancy and rough riding; Frank O’Brien in a mule hurdle act; Rose Dockrill, the dainty equestrianne; Dolly Miller in a four horse carrying act; Maude Hocum and her well educated high school horse; Edna Maretta, principal lady somersault bareback rider; Mlle. Julienne and her trick horse Banaldo. The Melnotte troupe on the high silver wire; the flying Banvard troupe of aerial performers; the Leffe troupe of mid-air bar performers; the Sisters Sillbon on the flying trapeze; the famous Avalon troupe of seven daring trick and fancy bicyclists; the Montrose and Keno troupe of acrobats and other things.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 12, 1909

There is heard considerable complaint and criticism regarding several of the features of Norris & Rowe’s circus, which showed in this city yesterday, and those who witnessed the vulgar actions of certain of the noisy spielers connected with the affair are wondering why the police did not take notice. In front of one of the side tents near the entrance to the park several men and women, employees of the circus, were “barking” for an exhibition within “for men only,” and their work in that public place was suggestive of positive indecency. Ladies passing would hurry away, but boys and little girls were standing around witnessing the talk and actions. So vulgar was the language that it could not be printed and it is a shame that such was permitted.

There were also several gambling schemes running and it is stated that several young men lost money in the skin games. The park which the show occupied was left littered with straw, scraps from the kitchen tents, waste paper and other rubbish, causing the whole to be an eyesore to the public and a general nuisance.


– Santa Rosa Republican, April 13, 1909


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The red lights of Santa Rosa’s tenderloin district went dark in 1909, but not before an alleged victim of “white slavery” told authorities that she had been forced into a life of prostitution.

The story appeared in both local papers as well as the San Francisco Call, but the most detailed version was found in the Press Democrat. A 17/18 year-old Italian woman, Angelina Regiano, was coaxed to immigrate by her sister, Italia. Once she arrived in New York City, Italia and her boyfriend “beat her into submission and forced her into a disreputable house in New York. There she was held in practical slavery until the couple removed to this city, where her state was not improved.” Angelina escaped to San Francisco, where she met and married a photographer named Antonio Montpellier (in less than three weeks!) and soon thereafter, the newlyweds received a letter from Italia: Return my sister or we’ll kill Antonio. At that point the couple went to the police. Italia and her partner were arrested in El Verano by immigration authorities, who told the PD that the pair were expected to get five years in prison. Angelina was also held, sadly, on charges of violating immigration law “which forbids female immigrants leading an improper life within three years.”

So is the story true? “White slavery” was a topic causing roaring hysteria in the years surrounding the turn of the century.  On closer examination, however, those sensationalist accusations of white slavery frequently proved false. This tale is impossible to verify with certainty, but I feel there’s enough evidence to deem it true. The greatest obstacle is tracking names in historical records; as every genealogy buff knows, Ellis Island clerks and newspaper reporters weren’t great at accurately spelling “foreign” names.

Villainess Italia Regiano can be spotted coming to America in 1904, for example, but her name had two “g”s on the ship passenger list and she was from the town of Potenza, not “Patenza.” Angelina’s route is trickier, although she’s likely the young woman of the same age whose name was recorded as Angela Regina, sailing by herself on a ship that arrived in 1906. Her photographer husband Antonio Montpellier (who lost an “l” in the Republican paper) can’t be found at all. And if wandering in that labyrinth of names isn’t confusing enough, consider that the version from the San Francisco Call version had everything jumbled up – it was Italia Reggiano who was forced into prostitution by her sister “Silvia.” Huh? What? Wo ist Silvia? (Eine kleine Schubert Wortspiel, sorry.)

It’s also interesting to note that Italia and her pimpy sweetie Pepine were arrested in El Verano, the little resort town just outside of Sonoma. A couple of years later, it was to become the new center of operations for “Spanish Kitty,” an infamous Barbary Coast madam. (Her house is now the Sonoma Rose Villa Bed and Breakfast at 400 Solano Avenue.) Equidistant by train from Santa Rosa and the Sausalito ferry, El Verano was a great location for a rural whorehouse to set up shop, which is likely why Italia and Pepine  – “until recently said to be brothel agents in San Francisco,” according to the PD – were in town. Santa Rosa’s tenderloin had closed (or really, quieted down) less than a month before their arrest, and it’s my guess that some of those women had relocated with the pair to El Verano.

Also convincing is that the story appeared in the Press Democrat, whose editor Ernest L. Finley was loathe to admit Santa Rosa ever had any sort of problem with prostitution. He was the last person to desire publicity about a “white slavery” incident in Santa Rosa; the story was published on an inside page as if it were any other crime story. He surely would have liked to ignore it altogether, but it’s not every day that the United States marshal for the Northern District and an Immigration Inspector tromps through your back yard.

And finally, the story is far more believable because it appeared in 1909 and not a few years hence, when the white-slave mania was running at full throttle. It wasn’t until the end of that year that President Taft urged white slavery legislation in his first State of the Union address, followed by passage of the “White Slave Traffic Act of 1910,” better known as the Mann Act. A growing number of news articles began appearing after that, peaking in 1912 when more stories on the topic were found in California newspapers than the previous fifty years combined, according to a search of the state papers thus far digitally archived.

(RIGHT: An illustration from the 1910 book, “Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls” by Chicago Rev. Ernest A. Bell, who wrote, “I believe that there are good grounds for the suspicion that the ice cream parlor, kept by the foreigner in the large country town, is often a recruiting station, and a feeder for the ‘White slave’ traffic.”)

The intensity of “white slavery” hysteria in the 1910s is difficult to comprehend today. It was the central plot in a million dime novels and the subject of a million sermons. Politicians won elections fighting it, and newspapers won circulation wars by printing lurid tales about it. Want to draw an audience to your next club meeting? Announce that there would be an “expert” lecturing about the slavery dangers lurking everywhere. In the Bay Area, “The World’s Purity Federation” was formed, along with the “Society for the Abolition of White Slavery,” which urged the formation of a state police white slave squad (San Francisco police indeed had a white slave detail).

Today it’s recognized that their white-slave anxieties were a mash-up of many fears. It was partly the uneasiness about young people leaving rural communities for the dangerous big city; it was prudish discomfort with the concept that some women might sell their bodies without coercion (“white slavery” became a synonym for prostitution for some muckrakers and reformers); but most consistently, it was a warning about the dangers of foreigners. There was supposed to be an international cabal of Russian Jews tricking girls into Chicago and New York brothels; on the West Coast, the threat came from the Chinese stealing young women off the street to either ship them to Asia or force them to do unspeakable things in their opium dens.

The movement to fight “white slavery” a hundred years ago was more about racist fear-mongering than fact, but women and girls were indeed forced into prostitution in the early 20th century America – and still are today. Hopefully the girl with many names from Potenza indeed ended up with a happy life despite her monstrous sister’s detour.

Pitiful Story Told by a Young Woman Who Was Lured from Home to a Life of Shame

United States Immigration Inspector de la Torre made a very important capture Tuesday night when at El Verano, in this county, he arrested Italia Regiano and Pepine Pietra, until recently said to be brothel agents in San Francisco. The couple were taken to San Francisco Wednesday and placed under $10,000 bonds each by Commissioner Hart North to prevent their escape.

A “Black Hand” letter addressed to Antonio Montpellier, San Francisco photographer and husband of Angelina Regiano, a 20-year-old girl, who was brought to this country two years ago and forced into an improper life by her sister and her paramour until rescued by her marriage, has resulted in the capture of the miscreants who planned the girl’s downfall.

Angelina Regiano escaped from her bondage on June 13, according to the details learned in San Francisco, and managed to elude the pursuit of her jailers. While in hiding she met Antonio Montpellier, and her pitiful tale touched his heart. A marriage resulted and threats against the life of the husband immediately followed. On July 3 Montpellier received a letter threatening his life unless he surrendered the girl to Pietra.

This he placed in the hands of Inspector de la Torre and the capture of those who instigated it was consummated Tuesday night. The federal authorities believe they have accumulated enough evidence to send the pair to prison for five years.

Unfortunately the victim herself comes within the specifications of the law and is being held by the authorities under the statute which forbids female immigrants leading an improper life within three years. Her story is a touching one. In her little home town of Patenza she says she received urgent letters from her sister Italia to come to America, where she was promised marriage as soon as she arrived. When she came, however, her sister and Pietra beat her into submission and forced her into a disreputable house in New York. There she was held in practical slavery until the couple removed to this city, where her state was not improved. Finally she escaped but found that her troubles were not ended even when she met the man who is now her husband.

– Press Democrat, July 29, 1909

Arrested at El Verano for Her Depraved Acts

The story of the capture of two brothel agents at El Verano Tuesday night by United States Immigration Inspector de la Torre shows how low in the scale of life people may become. The two people arrested are Italia Regiano and Pepine Pietra, and they were placed under $10,000 bonds each. The former of this duet two years ago brought her own eighteen year old sister, Angelina, to this country from their native home, Patenza, Italy, with the promise that she would be married as soon as she arrived here. On the poor girl’s arrival she was met in New York by her sister and her paramour, the man arrested Tuesday, and by them was beaten and forced to lead an improper life. She was later brought here and was continued to be held as a white slave until she made her escape on June 13. She met Antonio Montpelier, a photographer in San Francisco and was married to him. A black hand letter was sent by the two under arrest to the girl’s new husband, threatening him with death if he did not return the girl to her persecutors. The turning over of this letter to Mr. de la Torre is what has led to the capture of the inhuman sister and her paramour.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1909


 Pepino Pietra and Silvia Reggiano were arrested by United States Marshall C. T. Elliott yesterday for bringing Italia Reggiano, a sister of Silvia Reggiano, to the United States from Italy for immoral purposes.

 The arrests, which were made in El Verano, Sonoma county, were at the behest of the immigration department at Washington, D. C.

 It is claimed by Italia Reggiano that her sister brought her to New York with the idea of marrying, but on her arrival she was compelled by her sister to live in a house of ill repute.

 – San Francisco Call, July 28, 1909

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