Before Thanksgiving or Independence Day were national holidays, there was only one event nearly every American celebrated, regardless of class, race or creed: The day the circus came to town. That two-century tradition ends on May 21 when Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey gives its last performance. Before the Big Top comes down for the last time, here’s a look at what it meant to small towns like Santa Rosa and Petaluma, as viewed through their newspapers.

By no means does this series represent all the circuses that came to Sonoma county – this is only a small sample. It was not uncommon to have two or three every year, and even the shows that returned often were different enough each time to be a considered new.

Because of the number of images involved I’m breaking this article into two parts. This section covers the early circuses travelling by roads and waterways; these wagon shows were dinky affairs compared to some of the monster spectaculars which came here after the railroads were available, as discussed in part two, “LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE“.

But regardless of the year or degree of magnificence, every circus day was magic and were the climax of weeks of hot anticipation. The places you had walked past thousands of times – fences with scabby whitewash, streetlight poles, the plain brick walls on the sides of businesses – those drab things were now transformed by beautiful lithograph posters showing flying trapeze women, daredevil animal trainers and other scenes you had never imagined. You know the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opened the door to Oz into a world riot in color? It was like that, only better because YOU were about to enter such a magical place. And you would go there. Nothing on earth could stop you.

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge, or see the complete collection on Pinterest)

This is the oldest circus ad I’ve found in the local newspapers, dating to June, 1856. The promise that “The Police Department will be under the supervision of efficient officers” suggests the public believed a circus attracted criminals and troublemakers.

1856 Rowe Circus


The 1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus also has the “efficient officers” vow. Note they don’t say much about the acts, but boast at length of their “magnificent, new, and costly” wagons. They promise the Big Top is waterproof and ladies will get cushions for their seats. Classy!

1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus


Until the railway reached Santa Rosa in late 1870, circuses with large animals rarely visited Sonoma county in those days. This 1859 show with two elephants was the first exception. As with most circuses seen here in that era, the performance was mainly horseback stunts, acrobatics and a featured clown.

1859 Wilson circus


The patriotic theme of the “United States Circus” reflects the national mood in the first months of the Civil War – although it may not have gone over so well in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. “Blondin” was the famed tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls.

1861 United States Circus


Although there was still no train service to Santa Rosa in 1869, we were on the tour route of Dan Castello’s Circus and Menagerie, the first East Coast show to come to California via the new transcontinental railroad, which had been completed less that four months earlier. “Their immense posters cover half the town, and everybody is anxiously waiting to see the greatest show of the age,” the Democrat commented. It seems the ads exaggerated the number and varieties of animals; their wagon caravan included only ten cages and a couple of elephants and camels. A correspondent to the Russian River Flag wrote, “It was agreed by us that the menagerie was a failure, but the circus part we liked very well.”

1869 Castello’s Circus and Menagerie


The 1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome was the first show in Santa Rosa to introduce exotic themes, with an “oriental pagoda” and Roman Empire-style chariot races. The show also included a political angle, with “Horace Greeley, Comic Mule.” That year Greeley was the most well-known among the eight candidates running against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant and lost by a landslide (in Santa Rosa he came in fourth). Greeley actually had died four days before this Santa Rosa performance.

1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome


Montgomery Queen’s 1874 Circus and Traveling World’s Fair drew an audience of 2,800 that night in Santa Rosa – about the same as the official population of the town. Since before the Civil War, the price for an adult ticket was always one dollar, which would be between $30-40 in today’s currency. Even if half this 1874 audience were children, they pulled in about $60,000 (adjusted for inflation) with this one show. While circus life was hard on the performers, crew and animals, it was undeniably very profitable for the owners.

1874 Montgomery Queen’s Circus and Traveling World’s Fair


Queen’s Great Moral Circus was here in 1875 and I’m presuming it was not a railroad show, as their route went from Petaluma to Sonoma and there was no rail line running between the towns. Aside from the appearance of a living giraffe and a “hogapotamus,” this visit was special because of a delightful story which appeared in the Sonoma Democrat:

1875 Montgomery Queen’s Great Moral Circus




Yesterday morning as we were quietly strolling down town, with both hands in our pockets, thinking of nothing in particular, our meditations were disturbed by the loud demand:

“Whar are they a-goin’ to stretch the canvass?”

Looking up, there stood a tall, rawboned fellow with a grizzled beard and sun-burnt face, waiting for an answer.

“Canvas? What canvas?” we answered, all abroad like.

“Why, the circus,” you know, replied the man from the mountains.

We confessed our inability to direct him, and he pursued his way with a compassionate look on his face for our ignorance. Determined to become better posted about the circus, and to take a hand in the fun going on, we had not gone far until meeting a platform of eight small boys stretching quite across the pavement.

“Going to the circus, boys?”

“Yes, sir, answered the eight small boys together.

“Could you tell me where the tent is?”

“Yes, sir,” altogether, and eight small hands and arms pointing in the same direction.

Sure enough, there it was, nearly covering Bill Hardy’s lot with about an acre of canvass, and surrounded with empty circus wagons, loose horses and piles of baggage. The cook stove was smoking through a short pipe, and the cook, a gentleman from Africa, was taking his morning wash in a basin that looked suspiciously like a bread pan.

On the street corners pretty girls, carrying new parasols, were grouped together, looking with admiring glances into shop windows. Along the streets new arrivals of young fellows on horses, and old fellows, just as young within were soberly driving family tumouts, containing mother and the children. As a rule from three to five of the little people contrived always to get on the front seat with the driver.

The circus band struck up the inspiring strains of “Champagne Charley,” and a mingled mass of humanity began winding its way to the “horse opera.” There, from the moment of the grand entree until the close of the performance, the boys and girls seemed spellbound with the Oriental magnificence of its sights and sounds. The venerable jokes of the clown were as new and as keenly relished as, ah, me, so many years ago, when the reporter was a boy. The gaily spangled dresses of the riders, and the fearful perils of the horsemen, held the lower seats, filled with boys, in the same trance of wonder. The eight boys had managed to get seated in a row like so many chickens on a fence, their mouths slightly opened, and their honest eyes protruding enough to be scraped off with a stick. Innocent boyhood enjoying its first pleasures. Most of them had, without doubt, performed unheard of tasks for three weeks to get taken to the circus. At its close, about four o’clock, when the audience began to disperse, they broke into family groups and slowly wended their way down street to their wagons, homeward bound, with heavier hearts and lighter pockets. How many of them wished they had their dollar back? The middle-aged frontiersman of the morning was seen mounted on a cayuse, headed toward Guerneville, riding pensively along, a little sideways in the saddle, trying to urge the pony into an easy lope, doubtless for reasons best known to himself.

How much money the showman took away is a question that cannot be answered. But, judging from the number in attendance, it must have been enough to pay off the debt of either of the Santa Rosa Colleges.


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General Otho Hinton wasted no time betraying the friends and family who posted his bail; within days of his release on January 25, 1851, he fled Ohio, never to see his home or his wife again. He was an unlikely candidate to start anew as a fugitive at age 49, being accustomed to a life of privilige; his previous escape from the law lasted only six days after the General – described in the wanted notice as “very fleshy” and “stout” – turned himself in, complaining he was hungry.

(This is the third in the series on Hinton’s life and crimes. See also part 1, “CALL ME THE GENERAL” and part 2, “ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT“. Notes on sources for the entire series can be found in the final installment.)

As Hinton’s trial date approached, his attorney brother-in-law Thomas Powell – who was among those who put up bail – presented an affidavit to the court stating Hinton sent him a farewell letter shortly after he fled, writing he was in New Orleans and was planning to bury himself and his troubles in the waters of the Mississippi. Since the fugitive General was now presumably deceased, attorney Powell argued, could we have our bail money back, please? The judge was not moved to agree.

Even though he was a wanted man, we can track Hinton’s whereabouts over the next several years fairly well through mentions in the press; in fact, federal authorities might have nabbed the guy by simply taking subscriptions to a handful of Ohio newspapers.

Let’s interrupt the story to explain almost everything previously published about Hinton’s past comes from a 150 year-old book, “Guarding the Mails” – see sidebar in part II – and most of what appears there is provably untrue or dubious. Today, however, there are thousands of searchable historic newspapers online so we have a pretty good sample of what was being written about Hinton at the time. And there is plenty to read; he may not have been America’s first criminal celebrity, but editors were eager to print every crumb of news or rumor they could about the notorious General. Readers all over the Midwest were kept abreast with little news summaries, sometimes only a few words long reprinted from another paper which might have picked it up from yet another paper. Most of the time the items didn’t bother explaining who Gen. O. Hinton was. Everybody knew.

By far, the most repeated story about Hinton during his years on the lam concerns a supposed spotting of the General in Cuba. In May 1851, about three months after he fled, newspapers widely reported someone had seen and spoken to Hinton on the island where he was then going by the name of Hanten. Most papers stated simply those details, but some mentioned this news came from Sandusky, Ohio. Fortunately, the original newspaper story can be found online; the article from the Sandusky Clarion said its source was “a gentleman recently returned from California.” That the witness wasn’t named, did not say how he knew it was really Hinton nor provided any other details about running into the infamous fugitive makes the claim sound specious. While it might be true, it has more of the whiff of an Elvis sighting.

By the end of the year the government believed he was somewhere out west. Ithiel Mills – a Deputy U.S. Marshal based in Akron – was among the few lawmen who knew Hinton by sight, having been one of the officers sent to bring him back to jail after his six-day escape. Mills was appointed a special agent assigned only to tracking down Hinton and spent two or three months in pursuit before giving up and sending Congress a bill for $2854.50 – about $120,000 today – “for services and expenses,” a remarkable amount for one guy on the road. Because his adventures involved the celebrity mail robber, an account of his chase appeared in many newspapers in the summer of 1852:

…[Mills] traversed California in various directions, crossed over the Sierra Nevada to Utah Territory and visited the most remote places in pursuit of the object of his search. It is fully ascertained that Gen. Hinton was in the state when Mr. Mills arrived, but this fact had found its way into the Atlantic papers, which probably reached there in time to put the General on his guard. The U.S. Marshal, however, has found several gentlemen who were formerly acquainted with Gen. H., who have been cognizant of some of his movements since his arrival in California, and who are fully aware that he some time since left for some other quarter of the world–probably for South America.

Marshal Mills should have stayed at home in Ohio and read the newspapers, which reported a few weeks later Hinton was in Oregon running a public house in Portland as “Samuel G. Gordon” – that being the maiden name of the wife he abandoned. And as they were apparently not divorced, Mr. Hinton-Gordon added bigamy to his crimes when he married 25 year-old Louisa Hopwood there in May, 1853.

(RIGHT: Engraving from “Guarding the Mails,” a mostly fictitious account of Hinton’s crimes and escapes)

The Ohio newspapers apparently didn’t know about this marriage when a slew of news items about him appeared later that summer. Someone in Oregon recognized Hinton and tried to blackmail him. He – and Louisa, presumably – went to Los Angeles where he was identified by a stage driver who supposedly also demanded money for silence. The driver turned him in and Otho Hinton found himself arrested for the third time.

At his court hearing Hinton admitted he was indeed the mail robber, but lied outrageously that the government had decided not to prosecute: “According to his statement he was once arrested in Ohio on this charge, held to bail in the sum of $10,000, and subsequently discharged under a nolle pros, entered by the U.S. District Attorney of Ohio,” read a widely-reprinted item. Perhaps it was while making that courtroom speech the thought first popped into his head, “yessir, I could pass as an actual lawyer!”

Hinton was taken up to the District Court in San Francisco, but discharged after a few days; the stage driver couldn’t be found to testify against him – perhaps he managed to scrape together the extortion money after all. So yet again the crafty General escaped justice, this time staying behind bars for only a month and a day.

A warrant eventually arrived from Ohio, exactly 3½ months after his arrest in Los Angeles. The U.S. Marshall wrote back, sorry: Hinton had been released and “a few days thereafter he [sailed] for the Sandwich Islands, where I believe he now resides.” His new whereabouts were no secret; Ohio newspapers were peppered with little items about his change of address.

The Sandwich Islands – AKA Hawai’i – was a sovereign nation at the time, and Hinton family genealogists have presumed he went there because there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. That’s not true; a treaty had been in place since 1849, but seems not to have been used in Hinton’s lifetime. The government might have exercised it if John Wilkes Booth was hiding in paradise but the ilk of Hinton was just not worth enormous bother.

About a year later, in January 1855, Rebecca’s brother-in-law directly petitioned Congress for the return of the bail bond. The plea claimed “Otho Hinton was indicted for purloining a letter containing a draft and a small sum of money” (an epic understatement) and now had “fled beyond the jurisdiction of the United States.” Worth noting is it confirmed Rebecca and Otho remained husband and wife and almost all of the $10,000 surety had been property owned by her and their two daughters. Congress granted relief quickly and papers all over Ohio ran items. At the same time, readers from Chicago to New York were treated to this:

A private letter received in Cincinnati from Honolulu, a few days since, contains the following item of intelligence respecting the great mail robber, Gen. O. Hinton: “Among the foreigners residing in this city is Gen. O. Hinton, well known to many of the older inhabitants of Chicago as a mail contractor, &c. When I arrived here he was attempting to practice law. Subsequently he kept a hotel, but with indifferent success. Latterly he is working as a journeyman house-carpenter, and, as I understand, makes a good living at it. He is sober, industrious and quiet, and seems disposed to acquire the reputation of a good citizen.”

Yes, our good Otho, his legal prowess unfettered by an actual legal education, was now advertising himself as “Attorney and Counselor at Law and Solicitor in Chancery” – while keeping his day job as a carpenter. During his Honolulu years he seems to have stopped posturing as a “General,” maybe so Hawaiians wouldn’t worry he was the advance man for a U.S. military invasion.

A very similar item appeared a few years later, this one in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Here was the first and only mention that can be found of Hinton having another wife:

Gen. O. Hinton, the noted mail-robber of Ohio, is a resident here. He came down from California four years ago with his wife and they kept a boarding house, but lost money at it, and the old man was finally reduced to working by the day at carpenter work. Finally, the rheumatism prevented him doing even this, and now he has turned lawyer, and manages, I presume, just to live and no more. I sincerely pity the old man, and I think that he is truly repentant.

Otho Hinton was down on his luck – or was he? Apparently his goal all along was just to bide his time in Hawai’i until charges were dropped, or so his son Edgar was telling folks back home. That happy day came in the summer of 1857; whatever the statute of limitations on his felonies – either 3, 6 or 7 years at the time (please consult an early 19th century legal scholar and get back to me) – the U.S. District Court at Cincinnati dismissed the case without comment. As you can imagine, papers nationwide could not resist printing that juicy nugget. He certainly was not acquitted and contrary to the most oft-told tale about the General, he did not escape prosecution by having himself declared dead in the Sandwich Islands.

Yet if he was free to return to the states, where should he go? Probably not back to Ohio, where his legal wife had already suggested she was itching to shoot him – and that was before he jumped bail and left her in penury, not to mention illegally marrying another woman.

General Otho Hinton sailed back to America sometime around August, 1858. We know he brought along his twelve miscellaneous Hawaiian Island law books, but we don’t know if he was accompanied by wife Louisa and their son, Otho Jr., who was born in Honolulu in 1856. (In 1860 Louisa would marry a workingman named Patterson in Oregon, and together they raised junior and a daughter of their own. No record can be found that she divorced Hinton or had their marriage declared invalid.)

From this point our portrait of Hinton has less clarity. The Ohio newspapers lost interest once he was no longer a wanted fugitive, and what little they did print about his doings out here was often wildly wrong. Not that there was much written about him out here, either; during his years in Santa Rosa the town had a small weekly newspaper with almost all local news on a single page, which was later squeezed further to make room for dispatches from the Civil War. Otherwise, you might expect there would be some mention about the arrival of this affable 56 year-old guy who called himself a General.

One reason he might have moved to Sonoma County was because he had relations here. In Healdsburg at the time lived his first cousin, Charlotte Hinton Miller. Shortly after Hinton arrived in the area her husband died, leaving Charlotte and their five children destitute. Within a few months she married a Santa Rosa relative of her late husband, Joel Miller, a neglected figure in early town history. He was a pillar of the community – one of the founders of the Christian Church, County Recorder from 1857-8 and court clerk before and after. Someone new to the area who wanted to be a lawyer could hardly hope for a better family connection.

Hinton filed an application to practice law in Sonoma County and was examined by a panel of local attorneys on October 21. His request was denied, but an interesting comment was made explaining why:

The undersigned members of the Bar beg leave respectfully to report that we have examined the applicant [illegible] and find him qualified to practice law as an attorney and counselor of this Court. But there being in his past history some charges touching his moral character which although probably acceptable of full explanation, yet not having the evidence before us to satisfy us in that respect we recommend a postponement of his application as a member of the Bar until further explanation can be made.

Unfortunately, they were not specific as to which “moral character” issue troubled them. The two felony charges for robbing the U.S. mails? Failing to abide by sworn promises to appear in court? Bail jumping and spending seven years evading arrest? Bigamy? We don’t know how much the locals knew about his past at the time – or in years to come, for that matter. The Santa Rosa newspaper never mentioned his history, although Bay Area and Sacramento papers revealed some of it later.

But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose no matter what was on his shoes. The county Bar Association must have accepted his explanation because he was admitted to the state Bar a few days later, then opened a law office with a partner a few days after that. All told, it was only three weeks between his denied petition and having his name on the door as Santa Rosa’s newest attorney at law.

Without deep plowing through court records we don’t know how successful (or not) he was in his legal career; papers at the time usually didn’t mention who was representing someone in court, although it is known he was the attorney for Judith Todd’s abusive husband in her divorce suit (see: “RIDGWAY’S CHILDREN“). Hinton mostly kept a low profile in his final years except for his attempt to become County Judge in 1859, about a year after he arrived in Santa Rosa.

Running for public office was a bad move and it’s difficult to see what he hoped to gain from it, aside from a regular paycheck. He had no chance of winning; the incumbent had been the judge for years and would remain so for more years to come. He ended up beating Hinton by almost four to one (cousin-in-law Joel Miller was the election auditor.) If he expected it to be a stepping stone to politics he miscalculated badly; he ran as an independent while most voters in the county, Petaluma excepted, were diehard Democrats – Sonoma was the only county in the state that never voted for Lincoln. And if he hoped it would raise his profile in Santa Rosa he was even further mistaken. The town was the most fiercely Democratic place of all; it was said in 1856 there were only two known Republicans living there. (One of those rare fellows, by the way, was William Wilks – Hinton’s law partner.)

Santa Rosa’s newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat, did not mention Hinton’s candidacy even once, pro or con. Perhaps he wished the rest of the press ignored him likewise. The San Francisco Bulletin revealed his infamous past and the story was reprinted by the Sacramento paper, ensuring that most of Northern California now was aware of his thievery and flight from the law. “If the candidate for County Judge in Sonoma county is the same Gen. O. Hinton who robbed the mail in Ohio,” the article ended, “it is to be hoped he will not be elected.” Further away from the state the details were wrong: An Ohio paper said he was running for judge in Sonora county and a Honolulu paper said it was Solano. A paper in Indiana told readers, “It turns out that the man nominated is W. O. Hinton, altogether a different man from the General,” before adding a cryptic and snarky comment, “[Hinton] is now doubtless, as he was in Ohio, violently opposed to the Democracy.”

Running for judge seems to have exhausted his ambitions. Between then and his death in 1865 he didn’t do much in public, although there generally was a passing mention of him somewhere in the Santa Rosa newspaper every year. He had been a die-hard Whig back in Ohio and Lincoln’s administration was dominated by former Whigs; thus on New Years’ Day, 1864, Hinton penned a nine page fan letter to Lincoln, which would probably have been a hanging offense in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa, had anyone around here known about it. He signed the letter as just Otho Hinton, leaving out his claim to be a General which was probably wise.

His personal life was quiet as well. His daughter Mary Ellen apparently joined him here in 1863, son Oscar in 1864, and his long-suffering wife Rebecca moved here in 1865. Before she arrived, however, he unexpectedly died at home on March 5 of that year, having been seen around town the previous day appearing in fine mettle. There is a family joke that once he learned she was coming he died of fright.


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