Sells Brothers Circus


This ad appeared in the Livingston Enterprise advertising the coming attraction of the Mighty Haag Show.
  One particular June 10th many years ago, the citizens of Livingston were invited to attend a circus that came to town via the Tennessee Central railroad in Algood. The name of the circus was the "Mighty Hagg Shows." A poster advertising the circus for the June 10 show gives the location as being on Celina Pike in Dr. Breeding's pasture. When the circus reached Algood by way of the train, the animals were unloaded there and then walked on to Livingston. The late Loyd White remembered the "Mighty Hagg Shows" setting up in Monroe, and from there, walking on to Byrdtown to perform. I read an article someone in Albany, Kentucky had written that tells about seeing the animals come parading into Albany to perform there and how excited everyone would be when they arrived. Information in the Robert and Mary Eldridge "History of Overton County, Tennessee" book tells how much excitement was created around Livingston in September, 1936, when a tiger escaped from its cage when a truck
of the Mighty Haag Circus had an accident at the Carr Creek bridge on Highway 42. A large crowd soon gathered, many of them with guns, and the tiger was soon driven into a cage and recaptured.


I did some research about that circus and learned that the owner was a fellow by the name of Ernest Hagg who ran away from home at the age of 12 by hopping a box car in his hometown of Plymouth, Indiana. He ended up in Philadelphia and then later in New York city living on his own. He supported himself to begin with by shining shoes and selling newspapers. He started what was first called "The Big Show" that began by using a flatboat to travel along the Red River near Shreveport, Louisiana, Later, the circus was unloaded and placed on a two-wheel cart drawn by three mules. He eventually got a team of horses and an old farm wagon that traveled as far as Kansas to perform.

As the success of the circus grew, the show was put on rails and it traveled that way for seven or eight years. Later trucks were used to transport the circus. On February 1, 1935, Ernest Hagg passed away from heart failure at the age of 69 at his winter quarters in Marianna, Florida. At the time of his death, he owned a considerable amount of real estate in Shreveport, Louisiana, as well as other properties in Oklahoma. He was also a director of Shreveport's largest bank. It was said that Ernest Hagg's mission in this world was "to make everybody feel good."


A ticket for the Mighty Haag Shows that came to Livingston in the 1930's.


While looking for information about the Mighty Haag Shows, I came across something I thought would also be of interest, especially to the many Sells’ families in this area. I have no idea if the people in this story are connected to anyone in Overton County, but it would be interesting to know. It seems that one of the largest tented amusement institutions touring the United States in the 1880's and ‘90's was the Sells Brothers Big Show of the World. Here is what I learned about what became the second largest circus in America.

Located near Columbus, Ohio, almost 1,000 acres was the unincorporated area called Sellsville. It was the winter home for the internationally known Sells Brothers Circus, which later was merged with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Known for their collection of elephants, the Sells Circus used railroad cars to transport the assets, rather than wagons, and at their peak used 47 custom railroad cars. History of the Sells Family tells how in the late 1700s, Ludwig Sells, a German immigrant, sent his two sons to Ohio from their homestead in Huntingdon County, Pa. to look for land to settle. Those sons poled a flatboat up the Scioto River to what is now Dublin and, liking the lay of the land there, brought their father and the rest of their family to settle in 1801. One of Ludwig's grandsons, Peter, moved from Dublin to Columbus in 1834 and found employment as a truck gardener and Methodist lay preacher. He raised 11 children and was quite prosperous. Peter had five sons, and all of them served in the American Civil War. One died in Andersonville Prison, but the other four survived and were residents of Columbus in the late 1860s. Three of them, Ephraim, Allen, and Lewis, were in the auction business and followed circus troupes around the country in order to take advantage of the audiences they attracted. After one failed attempt at running their own circus show, they enlisted the help of their brother Peter, the youngest member of the family, then employed as a reporter for the Ohio State Journal. The brothers became fascinated by a man named "Cannonball George Richards," a performer who billed himself as a "percussive aerialist." He shot himself out of a cannon on a daily basis. In 1871, after adding Peter to the Sells team, the brothers purchased George Richards' act, some cast-off circus equipment, nine cages of animals, and two camels for $6,500. The first show was presented in downtown Columbus at State and High Streets in the spring of 1871. It consisted of the small menagerie, Cannonball George Richards, a few side- show acts and some horseback riding acts.

Following a successful year, the brothers decided to invest all of their savings, as well as several thousand in borrowed funds, back into the circus, about $35,000 total. They felt they needed an elephant to make the show complete, and in 1873 purchased their first of many pachyderms to come. Elephants became somewhat of a passion for the Sells Brothers, who, less than a decade later, boasted eight elephants. The show grew steadily, and by 1878 was transported all over the United States by railway cars, rather than by wagon train over road, a much slower method of transportation. By 1890, the Sells Brothers Circus was the second largest circus in America. In 1887 the title of the show exemplified the advertising skills of its proprietors: "Sells Brothers World Conquering And All Overshadowing Three Ring Circus, Real Roman Hippodrome (indoor circus area), Indian Village and Pawnee Bill's Famous Original Wild West Show."

The circus continued to operate successfully over the following 35 years; the brothers building larger, more exotic shows, many times combining their acts with other circus outfits. The brothers divided the duties as follows: Allen Sells was the manager; Lewis was assistant manager and superintendent, with Ephraim as treasurer and superintendent of tickets.

Peter traveled ahead of the performers to establish contracts and routing, post advertisements and secure railroad reservations. The circus occasionally visited Maryland and some areas of the Mid-Atlantic states, but rarely ventured into New England, which was then the territory of the Barnum and Forepaugh shows. Their circus eventually traveled westward, profitably competing with other shows and even visiting Australia in 1891. That year the company logged over 40,000 miles on the road. At its height, the show was transported from town to town in three sections with a total of 47 special railroad cars carrying it. The outfit included a 328-foot big top, six other large tents, 322 workers, 64 performers, 50 cages of wild animals, 13 elephants, and 7 camels.

Peter Sells married Mary (Luker) in Canton, Missouri in 1878, and shortly afterward the couple moved to Columbus, where the circus was headquartered. The Sells family owned several properties near downtown Columbus, particularly the near north side, and the couple resided in various homes until 1895 when the mansion was built. The home was designed by Frank Packard and was located at the edge of Goodale Park on Dennison Avenue. Mary Sells didn't enjoy circus life and did not often accompany her husband in his travels. It is believed that the mansion was built partly to accommodate the Sells' young daughter Florence, born in the late 1880's, and partly to appease the discontented Mary. The family's stay at the mansion wasn't a long or a particularly happy one. In late November of 1899, Peter Sells moved out of the house and shortly thereafter filed for divorce from his wife, due to Mary's alleged adulterous activity with two men, one of whom was an associate of Peter's. The stories surrounding the divorce and divorce trial proceedings kept Columbusites at the edge of their seats for over a year. During the trial, much of the testimony centered around the Sells mansion, where Mary and Florence lived while Peter was traveling. Mary continued to reside in the house during the trial, but in early 1901, Peter Sells regained possession of his home and reestablished residence there with his daughter Florence. He and Florence were estranged from his wife for over a year before the divorce was made final. Shortly after the divorce was granted, Peter sold the house.


A poster from the 1800'sadvertises the Sells Brothers Circus.


The Sells home cost $40,000 to build, an enormous sum for the year 1895. The Romanesque style was popular during the latter part of the 19th Century, but the exterior of the Sells mansion is exceptional because it is crowned with a bell cast hipped tile roof, reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish architecture. The carriage house shares the same hard-fired brick and other exterior features as the main house, including Moorish arched windows and doors, and the same tile roof. The dramatic flared roof lines of both buildings evoke images of the circus big top; their Moorish influences and tile roof may have been a result of Peter and Mary Sells' trip to California in 1891, where the same styles and materials were and are common. Since 1895, the home has been occupied by several owners and has undergone numerous architectural changes, many of which have created a more institutional look to the once grand interior. The current owners, David and Erica Brownstein, bought the home in 1997 and are attempting to restore some of the home's original grandeur.

The strong family bonds that kept the circus going were weakened by the death of Ephraim, the eldest brother, in 1898. After Ephraim's death, James Bailey of Barnum and Bailey and W.W. Cole, of Cole Brothers Circus, each acquired a quarter interest in the business. When Peter, aged 59, and Allen both passed away in 1904, and with no family members interested in carrying on the family business, Lewis Sells sold the remaining shares of the show to Bailey for $150,000 cash in 1905. Bailey then sold half share of the Sells circus to the Ringling Brothers, whom the Sells brothers had contemptuously dubbed "the Ding Dong brothers." In 1906, Bailey died and the Ringlings bought the entire circus. They sent the Sells outfit on tour in 1907, 1910 and 1911, the last years that the circus toured under the name Sells Brothers. The Columbus head-quarters was closed by 1910. The act eventually became part of the conglomerate Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth.