Dale Albrecht, former resident of Belle Plaine, recently published the second edition of his 1996 book, “Tales of a Small Town Circus Legend.” The colorful biography chronicles the life of one of the 20th century’s most diversified circus men, our grandfather, the late Leo Albrecht Sr. Captivated by a traveling circus which had set up in Belle Plaine back in 1900, ten-year-old Leo decided right then and there he was going to become a circus performer or die trying. After the horse drawn wagons packed up and rolled out to the next town, the excited boy began playing circus in the vacant sod ring, trying to emulate the acts he saw, and assembled a rag tag collection of animals, including a goat, woodchuck and pet crow for his "side show."
Over the next 25 years, he tirelessly honed his craft, becoming accomplished at walking the slack wire, balancing a variety of objects. At only 130 pounds soaking wet, he balanced a steel rimmed 90 lb. wagon wheel on his chin astonishing the crowds. He also developed into an innovative dog and pony trainer.
1929 was the year Leo bought two tents, 4 trucks and hit the road never looking back. The budding performer was also quite proficient at colorfully painting his trucks/equipment as well as building circus wagons and floats, decorating them with ornate and intricate hand carved scroll work. His wife, Angela, tediously sewed all the spangled and sequined costumes for the performers, including their three sons, for their own acts in the blossoming family business which eventually became known as "Albright's Attractions."
In the mid 1950s, our father, Sonny Albrecht, designed and built a large portable stage using nothing but a hand saw, electric drill and a hammer. Naturally, Leo painted and decorated the new structure featuring a larger than life open-armed court jester as the focal point.
During their years of traveling with other shows, Leo and Sonny became friends with a number of performers of the world famous "Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus." I vividly recall the time when Grandpa's hand-built Queen coronation coach was featured and Leo honored at the Shrine Circus. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of rich circus history detailed in my brother Dale's book.
In 1947 Leo teamed up with mid-western showman, Jay Gould, owner of “Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Circus.” The two men complimented each other nicely and worked well together, putting on large parades as well as indoor Christmas shows in school auditoriums across the country and enabling the circus to operate during the cold winter months.
Eventually, “Sonny” fell in love with Gloria Stibal, Jay’s granddaughter, and soon married the young aerialist merging the two families. Having a grandfather and great grandfather, both proprietors of their own circus was a kid's dream.
As the oldest grandchild, I was fortunate to be able to tag along and work each summer during the last hurrah of Grandpa Leo's circus before the business was sold in 1968. "Feeling nostalgic,” I conducted a series of taped interviews with Leo in the mid 1970s that aided Dale in writing his book, which was recently nominated for The Stuart Thayer prize by The Circus Historical Society.
Beginning in 1937 and on through the 1940s, Jay Gould was the most famous showman to own and display the mummified remains of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in his sideshow. “John Wilkes Booth on Tour,” a story about Gould's attraction, appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in an article complete with photos of the morbid curiosity and both Life Magazine and Readers Digest covered the story as well.
As Gould's circus trucks arrived in each town, the clever showman made it a practice to summon both the local doctor and undertaker letting them examine the mummy. Word would spread quickly ensuring a large crowd for the daily performances. After some seven decades, our mother, Gloria, still recalls viewing the mummy on her grandpa Jay’s midway as a young girl. While conducting research prior to writing his book about Leo’s circus experiences, my brother, Dale, was surprised to learn that Gould’s daughter-in-law still had a copy of the original purchase agreement for the mummy as she, too, recalled the corpse in great detail.
155 years after the fact, there still exists a great deal of interest and intrigue in the Booth story. Two of the best books on the Lincoln assassination, “The First True Account of Lincoln’s Assassination” by Finis Bates and “The Legend of John Wilkes Booth; Myth, Memories & a Mummy" by C. Wyatt Evans painstakingly uncovered evidence that suggested Booth was not killed by Union soldiers as recorded in our history books but lived for decades under assumed names. If true, it implies there was a cover up by the United States Government regarding Lincoln's murder.
In 1923, William Burns, acting director of the Department of Justice, stated he believed there was more than enough compelling evidence to prove Lincoln's killer did, in fact, escape after the assassination and lived out his days in hiding. An autopsy of the mummy conducted in 1931 concluded the corpse was, in fact, Booth himself.
In the 1990s, John Wilkes Booth's relatives went to court attempting to get DNA tests on a section of an alleged Booth vertebrae the U.S. Government held in storage at Walter Reed Medical Center in hopes of comparing it with bone fragments from Booth's brother, Edwin, buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1893. Uncle Sam flatly refused their request.
More recently, in 2010, Brad Meltzer's "Decoded" aired an episode on the History Channel investigating the Lincoln Assassination largely supporting the findings of authors Finis and Evans. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln remains to this day the ultimate enigma for history buffs of all ages.
The Booth mummy mysteriously disappeared a few years after Jay Gould died in 1967 and is most likely in the hands of a private collector. Regardless of wherever it ended up, Jay Gould's descendants are the legal owners. One of Jay's grandsons recently joked about having to split it up should the family be fortunate enough to learn of the mummy's whereabouts.
The purchase agreement for the mummy is the last known documentation for Booth's exhibited remains and The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection has expressed interest in obtaining the paper for public display in The Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. However, the Gould family is undecided at this time about parting with the document.
In an effort to preserve our circus heritage, Dale recently donated a copy of his Circus Legend book, and the Albrecht family sent a DVD of rare footage of Jay Gould’s Circus and Carnival Midway, shot in the mid 1940s and early 50s, to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Dale's book, "Tales of a Small Town Circus Legend," and his second work, "The Wooden Fence," are both available on Amazon in various formats. Albrecht, who resides in Maine, plans to hold a book signing at the Belle Plaine Library sometime this summer.