It was a cliché of a more innocent age, a time when people didn’t travel much and before radio, TV and the Internet opened windows to a world beyond small-town America.
If a boy wanted adventure, he could run away and join the circus. And that is exactly what 17-year-old E.C. Fain of Lexington did in 1904.
What’s more, Fain kept running back to the circus for 14 seasons. For most of his career, he helped manage some of the biggest sideshow stars of the circus’ golden age.
The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus makes its annual stop at Rupp Arena this weekend, so I thought it would be a good time to tell Fain’s story, or at least what I could find of it.
For years, Lexington artist Joe Petro III has collected vintage sideshow memorabilia. His collection has been shown at museums around the country, including the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., and a 1997 exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum.
Petro, my first cousin, mentioned one day that he had some personal papers and photographs of a Lexingtonian who really had run away and joined the circus. He didn’t know a lot about Elmore Crenshaw Fain except that he spent several years as assistant manager of Barnum & Bailey’s famous Annex, as the sideshow was called.
Petro had postcards Fain sent home from his circus travels, first to his mother, then to his girlfriend who later became his wife, and then to their son. He also had vintage photographs of Fain working the Annex, some of which were taken by the famous circus photographer Frederick W. Glasier.
There were snapshots of Fain with some of the Annex’s biggest stars, including Zip the Pinhead (William Henry Johnson) and the giant George Auger.
Fain also worked with such sideshow legends as Skeleton Dude (Eddie Masher), the midget Princess Wee Wee (Harriet Elizabeth Thompson) and “the armless wonder” Charles B. Tripp, who signed souvenir photos in perfect penmanship with his feet.
People have always been curious about human oddities, and in those days it wasn’t politically incorrect to stare. And this was before America had much of a social safety net, so performing in sideshows and selling souvenir photos was a way for these special-needs people to make a living — sometimes a very good one.
So-called “freaks” were a big part of low-brow American entertainment from the early 1800s until as late as the 1960s. Petro’s collection includes a handbill from the 1836 North American tour of Eng and Chang Bunker, who inspired the term “Siamese twins.” They appeared in a dozen Kentucky towns, including Lexington.
Fain seems to have liked the traveling life of a seasonal circus manager, but his postcards indicate that it got harder each year to leave his wife, Ruth, and young son, White, back home in Lexington.
“How is Daddy’s little man?” Fain wrote to his son from Stamford, Conn. “Take good care of Mother until I get home.”
The Lexington Leader wrote a brief about Fain in 1908, saying he was on his way to New York’s Madison Square Garden for his fifth season with Barnum & Bailey. Fain was mentioned several times in entertainment industry magazines, such as The Player and The Billboard.
The Billboard’s last mention of him was on March 30, 1918, noting that Fain had left the circus business “and become interested in an enterprise in his hometown, Lexington, Ky.”
In December 1917, Barnum & Bailey executive Charles R. Hutchinson wrote a recommendation letter for Fain to the Chicago meatpacker Swift & Co., calling him “a man of education, refinement, of excellent presence and a gentleman at all times.”
Fain spent the rest of his working life as a Lexington-based salesman and manager for Swift, living at 217 Catalpa Road with his wife, son and daughter, Barbara. He retired in 1951 after 34 years with Swift and died in 1973 at age 86.
Fain’s Herald-Leader obituary mentioned his career with Swift, that he was a charter member and former treasurer of the Church of the Good Shepherd and that he belonged to the Oleika Temple Shrine and another Masonic lodge.
But it never mentioned that Fain had once traveled the country with midgets, giants and Zip the Pinhead during the heyday of The Greatest Show on Earth.