BY MELANIE BUCK –
Mena garnered national attention in 1951 with arguably two of the area’s most unique pieces of history that occurred only twelve hours apart. The two accidents rocked what was otherwise a sleepy little section of Arkansas: the death of a 9-year old girl from a circus lion and the escape of a polar bear, leopards, monkeys, a gorilla, and other exotic animals.
It was on the evening of Tuesday, October 30, 1951, that the Campa Brothers Circus had set up their billowing tents full of colorful performances and exotic animals on what is now the site of Bearcat Stadium. Unbeknownst to circus attendees, during the show, a lion was roaming the grounds when the tragedy occurred.
The lion, called ‘tame’ by circus management, had been used in a performance during the show. However, upon completion of his performance, the lion was tied up using a small chain, which it was able to free itself from. When 9-year old Maria V. de la Campa came walking haplessly by, the lion grabbed the girl and pulled her under a truck by the back of her neck. Then Polk County Sheriff Hobart Hensley, who was attending the show, heard screams outside the main tent and investigated. Hensley found the girl still in the clutches of the lion’s jaws. According to reports by The Evening Star, several circus attendants “beat the animal with clubs and poles but the girl was not released until the lion trainer forced the brute’s mouth open with a stick.”
The lion was immediately caged while Maria was attended by Dr. Henry Rogers, who was also at the show, and transported to Polk County Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead approximately 30 minutes after arrival. She had been “fatally clawed and chewed by a half-grown lion cub following the big cat act shortly after 8 p.m.,” reported The Evening Star.
Maria V. de la Campa was the daughter of tight rope performers, Alfonso P. Campa and Mrs. Eloisa V. de la Campa. Maria was survived by her parents, seven sisters, and six brothers, all travelers and/or performers with the circus.
Maria was buried by Geyer Funeral home after a Funeral High Mass ceremony at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, on Eve Street in Mena, with a tombstone that reads ‘KILLED BY CIRCUS LION.’ It is quite possibly the only tombstone in the United States that has such an inscription. Upon research, The Pulse could find no other stories, or tombstones, that had similarities.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Howard Stone had originally issued two ‘John Doe warrants’, one for the circus manager and one for the trainer in charge of the lions, charging ‘negligent homicide’ in connection with the death of Maria V. de la Campa. “After a hearing at Mena Wednesday, Police judge Clem Brown said there wasn’t sufficient evidence of negligence,” reported the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, of Saratosa, Florida, on November 1, 1951.
The next day, on Halloween, around 7:45 a.m., as the Campa Brothers Circus was on its way to perform in Mt. Ida, another accident occurred near Pencil Bluff. In torrential rains, a circus truck carrying several animals wrecked, demolishing the cage and causing the escape of 2 leopards, one polar bear, and two black bears. A gorilla and several monkeys were also reported to be on the loose. A posse was quickly established and the hunt was on for the capture, dead or alive, of the escaped animals.
News of the events quickly spread nation-wide. The New York Times reported on November 1, 1951, “Sheriff Wilbur Tidwell of Montgomery County, of which Mount Ida is the seat, said a leopard had been spotted about 100 yards from the scene of the wreck. He reported that nineteen persons shot at the cat and that five hits were registered. The search for the animals was being conducted in bad weather and over urged [rugged] terrain in the Ouachita National Forest section about fifteen miles northwest of Mount Ida. The area is inhabited by native panthers, bears and other wild animals.”
Nationally known Life magazine also gave an account of the story in its November 1951 edition, page 58 reads: “Last week a jinx hit the Campa Bros. Circus on tour in Arkansas. First a 9 year old girl was killed by a supposedly tame lion. Next day a big circus truck turned over on the wet roads near Pencil [B]luff and spewed two leopards, two tame black bears, four monkeys and a polar bear into the rough. Sheriff Wilbur Tidwell promptly organized a posse of more than a hundred men armed with rifles and shotguns. Within a few hours after the crash a group of 19 men found one leopard. They all blasted away, but a state trooper, who was using a submachine gun, got credit for the kill. At dawn the next morning lumberjack M.Ralston Fair, 28 year old, stalked the other leopard with a little mongrel pup called Tony and a deer hound. Tony first spotted the leopard and bravely charged it. [H]e was instantly killed. Fair stunned the beast with three quick shots and then clubbed it to death with his rifle. By the week’s end one black bear and a monkey had surrender meekly, but the other animals were still at large. Fair[,] who shot the leopard[,] and gets to keep pelt.”
The state trooper credited with the kill of the first leopard was Arkansas State Highway Patrolman Clarence (Red) Montgomery of Malvern.
The show was never performed at Mt. Ida that day. Some of the animals from the wreck were recaptured and returned to the circus, some were killed by locals, and some were never seen again. Local historian, Harold Coogan, wrote in The Mena Star, “Some locals in Polk County who spot black panthers from time to time trace these non-native creatures to those circus animals which were never recaptured in 1951.”