The Great Dover Circus Shoot-Up

At least 50 attacked the O’Brien Circus, but only a black man went to jail.

Illustration By Drew Bardana

Small towns look after their own, especially against outsiders. And so it was in the Great Dover Circus Shoot-Up of 1883. That April, some townies got into an argument with employees of the traveling O’Brien Circus. Then, they lay in wait after the show’s evening performance. As the packed-up circus headed down Loockerman Street for the railroad depot, its wagons and drivers were pelted with rocks, bricks and, finally, bullets. Fourteen circus workers were shot—none fatally, though many suffered lasting injuries from locals who aimed for the groin and the eyes. Authorities named more than 50 participants. Fifteen were arrested and more than a dozen charged, but only Thomas Denney and William Smith were convicted. And only Smith—“a friendless Negro,” as one newspaper described him—went to jail. “While rejoicing at the conviction of some of the accused,” said an editorial for Wilmington’s Every Evening newspaper, “(we) cannot help feeling keenly that the fact of the negro Smith’s being the sole victim of outraged justice is a matter for sincere regret when Denney, whose superior lights made him infinitely the greater criminal, goes scot-free.” Violence was not uncommon at a 19th-century circus.

Before the Civil War, the entertainment was raw. A touring circus featured performers in scanty costumes and clowns who told both dirty and political jokes. There was plenty to offend parochial minds. Fights happened almost daily. By the 1880s, most circuses had been tamed—but, apparently, not all. The O’Brien Circus seems to have been a relatively small affair. It performed in a tent, and had some animals, though news reports do not indicate what type. It traveled by train, loading its wagons on at one station and rolling off at the next. According to one early report, the trouble started on the morning of April 21, a Saturday. Circus employees, said an eyewitness, had taken some of Dover’s “disreputable women” to the outskirts of town. Sharing their women, even these, apparently offended some locals’ sense of honor. About 9 a.m., an informal posse “succeeded in capturing the women and brought them back to town.” Skirmishing continued. Locals complained of circus workers chasing residents through the streets with clubs and revolvers. Patrons of the afternoon show complained of ticket agents who refused to make change. Circus workers complained of locals trying to rush the gate without paying. “The doorkeepers at once yelled the circus man’s rallying cry, ‘Hey Rube!’” reported the Every Evening. “The skirmish ended in the expulsion of the intruders, who were roughly handled.”

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Later, constables were called when circus workers learned of a plan to cut tent ropes. After the evening performance, circus workers were probably eager to be gone. At the request of management, police officers escorted the wagons rolling west on Loockerman. When the wagons reached Governors Avenue, however, a shot rang out. “That shot was the signal for more,” reported the Every Evening, “and, in a second, the firing was general.” Circus employees fired in the air, thinking the townies were firing blanks. But when the drivers fell from their wagons, many ran. Chief of Police Hutchins pulled one driver—shot in the eye and, he thought, “more dead than alive”—to the side of the street, then hid behind a box. John Cannon, a storeowner, would testify that he saw Denney and William Tomlinson—both in their early 20s—carrying guns and leading other young men. “Come, boys,” shouted Denney. “By God, I’ll lead the way.” Another witness saw both Denney and Tomlinson shooting at the wagons. Another heard Denney boast of “having given it to the sons of bitches in the face.” Circus manager Charles Henderson saw a black man—later identified as Smith— throw a brick just as another man pointed a gun at his face.

“Don’t shoot,” cried Henderson, who held up a hand just in time to have a bullet pass through it. Henderson also suffered pellet wounds in both eyes, and eventually lost one. A physician described him as “literally full of shot.” The horses streamed blood. Nearby houses and stores were described as “riddled.” No locals were injured. Newspapers elsewhere called it “Dover’s Disgrace.” The Trenton Times wondered whether civilization stopped at Wilmington; Every Evening assured readers that it did not. In Dover, the Delawarean played it low key. That newspaper, published by the influential Saulsbury family, deplored the incident, but printed none of the eyewitness accounts, which it deemed sensational. Several of the accused were members of prominent families. Denney’s father, Thomas Sr., was a major landowner. By October, when the case went to trial, memories were fuzzy. No one seemed to remember seeing a trigger being pulled—except by Denney, who had fled town. (He seems to have gone to Colorado, where he died in 1922.) Denney was convicted of riot, with sentencing suspended pending his apprehension. It is still pending. Smith was convicted for having thrown the brick, and got six months in prison and a $200 fine. Everyone else was acquitted.

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