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Pawnee Bill Ranch

The Case of the Two Tents


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<Introduction Music>

Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.

Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast! My name is Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator.

Anna: And I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter.

Erin: It’s that time of year, Anna. When spring rolls around here at the Ranch we know that it’s time for...

Anna: Wild West Show season!

Erin: That’s right, Anna. Since 1988 the Pawnee Bill Ranch has hosted a reproduction of Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show every summer. So to honor the upcoming Wild West Show season, we thought it would be fun to do a podcast series about some of the strange happenings of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.

Anna: Most of the stories from the road might not be known to the average member of the public, but in doing research on Pawnee Bill and his show we have come across some really interesting...if not odd...little facts.

Erin: Right. And the story that we have today comes all the way from a New York City newspaper clipping.

Anna: The New York Times to be exact! Now, one of the greatest things about being a researcher in the 21st Century is the massive amount of access that we have to newspapers and documents all across the world. The digitization of newspaper collections gives us instant insight into a wide variety of topics with a few strokes of your fingers. A search of Pawnee Bill events in a database brought to my attention an event which took place in New Jersey in 1906 that the press dubbed...“The Case of the Two Tents.”

Erin: That sounds pretty mysterious! But before we actually delve into the topic, it’s probably best if we get a little context and talk about how dangerous Wild West Shows were in Pawnee Bill’s time. Today we have hose little things called safety regulations in place to ensure that animals, performers, and audience members are all kept safe. But back then...well, it was a different story. Route books for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show are filled with incidents of people breakings bones, suffering severe injury, and even dying.

Anna: There’s an old quote that theater people like to throw around and that is it’s always best not to work with animals and children in live theater, because they’re so unpredictable. I think that quote is especially true for animals. Wild West Show history is filled with stories of horses going on rampages through audiences or breaking free from their corrals and tearing through cities streets. Take one frightened horse and multiply it by one hundred and you’ve got a true recipe for disaster.

Erin: No kidding! But perhaps all of that pales in comparison to Mother Nature though. Performing outdoors in the sometimes volatile spring and summer weather would leave you at the mercy of the weather. The heat was sometimes oppressive, an early or late winter storm could ruin your season, floods could stop trains and destroy arena grounds, and thunderstorms could rip tents to shreds, costing money to repair and replace, not to mention the danger posed to anyone stuck inside of a collapsing pile of canvas. It’s still something we worry about today with our modern Wild West Show. One day of bad weather can truly ruin everything.

Anna: And that is the perfect set up for our story today. On July 17, 1906 a severe weather system was brewing over New York State. The storm would bring high winds, thunder, lightning and rain across the state and into New Jersey and right in the path of this thunderstorm was Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show which was performing a show at 28th Street and Avenue C in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Erin: And from what we can tell the show was going normally that afternoon. The crew had successfully erected the canvas tents that would house both the main show and the cast members. A typical Wild West Show would build dozens of tents in the performance area and the main tent would cover a really large area. These tents were made of strong, thick white canvas and were shaped and secured using wooden poles and rope.

Anna: Right, and during the middle of the performance, the wind picked up as the heavy thunderstorm hit the area. As soon as the wind hit the Wild West Show tent, the ropes supporting the main poles started to snap. Hearing the commotion, the large audience started to panic and run from their seats.

Erin: Now a tent collapse was nothing new to Pawnee Bill. It had happened a few other times in his early career, but it was a potentially deadly event that needed to be avoided at all costs. So, Pawnee Bill got everyone’s attention and he sent out an order to have everyone gather in the center of the arena, directly under the main support. So, just as the order was being carried out, the West end of the tent started to collapse, and it actually threw audience members out of their seats.

Anna: Now from the newspaper clipping, it states that the audience members that were thrown into the arena were not severely injured. But as the tent started to sag, Pawnee Bill knew that he needed to act quickly. Running to the falling tent pole, he used his own body to brace against it, keeping it upright until the audience could escape to safety. Before help could arrive though the tent shifted and the pole fell on Pawnee Bill, dislocating his shoulder.

Erin: Well, luckily that was the most severe injury anyone suffered in the tent collapse, but outside the main arena, another ten tents collapsed in the high winds, sending 100 frightened horses racing through the streets of Bayonne. Still in costume, the cowboys that had been performing in the arena as the storm hit gave chase through the streets. It took nearly an hour to gather all the horses and return back to the show grounds. The newspaper is quoted as saying that the residents of Bayonne were treated to a real Wild West exhibition!

Anna: And that would be a really good ending to this strange little story...but it was about to get really bizarre. About a block away from where the Wild West Show was being performed, Rev. Frank J. Potter and the People’s Baptist Church of Bayonne were hosting a tent revival. Their tent survived the high winds and rain without a problem and the Reverend was quoted as saying... “It is the Lord’s tent, and I trusted to Him. I knew He would take care of the Tent.” It sounds like a fairly normal statement from a religious man, but that statement would cause a huge outcry...not from Pawnee Bill and his Wild West Show...but from the people of New York City.

Erin: Yeah, it’s kind of funny! For nearly a week after the event, the New York Times would publish all these editorials and opinion pieces from people who had read the original article and were offended by what the Reverend had said. So the newspaper dubbed it the “Case of the Two Tents.” You know, people really rallied around Pawnee Bill’s act calling it heroic and saying that the Lord was just as much with him in ensuring the safety of his audience as he’d been with the Reverend’s tent and that the preacher’s comments were both selfish and foolish. So, it ended up being really bad publicity for the Reverend and an odd source of good will for Pawnee Bill after such a disaster.

Anna: Now, as heated as the debate got between readers of the New York Times, the entire incident ended just as quickly as it had begun. Within a week there was no more mention of the incident and life returned normal again for the people of Bayonne, New Jersey. And there ended the “Case of the Two Tents”, but believe it or not...this isn’t the strangest story we have from the history of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.

Erin: No, not by far. Because in 1899 students from Princeton University tried to actually wage war on Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.

Anna: That is probably one of my favorite stories involving Pawnee Bill’s cast. Any time you have Ivy League students trying to make trouble with cowboys, it’s never going to end well!

Erin: That’s so true! Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, the 1899 Princeton Riot will be our next topic. Until then, I’m Erin Brown.

Anna: And I’m Anna Davis. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time!

Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.