This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Hi everyone, just before we get started I wanted to let you know that the next couple of episodes will have slightly more sensitive themes, and this episode I’ll be talking about a real life kidnapping of a young girl that took place in the 1930s.
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
When the circus comes to a small Irish town, the air changes. The technicolour peaks of the big top rise and the bright lights and flags tell everyone that a wholly different world has arrived. Children and adults alike cram into seats around the ring, eyes wide at the spectacle. And then, in a few days, it’s gone. The tent and performers, and the magic they create, seem to melt away, and life goes back to the dullness of before. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t dreamed at least once of running away to join the circus? It’s not difficult to see how the thought of abandoning your mundane, oppressive existence for a new life of change and excitement has captured so many imaginations throughout time.
But what happens when that circus lifestyle is in fact the existence you are trying to escape? When the world people dream of joining is the very life you are longing to leave? In 1937, the attempted elopement of a young German acrobat and an Irish circus performer from Galway led to a midnight car chase to the Irish border, and a court case that captivated the country.
I’m Ruth Atkins – and this is Unreal.
Fossett’s family circus has been running in Ireland for over 100 years. The circus was founded on a real-life version of these classic tales of escapism. In 1870 George Lowe eloped from his family in Mallow and joined a travelling circus with his fiancée. Styling himself as “The Amazing Dr. Powell,” George went on to perform with Buffalo Bill Cody in the USA, and by the turn of the century was touring Ireland with his own group. A young bareback horserider, Edward Fossett, fell in love with George’s daughter Mona. They were married in 1922. Fossett took over the running of the circus when George retired some years later.
Edward Fossett was the son of Sir Robert Fossett, already of long-standing English Circus fame, thus he was already well experienced in the art of putting on a serious show. The circus efforts of this Fossett name, spreading throughout the world and lasting now for over 150 years, makes it the oldest family circus in the world.
For those in the small towns and countryside of Ireland, the visit of a circus troupe brought with it a welcome opportunity to escape your daily life. It was the 1930s, and these decades following the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War were certainly in need of some cheer and spectacle. Ireland was finding its feet again, as a newly independent state, and through entertainments like the travelling circus, people were able to put their tragic pasts behind them, and come together as a community again. Plus, the tickets were cheap, about 4 pence for a child. Prior to the coming of television in the 1960s there were around 140 travelling shows of various kinds making their way throughout Ireland – circuses, magic shows and travelling theatres. Even as early as the 1930s, the newly-created border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was already proving a difficulty – as one joke from the time goes:
There was once a circus travelling to Donegal with two elephants, but when they arrived there were no elephants to be seen. The men waiting when asked what had happened. “Oh” the circus men answered “the elephants were delayed at the border because their trunks had to be searched.”
In spite of such hindrances, Circuses ran all over Ireland, all throughout the year – even during the solemn fast of lent, when all other entertainments ceased for six weeks. Starved of amusement, the excitement when the circus was in town was intense.
The first sign of the circus’s arrival came with the advance agent, arriving in his horse and brightly-coloured caravan to put the colourful posters up, boasting proudly of the many daring acts the townsfolk would soon have the chance to see – often with wild exaggeration. As one circus man said: If we have 50 elephants say a hundred. On circus day we are boys and girls again, and we want to believe there are a hundred million trillion elephants in the parade, and a billion funny clowns, and whole bushels and bushels of beautiful ladies on white horses.” The people in towns loved these spectacles and tall tales, and often let their imaginations run away from them. Lots of folklore from this time describes people leaving the circus in the evening, only to hear the calling of spirits, fairies or other supernatural beings as they went on their way home. For many, the circus felt like a bridge between two worlds – the ordinary, everyday life, and the magical otherworld that was always just around the corner. With your mind opened and your imagination piqued from a night at the circus, you never knew what you might see.
Circus owners encouraged these romantic notions, as they were good for business. In keeping with this tendency to exaggerate, Fossetts Circus was known in the the 1930s by the rather more colourful title of The Great Heckenberg Berlin Tower Super Circus. The group had nothing to do with anyone called Heckenberg, but Edward Fossett liked to use exotic names as a way to increase the sense of mystery, and drive business to the shows. Having a diverse international cast also helped, and Fossett enlisted many performers from Europe and further afield to join their troupe, particularly for their busiest summer season. Sometimes Jewish and Roma performers came to Ireland to escape the growing persecution they were facing in their own land at the time.
In March 1937, a family of acrobats from Hamburg Germany joined the Heckenberg circus for summer season. They were Bernhard and Laura, and their daughter Laura, who was thirteen. Acrobatics was one of the most exciting features of the Heckenberg circus. It was still a relatively new art form at this point – up until the mid 19th century, circuses were mainly famous for their daring animal acts – with equestrians and horse trainers featuring as the stars of the show. But Edward Fossett himself was an accomplished acrobat, and his circus featured trapeze and perch acts, with the graceful lifts and balances described by one reviewer at the time as a “poem in motion.” Acrobatics is the kind of performance that elevates this dream-view of circus life, that feeling of intense freedom and the ability to captivate, defying even the laws of gravity as you launch yourself into the air.
Of course, the reality is rather different. Performers must dedicate years of grueling practice to capture that appearance of effortless fluidity. The memoir of one 20th century acrobat describes the intensity needed to excel. He began daily training for trapeze acts when he was aged just three, and had been rehearsing daily ever since. To build up and maintain the necessary muscles, near-constant practice is required. Acrobatics is hard.
It’s dangerous too. The heights and contortions expected from a serious circus show can badly hurt or even kill performers when not done correctly. It’s a constant juggle to maintain safe practise while continuing to bring new and increasingly shocking performances to entertain your audience.
Thirteen year old Laura Neumair was already beginning her circus career, performing an acrobatic and dancing act with her parents in Heckenberg’s circus. She was blonde and beautiful, so the newspaper accounts describe, and her parents had high hopes for her as a performer. Laura was receiving regular training in acrobatics from her father, but she didn’t enjoy this. Though acrobatics were her family’s trade, Laura hoped one day to go away from her parents’ life, and try something entirely on her own. She was a child, rebelling against the strict path her parents had set for her – but instead of dreaming of running away to the circus, Laura’s life meant a different dream of escape was required.
Laura’s hopes for a different life were increased when Laura and her family joined the circus in the west of Ireland. There, she was befriended by Harry Hensley, an older employee of the Heckenberg circus. There’s a little bit of a question mark over Hensley’s age – newspaper articles have him as 30, 32, or even 40, but the closest birth record would put him as 25 at the time of the incident. In any case, he was undoubtedly too old to be making plans of any kind with thirteen year old Laura.
The family performed and travelled with the Heckenberg circus that entire summer. Harry Hensley would visit their caravan often in this time, getting closer and closer to Laura. Laura’s parents had noticed Hensley’s interest, and were worried about it. Hensley repeatedly assured the father that there was nothing between him and Laura other than friendship, which –just my opinion – is honestly the least reassuring way to behave under the circumstances.
In October, the Heckenberg circus reached Ballina in county Mayo. The touring routes of circuses were planned out as far as two years in advance, prebooking sites and venues, getting new costumes, props and lights, and rehearsing their productions until it was totally perfect. At Ballina, the Heckenberg Circus would have arrived as they did at any small town – with the advance men cycling ahead first to put up posters, then travelling back to the troupe to join the others as they entered the town. When they had arrived, the workers began the build-up, setting up camp and erecting the colourful tent, or Big Top in a clearing in the town. Following this came The Grand Parade, when the circus performers, workers and animals marched through the town to let everyone know they had arrived in style. Cheered on by excited crowds
By this time Laura and Hensley’s talk had progressed. They were discussing running away together. They talked about setting up their own show or business, one where Laura could give up acrobatics, and lead a new life. As they grew closer, Laura’s parents grew more and more concerned.
On October 19th Laura’s mother looked through the window of her caravan, and saw Laura and Hensley standing together. They weren’t embracing, she later told the court. They were just standing near each other, and talking. But she said they were too friendly. Laura slapped her daughter. Relations were clearly strained in the family. It’s hard to tell now how much of this was brought on by Hensley’s manipulation, and how much of it was in Laura’s mind already. Laura was deeply troubled at this stage. She felt she would be doing her parents good by leaving them.
On the morning October 20th, Bernhard sent his daughter into Ballina town for groceries. There was a matinee performance scheduled that day. Edward Fossett’s son Johnny came up to Bernhard and told him that he’d seen Hensley leaving. A while later, when the show was about to start and Laura had yet to return from the shops, Bernhard became apprehensive, sending his wife to look for her. The family had a trunk where they kept their clothes and costumes, and Bernhard opened it to get ready for the show. Laura’s clothes were missing.
Bernhard rushed to the local garda station. As he spoke very little English, he needed an interpreter to explain what had happened. Luckily, just such a person was available within the Heckenberg Circus’s diverse cast. Borris Lid Heo Tsehn, an Asian performer was travelling with the circus at the time, and he was fluent in fourteen languages. He even spoke a small amount of Irish. Borris was able to put across the urgent message easily, to the wild excitement of the local media.
The guards quickly investigated, and learned that Laura and Hensley walked or possibly hitch-hiked to Enniscrone across the Mayo/Sligo border, taking a bus from there to Sligo town. They were tipped off later in the evening that the pair had reached Blacklion in County Cavan, mere minutes on foot from the Northern Irish border and the Fermanagh town of Belcoo. If Hensley managed to get Laura across the border it would be much more difficult for the Guards’to stop him. They would be lost to the family, possibly forever.
A late-night car-dash ensued. The guards rushed to Blacklion to stop the pair before it was too late. They reached them just in time, and were able to accost Hensley and bring the couple back to Ballina. Newspapers all report their parting as “a painful scene.” Laura had believed however misguidedly that Hensley was leading her to a better life, and was facing the shatters of this dream. Hensley most likely knew the penalty he was about to face. It was reported that as he was taken into custody, he simply said “there is nothing I want to say.”
The trial took place a couple of days later, with Borris Lid Heo Tsehn featuring as key interpreter, translating for the various Heckenburg witnesses. It was a scene which as you can imagine caused quite a stir in the Ballina District Court of 1937, generating sensationalized articles in local and national newspapers. The headlines were lurid: Circus Romance Shattered at the Border, Germans and Chinese: Tales of the Circus! One can imagine the splash it made, in the midst of the commonplace local news titles – the surrounding articles on the Ballina Herald being things like “Drunk in charge of motor lorry,” and “Nurse Appointed.” Ironically, poor Laura Neumair’s hopes for escape and a different life, twisted and manipulated by Hensley and dashed altogether when she was returned by the Gardai to her parents, had become fodder for the newspaper escapism of thousands across Ireland.
The Neumairs left Heckenberg’s circus, and returned as a family to Germany in 1938. Shortly after this, with the outbreak of World War II, it became much more challenging for circus owners to secure international performers, and the compulsory tillage regulations instigated in the Emergency meant that the Fossett family members had to spend more time working on their farmland in Wicklow. They also had to change their title – when news of World War II reached where they were performing in Derry, the Heckenberg Berlin Tower Super Circus was pelted with stones and run out of town! It was rebranded overnight into Edward Fossett’s Circus Cavalcade, which performs simply as Fossett’s Circus today. Despite these wartime hiccups, they remained successful. Circuses had a better in this period, than newer forms of entertainment like plays and films which were rigorously censored to keep in with Ireland’s wartime neutrality.
Mona and Edward Fossett died young, in 1946 and 1951, leaving their three sons Bobby, Teddy and Johnny to take over the show. Only in their 20s, the three were the youngest circus proprieters in the world. Today the show still runs with Teddy Fossett’s sons as the helm, and circus performance has been recognized as an important art form by the Irish Arts council for just over a decade, finally giving recognition to the joy and excitement it brought to small-town Irish life for so many years.
Harry Hensley spent three months in prison for kidnapping Laura. He had no fixed address at the time of his trial, and following his imprisonment he disappears from Irish records, as does the multilingual interpreter Borris Lid Heo Tsehn who so transfixed the local media. But the splendor of Fossett’s circus lives on. The next time you go to the circus, as you sit around the ring and wait for the spectacular show to begin, perhaps spare a thought for the performers of decades past – think of the joy they brought to all who attended, and remember Laura the acrobat and this long ago incident, where real-life drama threatened to overshadow even the circus’s wildest acts.
Thank you once again for listening to this episode of Unreal. Unreal is written and produced by me, Ruth Atkins. Music is by Slainte from the Free Music Archive – the theme song is called the butterfly. You can find links to the rest of the songs, as well as sources and further reading on Unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed the show, it would be great if you could leave a rating or review on iTunes, and subscribe to Unreal wherever you get your podcasts. To keep up with new episodes, and for more folklore tidbits you can follow me on twitter @UnrealPod, or on my newly created facebook page – Unreal Irish Folklore. Thank you to my new followers on twitter! It’s lovely to have you.
I’ll be back in two weeks time, with another forgotten story of Irish folklore and history – and until then, Go neiri on bother leat.