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Circus Star Mabel Stark: Confessions of a Cat Woman

Updated on April 17, 2019
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has been a professional writer and critic of films, books, music & theater for over 20 years.

Mabel Stark and her trained tigers were legendary.
Mabel Stark and her trained tigers were legendary. | Source

Circus Controversy - Women Tiger Trainers

This is the gripping and shocking story of a tiny woman who ran away with the circus around 1900 to escape institutionalization by a husband who no longer wanted her.

This was a time before most people in America had electricity, indoor plumbing, or an automobile. The Wright Brothers were just now experimenting with flight!


Mabel Stark and one of her favorite tigers. In 1916, she adopted an orphan Bengal tiger cub as her own and named him Rajah.
Mabel Stark and one of her favorite tigers. In 1916, she adopted an orphan Bengal tiger cub as her own and named him Rajah. | Source

The scarcely 5-foot tall lady became the only living female tiger trainer in her era, one or two having been mauled to death before her. She herself was mauled several times, but kept coming back to the big cat cage, until she left the Big Top in 1938.

This fictionalized biography is gripping, because it features danger and controversy.

The controversy surrounds the question of how accurate the fiction might be, especially written by a Canadian author about American culture. It is also controversial also in its explanations of animal training. It is controversial thirdly in its content of unorthodox means used by an independent woman to survive in a time in which women were little accepted in the US workplace, were not permitted to vote, and were largely immobile.

Survival of Mabel Stark

How did Mabel Stark survive The Great Depression? How did she survive lions and tigers, carnies, and cut-throat competition among circuses until WWII; and through to the end of their fast decline?

The story is as shocking as the film Iron Jawed Angels of the same era -- Some women were beaten and spat upon for wanting to vote, while others were ripped to bloody shreds in a lion cage, which was a step up from stripping in the sideshow.

The story is shocking for the inhumane lack of care with which some circuses ruined animals.

It is shocking for the lack of recognition of professionally and historically important women like this one.

Carousels accompanying circuses often feature figures form the acts in the ring.
Carousels accompanying circuses often feature figures form the acts in the ring. | Source

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

By Robert Hough. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003

Born in 1889, one of the most famous animal trainers in US history fled the mental health system of the early 1900s, married 6 times, suffered repeated catastrophic injuries, and ended up working with the big cats in California's JungleLand until she was 79 years old in 1968.

Survival During Intense Hardships

Ms. Stark never retired, never collected Social Security, never benefited from Medicare; and finally committed suicide after the death of her favorite tiger, as far as can be determined from archived records.

The wonders of Ms. Stark's life were more difficult than the abusive treatment suffered by her contemporary sisters seeking The Vote in America. Both lived in cages of a sort - one full of tigers and one filled with discrimination.

The extent of this cat woman's injuries was worse in her first mauling than those depicted for Jesus by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The film was nothing compared to the front row scene of a tiger knocking her down, ripping her open lengthwise and eating raw muscle.


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Source
Source

Both lived in cages of a sort - one full of tigers and one filled with discrimination.

Physical Impact of Mauling Incidents

Stark loss massive amounts of skin and blood, but recovered to return to the big cats she loved. Like many people on Valentine's Day questionnaires, she'd choose an animal over a human mate.

During Stark's first massive injury, men and women jumped up and ran out of the tent, just as they ran from the theater during The Passion, appalled and sickened by the CGI scourging of Christ.

However, Mabel's injury was real and blood flowed everywhere. Some male spectators came forward to the cage thinking to help, but it was too late. Amazingly, ripped to shreds, she recovered - and that was just the first major scathing. She lived for her work; and there was no Workers Compensation or disability insurance in those days.

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Big cat taming was part of the earliest circuses, always performed by men, as in this traveling menagerie, 1762.1873 lithograph.A painting of big cat trainer with a lion, a tiger, and 3 hybrid offspring during the 19th Century (AD 1800s).
Big cat taming was part of the earliest circuses, always performed by men, as in this traveling menagerie, 1762.
Big cat taming was part of the earliest circuses, always performed by men, as in this traveling menagerie, 1762.
1873 lithograph.
1873 lithograph.
A painting of big cat trainer with a lion, a tiger, and 3 hybrid offspring during the 19th Century (AD 1800s).
A painting of big cat trainer with a lion, a tiger, and 3 hybrid offspring during the 19th Century (AD 1800s).

Animal Training Right and Wrong

Mabel Stark worked with a series of menageries and circuses, beginning possibly as a sideshow stripper or "cooch", but documented as a horse rider in the circus show. When she ruled Center Ring with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920s with 21 tigers, the circus was the top entertainment anywhere in the USA.

Animal training was crude. Wearing either a black or a white leather jumpsuit, Stark wrestled with 500-pound Bengal tigers and other cats and none were neutered nor de-clawed. Today, they are neutered, de-clawed, and de-fanged and do not live as long with the circus as they would in the jungle.

Author Robert Hough visited every city in America that had a circus museum, especially Circus World in Barraboo, Minnesota. Journals, letters, and circus posters provide an outline for his book, but fiction fills in major gaps, as he explains in his afterward to the book.

A Landmark Vanished

According to reporter May Okon in the New York Daily News on 2/26/1950, Mabel Stark suffered massive mauling injuries on three separate occasions at Center Ring, along with a dozen lesser attacks, but always came back.

In 1968, Mabel died and JungleLand declared bankruptcy and passed away as well. The only remembrance of it today is a restaurant on the former site, named the New Jungleland Cafe, where photos of Mabel Stark may be seen inside. She is a landmark just as much as is the cafe.

Movies At Jungleland

JungleLand provided scenes for the films "Birth of a Nation," a "Tarzan" film, and "The Adventures of Robin Hood." The MGM lion and Mr. Ed, The Talking Horse lived in JungleLand with many other animal actors.

One of the shows that featured Mabel Stark. Virginia Barnes Stonehouse writes on Amazon.com of her dad, Al G. Barnes, and his circus where Mabel Stark performed.
One of the shows that featured Mabel Stark. Virginia Barnes Stonehouse writes on Amazon.com of her dad, Al G. Barnes, and his circus where Mabel Stark performed.

New Perspectives and Key Testimonies

Virginia Barnes Stonehouse writes on Amazon.com with her own memories of her dad, Al G. Barnes, and his circus where Mabel Stark performed. She takes issue with two parts of the novel and stands up for her mom, who was also denigrated in the story The Last Confession Of Mabel Stark.

Circus History Message & Discussion Board contains some interesting personal histories of individuals that have seen or have known the Marvelous Mabel Stark. A visitor signing as Giovanni Iuliania tells that Louis Roth was a well known animal trainer, but also a respected trainer's trainer of his era.

Roth was allegedly was the trainer and mentor to Clyde Beatty and Mabel Stark, among others. Iuliania takes issue with author Robert Hough's contention that circuses picked up temporary labor from local drunk wards and insane asylums. That assertion may or may not be true.

Author Roger Smith posted on the same bulletin board that he was trained and coached by Mabel Stark at JungleLand for the last 3.5 years of her life, which would be approximately late 1962 through April 20, 1968. He has posted on at least one circus blog, with a photo of Mabel posed with her friend Mae West, whom Stark doubled for in the movies. Smith has been reportedly writing his own biography of Mabel Stark, to replace fiction with facts as he received them from Mabel about 50 years ago.

Stark had been at the entertainment complex/theme park for 30 years, since 1938. Mr. Smith lived across the street from her and remembered that her housekeeper found her dead in bed that morning.

Other stories of Mabel's end are circulating in Hough's book, by rumor, and on the Internet. One false legend is that she stuck her head in her oven, turned on the gas, and died by suicide.

Another is that she drank poison, stumbled out to her car in the garage, and sat inside it with the engine running until she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Rumors are that her favorite tiger, one that had mauled people to the extent that he was ordered destroyed, had been spirited away to a safe haven and Mabel learned that he had died on the day of her own death.

A Rare Book by Mabel Stark

A teacher posted a message on Amazon.com around Thanksgiving 2009 that she found a copy of Mabel's 1938 memoir Hold That Tiger and read from it in class every year until she lent it to someone. The book was named after a popular big band song of the era. The Internet Movie Data Base shows that Mabel appeared in a few films, but uncredited.

Biographical Films of the Cat Woman

Although documentaries have featured Mabel Stark, Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes purchased movie rights to Hough's book, but a screen play is not yet in hand. Ms. Winslet has planned to play Mabel Stark.

.

California animal trainer Roger Smith, who worked with Mabel Stark, is planning a film about her life that he has titled "Tiger Queen, The Life Of Mabel Stark." He already has appeared in the 2018 documentary "Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer."

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Ms. Stark's early memoirs.
Ms. Stark's early memoirs.
Ms. Stark's early memoirs. | Source

Marvelous Mabel Stark

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark: A Novel (An Evergreen book)
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark: A Novel (An Evergreen book)

I enjoy re-reading this book often. During the golden age of circuses, Mabel Stark was the superstar of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a curious celebrity. A tiny Kentucky blonde in a white leather bodysuit, she was a daredevil, reportedly sexually adventurous, and courageous beyond reason. Enter 1968, where Mabel is age 80 and losing her job at Jungleland in Southern California. She worked until the day she died - was it suicide?

 

The End of Mabel Stark

Mabel Stark did not receive credit enough for her life of accomplishments, even though animal training was cruel in itself in many ways – whips, guns, shouting, and many atrocities. In addition, she never worked under Social Security, had no retirement fund, and had to work to the day she died at age 79.

She had no retirement income except from continued work at the mismanaged end-time JungleLand amusement park. She may have worked herself to death.

Her happiest times may have been when she doubled for Mae West in films, when both stated that each would be just as happy to be the other woman. That was a short time of happiness.

Glasgow Barfly sing "The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark"

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Patty Inglish MS

Comments and Thoughts

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks a million for this additional information, Ms. Coleman. It was not an easy life at all in the early 1900s. I wish I could have met your Great Aunt.

    • profile image

      Lynne Haney Coleman  

      7 years ago

      Note the family changed the spelling of our last name. I was told this upset Mary Haynie aka Mabel Stark. Mary was my Grandfather Jim Haneys older sister. She was raised on a farm in Cobb KY. Her Father Hardy died in 1901 of flu when Mary was 12. Her Mother remarried and died in Carterville, IL. in 1905. She was sent to live with an Aunt but returned to take custody of her siblings when they chose to stay with Mr. Allen their stepfather she disowned them.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile image

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      8 years ago from The Zoo

      Wow! What a great hub, great writing and great story.

    • figment profile image

      Karli Duran 

      9 years ago from Texas

      Love this Hub!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Truthfully, I never enjoyed circuses after the first few I went to as a kid. However, I do think that the circus is a unique culture and part of our folklore.Whatever the abuses, they seem attached to their animals. There is a town in Illinois where a circus animal died and they build a shrine to it.

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 

      9 years ago from Great Britain

      Fascinating story. I knew nothing about this lady , and I do so love cats of all sizes. Thank you for another seriously good hub

    • caretakerray profile image

      Ray Van Hoff 

      9 years ago from Michigan U.S.A.

      Patty Inglish, MS:

      Well put together hub. Mabel Stark...I muast confest this is the first I heard of her. Thanx for an education. I thoroughly enjoyed it. :)

      caretakerray

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      What a fascinating person. Thanks for sharing Mabel

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Pamela99 - I keep asking myself how anyone really survived and made a living from 1900 - 1950. It was very difficult - circuses always moving around, the Depression, war, Cold War. All a hard life I think.

      travel - The trick of having a large tiger stand on its hind legs and job like a kangaroo is particularly cruel, to me - could this not ruin its joints? And what of the pecking order among the people in the circus - I wonder how some are actually treated by others. Life seems so diffuclt for them all.

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 

      9 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      Many are exploited in the Circus. Beyond the great entertainment they give to eager spectators, the dark side of it always fall to the trainers behind. Just like this great women who trained tigers in the show. Kodus on this hub, Patty.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      What a fascinating woman and story. I can't even imagine such a life. Circus people were known to be a rough crowd anyway, and then the life with the tigers is amazing. this is a vary well written story with many interesting links.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for all the comments!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for this interesting story of a verr strong and brave woman.

    • myawn profile image

      myawn 

      9 years ago from Florida

      I think she was amazing. i have a big black cat who most people are afraid of he looks like a small panther. I could never be brave enough to go in with the real big big cats.

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      9 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Another fascinating read. I am cat crazy lately, as there have been multiple big cat sightings around my sphere lately. Mabel Stark's story is compelling, I cringe at the thought of being attacked by a cat as heavy or heavier than me.

      "Hold That Tiger"aka "The Tiger Rag" has been one of my favorite Big Band songs since I saw the movie "Turner" about the eccentric man and his three-headlight car! Here's the best YouTube version I could find for you Patty, on a crackling 78, enjoy!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iimCcAIpznM&fea...

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Yes, those canaries in the circus probably wore eye patches and smoked cigars :)

    • SimeyC profile image

      Simon Cook 

      9 years ago from NJ, USA

      Very interesting hub - amazing woman by the sounds of her - if one cat bit me, let alone ripped me almost in half, I'd never go back!

      BTW I misread 'How did she survive lions and tigers, carnies' - I thought it said 'canaries' - hmmm those canaries can be a little violent eh!!!

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