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Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations of Homer’s Circus Owner, Sig Sautelle

by Martin A. Sweeney

Sig Sautelle
Over a hundred years ago, there must have been something thrilling about a circus coming to town and perhaps something even more enthralling about a circus coming to town to spend the winter. Such must have been the case for young people in the Cortland County village of Homer in the 1890s when Sig Sautelle’s Circus came parading down Main Street. There were cavorting clowns, bareback riders, trapeze artists, tumblers, high-wire performers, and exotic animals. The Circus had 225 people on the payroll; boasted two elephants, 14 cages of animals and 150 horses, and ponies (according to John C. Kunzog’s book Tan Bark and Tinsel, 1970). For twenty-five cents one could enjoy one of two performances per day in one ring under one big tent set up on a large lot at the corner of Cortland Street and Copeland Avenue.

Then, starting in 1900, some of the performers and animals took up headquarters for the winter months at three red-painted, octagon-shaped buildings (one with a cupola still stands) and other structures at the south end of Main Street. Circus employees filled up the hotels in Homer, and their children attended the academy on the Green. “Sig,” its popular owner, was known for his big cigar, a diamond pin in his lapel, and ventriloquism skills he had learned while a drummer boy during the Civil War.

According to James P. Hughes (“Homer’s Sig Sautelle.” Life in the Finger Lakes. Summer, 2008),

In Homer’s confectionery store, to give the impression of a man trapped in the basement, he would carry on a conversation through a hot-air register in the floor with a helpless voice below howling, “Let me out, let me out!” As the children gazed through the grate bewildered, Sig stood by with a twinkle in his eye.

With these tantalizing influences, how many local boys contemplated running away with the circus come spring? Perhaps they would have reconsidered if they knew what events lurked ahead.
Circus tent

Judging by the newspaper accounts of the day, circus life, at least outside the ring, was not all that glamorous. For George Satterly (Sept. 22, 1848 – June 21, 1928) – sometimes spelled Satterlee and better known as “Sig Sautelle” – there seemed to be plenty of unwelcomed, even dangerous, challenges for a flamboyant circus showman whose show traveled via road, the Erie Canal, and railway to communities primarily in New York State. While his ads, such as one in the Daily Argus of July 5, 1901, enticed the people of Mount Vernon, NY, and elsewhere to take in “A Vast All-Star Programme of sensational and exclusive features in its arenic department,” other newspaper articles present a sampling of the traumatic events associated with Sautelle’s traveling entertainment extravaganza.

For example, there was a negative reputation borne by circus people that comes through in The Port Chester Journal’s reporting of an incident (Thursday, July 18, 1901). It seems that during the evening show at Port Chester, Sautelle ordered a police officer to arrest a lad named Eddie Hutchins, a Port Chester lad “who had been with the circus for some time” as it made its way through the Hudson Valley. Sautelle claimed, “he had discharged him in Albany and that he had followed the circus ever since and he wanted him arrested and taken off the grounds.” Sautelle further maintained he had paid Hutchins upon termination and had the receipt. However, Hutchins countered that Sig Sautelle had "fired" him without paying him what his due was and that “he had followed the circus around in the hope of getting his money.”

The officer believed that in ordering the arrest of Hutchins, Sautelle would appear in court against him. He claimed Sautelle had vouched "his lawyer" would be present and appear against Hutchins. The lad was locked up for twenty-four hours before a justice of the peace was available to hear the case. At the hearing, neither Sautelle nor “his lawyer” appeared. Without a complaint brought forward, Hutchins was released. And Sautelle’s Circus had already departed, leaving the lad in the dust.

The newspaper went on to state that while Hutchins was admittedly an unsavory character, “this does not alter the case…. There was no warrant for his arrest, and the officer was clearly in error in arresting him on the word of a circus-man. The integrity of Sautelle may be all right, but circus men are birds of passage and the officer should have known this. He should not have taken as gospel what Sautelle told him.” The paper further noted that “in the wake of all circuses, there is a miscellaneous following which drift in with the vans of the road.” The paper called them “camp followers,” but maintained that Hutchins [mind you, a local boy] had an “outrage” imposed upon him. “Hereafter,” the paper concluded, with a stereotypical bias, “there should be some discretion used in making arrests of persons on the order of circus men. As a class, we are not stuck on the Canvass Knights who are not loath to resort to all kinds of acts to gather in the shekels.”

The next incident, as reported by the Syracuse Evening Herald on August 17, 1901, occurred in Saratoga, NY. This time, J. Charles Banks of Seneca Falls, the manager of Sig Sautelle's circus, shot and killed Herbert Tackaberry of Ottawa, Canada, at 8 P. M. on the 16th at the South Broadway circus ground. “Tackaberry had been following the circus, running a gambling outfit,” reported the paper, “and for some reason left, it is supposed because his presence was not desired.” He returned on the 16th, the shooting resulted, and Banks claimed it was in self-defense.

The coroner was summoned. He examined the body. One of the shots took effect in the right temple and went clear through the head. The other entered just below the ear, severing the jugular vein and carotid artery. The coroner concluded death must have occurred within five minutes after the shooting. Banks was arrested on the charge of murder in the first degree.

Banks was taken to police headquarters and jailed. The examination of Banks took place around midnight that night before Justice Delaney. C. B. Kilmer and W. P. Butler appeared for the defendant and Assistant District Attorney McKnight for the people. To take the testimony of several employees who had been subpoenaed, the examination was not held until after the circus’ evening performance. The courtroom was filled with a good many of Sautelle’s employees when the proceedings commenced.

After the formal charge of murder in the first degree was read and a plea of not guilty entered, Richard Raymond, ticket seller for Sautelle’s show, was called to the stand. He stated that he knew Banks and Tackaberry and was standing at the entrance to the main tent when he saw Tackaberry sitting to one side of the entrance and Banks opposite him on the other side. He said Tackaberry got up and started towards Banks with his hand at his hip pocket. Banks then took hold of Tackaberry. A scuffle ensued, and shots fired. Tackaberry fell to the ground. Raymond testified he heard nothing said between the men and “it was only an instant between the time of the scuffle and the firing of the shot.”

Under cross-examination, Raymond said that he had been with the show since the 10th of May and knew both men personally. He said that Tackaberry followed the show with a “gambling game” and was a "grifter.” He had remained with the show two weeks, but on the 16th came as a visitor. Raymond said on one occasion he had been shown a revolver by Tackaberry and was told that if ever Banks told anything about him, he would "croak" him. On another occasion, he had said that if he (Tackaberry) were obliged to leave the show, he would get even. Raymond stated, “Tackaberry carried two revolvers, one in his hip pocket and the other in his vest pocket, wore brass knuckles at times, and carried a cane and a lead Billy club. Some witnesses testified that the weapon was in Tackaberry’s possession and that he "was loading it apparently for use when Banks snatched it and fired the two shots.” Hearing the shots, a crowd collected in time to see Tackaberry fall, and Banks start to run away. Chase was given, and Banks was readily captured when he saw that escape was impossible. But he managed to dispose of the weapon, which had yet to be found. Circus employees called Banks “an inoffensive sort of fellow.” They were surprised he had even resisted.

After the people rested their case, Clarence B. Kilmer for the defendant moved to discharge the defendant because the shooting was justified. It was overruled by the court, and the District Attorney would not accept a plea of manslaughter. It was ultimately determined that Banks be held to await the action of the grand jury on the original charge of murder in the first degree. During the coroner’s inquest, about fifteen witnesses testified Tackaberry had at various times threatened Banks with violence, which was similar to that brought out in the police-court examination. The coroner exonerated Banks.

Residents of Homer, New York, must have found some irony in the Cortland Evening Standard of Monday, August 19, 1901. The paper noted Banks was to stand trial and added the following: “It will be remembered that the grand jury of Cortland County on Feb. 4, 1901, reported six indictments, two of which were sealed. One of these was against Tackaberry for assault on the person of a man by the name of Morrison. Tackaberry then worked in Thurston's winter garden. He was given a hint of the indictment before the grand jury reported, and he skipped to Canada and had not been found by the officers.”

Banks was acquitted on November 15, 1901. The following notice appeared that day in the Waterloo Observer: “The many friends of J. Charles Banks, of Seneca Falls, were pleased to note this morning that his trial for the murder of Herbert Tackaberry… had been finished and that the jury, after being out five hours, had returned a verdict of not guilty.” The verdict must have been a relief for Sig Sautelle as well, whose business had moved on since the incident, following the adage “The show must go on.”

It was not just the humans associated with Sautelle’s Circus that got into deadly scuffles; the animal performers did, too. On June 4, 1902, the Cortland Evening Standard reported that a tiger in the Sautelle menagerie had escaped from his cage while on a moving train and got into a horse car. A terrible fight occurred between the tiger and the frightened horses. Several horses were badly lacerated and bitten. A horse named Toby fared the worst but managed to kill the tiger, breaking its ribs and neck. The Poughkeepsie Eagle of May 31 described the ferocious attacker as a year-old, 400 pound Bengal tiger in Sautelle's circus and said, “It is fortunate the tiger in escaping entered the horse car instead of jumping off the train and taking to the woods where he would probably soon have attacked people.” The Eagle said the circus train was headed for Poughkeepsie when the battle occurred and that it was “a bloodcurdling affair while it lasted.”

There has always been conjecture regarding the fate of some of Sautelle’s elephants. According to local lore, some were buried in the field in Homer that was once known as Contento’s junkyard. Judging by the following article in the Cortland Republican for November 30, 1905, Sautelle may have, indeed, pondered burying one problematic pachyderm in Homer.


"Duke," Sig Sautelle's Ugly African Elephant Breaks from His Moorings at Headquarters, and One of His Keepers Narrowly Escapes His Murderous Attack.

There was plenty doing at the animal house at Sig Sautelle's headquarters last Monday morning. Soon after daylight, "Duke," the big and ugly African elephant which was chained to a big post in the animal house, made a lunge at one of his keepers. The post to which he was attached broke off under strain and liberated him. Mr. Marrow, the expert animal man, and manager, was quickly summoned and hastened to the quarters. "Duke " had chased one of his attendants into a corner, knocked him down, and made a vicious lunge at him with his single tusk. The tusk providentially missed the man's body and went below his legs. Other attendants with pikes attacked the elephant and made him back away and Mr. Morrow secured a long pike in use by telephone linemen, who were working close by, and hastening to the rescue drove it into the elephant's trunk.
As soon as the man was rescued from his perilous position and the others had found places of safety, about 100 grains of morphine was administered to the elephant. It was given in water first, but "Duke" detected something wrong with the water and drank only a few swallows. Then the bread was soaked in the water and fed to him, and more was placed in apples which he seemed to relish. About fifteen minutes were required to get the desired amount of the drug down the big brute. Fortunately, with the exception of smashing up some woodwork, little damage was done. The stoves, fortunately, were not overturned, and as soon as possible, the fires in them were extinguished. After some time, the morphine began to take effect and along in the afternoon, “Duke” became drowsy enough so that he was able to be again chained securely to a post which it will be very difficult for him to break. The other animals in the house were greatly excited during the elephant's rampage, and there was a lively time all around till the morphine took effect and quieted the angry elephant. The beast has been Sautelle's property for about a year and has given much trouble by his treacherous and ugly disposition. Mr. Morrow said he was a sorry looking beast Tuesday morning, the morphine having evidently given him considerable distress. Mr. Morrow said enough was administered to kill 150 men.

Marital spats among circus employees are hard to ignore when traveling and living in close quarters. One such conflict made it into the May 22, 1903, issue of The Waterville Times: “One of Sig Sautelle's hyenas was devoured by its mate, while en route from Oneida to Rome. When the cage was opened, the blood spatters were seen, and naught remained but the bones.”

The same newspaper revealed on January 26, 1912, that a circus performer had such a disagreeable personality he simply had to be terminated:

“Kruger,” the African lion which was purchased last spring for $1,000 by Sig Sautelle and kept in winter quarters at Homer, was shot last week having become so viciously ugly that he fought his keepers and no one could be hired to longer care for him. “Kruger” had killed two keepers and injured others. An attempt was made to put him to death by poison, but he detected an unusual smell in the meat and refused to eat. Chloroform was then tried, but he knocked away the saturated sponge with his paw as fast as it was shoved under his nose, and finally he was shot.

The following from the Waterville Times of October 4, 1912, presents a concise summation of how Sautelle dealt with the trials and tribulations of being a showman, including inclement weather:

Sautelle appeared in Waterville on Wednesday afternoon and evening according to schedule, giving two excellent performances. The circus travels by wagon and had experienced some very bad
roads during the past week. On the way from Worcester to Cooperstown, where the company showed last Saturday, one of the lion cages toppled over and turned a complete somersault
down an embankment, breaking the reach and otherwise damaging it. The circus is now on the way to winter quarters in Homer, after a most successful tour. Sig Sautelle is one of the oldest circus men
on the road, and small disasters like a deluge of rain or the tipping over of the menagerie merely cause him to puff a little harder on the cigar and gaze quizzically out over the rim of his glasses. The
circus left Cooperstown in the pouring rain on Sunday, Richfield Springs being their next stop. They came here from New Berlin and left yesterday morning for Morrisville.

Circuses faced incredible expenses, and that could have devastating economic consequences, as The Holley Standard of Holley, NY, (December 17, 1914) posted in this notice:

George C. Satterlee, better known as Sig Sautelle, the circus man, who resides at Homer, Cortland county, and was in this section with his circus for several seasons past, filed a petition in bankruptcy in Utica Saturday with unsecured liabilities of $33,103 and nominal assets of $3,815. His fifty creditors are scattered. All that is left of the circus is a spotted horse and mule.

Sig Sautelle
George Satterly and his ailing wife, Ida Belle, took up residence in 1915 on a small farm outside of Homer. That was about the time, according to the late Homer historian R. Curtis Harris, that the Wharton Moving Picture Company of Ithaca (the Hollywood of the silent film era) came to Homer to film a segment with the famous actress Pearl White. Extras were the many circus performers who still made Homer their home. Sig must have enjoyed it. For three days the glory of ,his old Circus was reenacted, if only for the camera (“Sig Sautelle: A Circus and an Era.” The Crooked Lake Review. October, 1995).

In 1927, the year before he died, Sautelle, then a widower, tried to give it another go. With the improvement in roads, he decided to use the new large, motorized trucks to move his new show. Caught in a downward whirlwind of credit and a fluctuation of prices, Sig's show failed the first year. To the end of his five-decade career in entertainment, Sautelle contended with ups and downs, earning his rightful place in the Circus Hall of Fame, and, for a while, Homer’s fame was tied to that of Sig Sautelle’s highly respected traveling circus.

About the author: A retired history teacher and previous contributor to the Review, Sweeney is the historian for the Town and Village of Homer, NY. He authored Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York: A Painter, an Editor and a Detective (2011) and a historical novel titled The Suffragette’s Saga: A Murder Mystery (2019).


  1. Sterling account of one of New York's more colorful personality and the trials and tribulations of a 20th. century circus.