Butch and Bill - Two Incidents, Taught Me at an Early Age!

 

by Hurley B. Carlisle

 

In the fall of 1948 Dailey Brothers was touring Missouri. Two kids had joined up to work on our prop gang. They were Butch Petit and Chester Somers. They had come from Robbins Brothers Circus, a truck show. They had been around for several weeks.

 

Butch had been on the Dailey show the year before, in 1947. Chester Somers was a Canadian who had slipped across the border. Butch was a big blonde guy of 18 who had cultivated a blonde mustache. He was a nice looking kid, but he looked sort of strange because he was so blonde.

 

Butch turned 19 on the day we played Lamar, Missouri. I believe that was the town. He had arranged not to work that day, with the boss’s blessing. We got paid every night at the finish of our work. The boss would give us a ticket which we would take to the pie car. The payroll lady there that paid prop men $2.50. So Butch taking off was no big deal. But he got drunk somewhere to celebrate his birthday. I don’t think Butch was on the lot during the day. He was probably drinking downtown, for booze was expensive on the lot or on the train. I did see Butch staggering around while we were tearing down the trampoline. We were busy, so I did not notice where he went. We ignored him, for we were too busy during teardown to nursemaid drunks.

 

Our work was concentrated and very highly organized. We lost sight of Butch and had no time to check on him, even though he was a well liked member of the crew. He was a loose cannon on a circus lot on teardown night, and on his own. We finished the teardown and went to the train about the time that they dropped the big top. We assumed Butch was in the pie car drinking, or at a bar.

 

In Springfield the next morning when I got to the runs, I learned Butch was found dead in our Prop wagon (No. 41) His body was covered with a tarp. I think one of our train crew must have discovered him when he climbed onto the wagon to handle the brake. The wagon was open. It had no roof of any kind, but it had high sides. I guess the train crew man (circus train crew, not RR employees) must have yelled at him to awaken him but poor Butch was dead.

 

The train crew unloaded the train and we went out to the lot and put the show up, talking and thinking about Butch. Even the performers were saddened. He was one of the family. We heard rumors that the coroner had said Butch died from a beating. All this was puzzling. Certainly a few circus employees at Dailey Brothers had been beaten up from time to time. I had seen men get kicked in the face. I had heard of men being thrown off the moving show train. It was a violent outfit. But no one had ever been beaten to death. Butch had a lot of friends on the show, many from the 1947 season. On the circus, if you had done your part on muddy lots, in windstorms, or any kind of rough situation, then you were recognized as part of the crew. The others let you know that they respected you as a hard worker. Butch had been such a fellow.

 

I believe the Springfield police started picking up all the male workers between the matinee and the night show. They might not have got everybody, but they got all of the prop department, Oscar Dennis (the boss) and all. I was picked up after the jail was all full. As I was brought in, one of the cops looked at me and spoke to the others... “Hey, doesn’t this guy look just like (so-and-so)?” talking about a policeman who had been killed. I figured that would work in my favor later if I looked just like a friend of theirs.

 

We had to lie down on the floor of the police station and not talk. At least they kept the rooms dark. We talked in low voices just to amuse ourselves. Each man was taken in turn to an interview with a detective. Since I had never seen a detective, except in the movies, I was very impressed when my turn came at about 2 AM. I told the detective I had no idea who would want to kill Butch. I told him Butch had had no enemies that I knew about. I told him truthfully that if I knew who had killed Butch I would tell him, And I meant it. Being with it and for it was one thing, as far as robbery and hiding runaway kids went. But I would have ratted on a murderer. Butch had been a good friend of all of us, a real nice kid that fitted in with the gang.

 

Apparently I impressed the detective, for I was released at 5 AM, along with Harvey Rice and Toto, a Mexican that conveniently forgot all his English that night. We were turned loose at dawn out on empty streets. The show had limped out of town for Joplin, with performers helping tear down. A cop or somebody at the station told us that the show had a lawyer in Springfield, and somehow we all got into a taxi and went to Joplin in style. As far as I know the lawyer paid for our fare, for we only had a few dollars between us. I remember feeling sad all the way to Joplin because of Butch’s death.

 

I remember the taxi driver had his radio on, and it played “Sentimental Journey”. It had a wistful sound that reminded me of poor Butch.

 

The taxi deposited us on the showground's in Joplin. The show people crowded around us, hoping we knew something about the situation...something more than they did. Francis, one of the bally broads, asked me about her boyfriend, Oscar Dennis, who was our prop boss. I hadn’t seen him, for he was in the jail. Francis was very worried about him. I knew that Oscar was not particularly concerned about her. She was just an easy lay for him.

 

We left Joplin without any problem. I think the rest of the show workers must have joined us there or at the next stop. The cops did not find the killer, or even a good suspect. All members of the show left Missouri, except for Butch. Even Butch’s buddy, Chester Somers came along.

 

We moved into eastern Oklahoma and played the small towns there. We were in Macalester standing on the lot busy with big top rigging when we saw a couple of plainclothes cops come across the lot and tap one prop man on the back. They led him off to a car. Then they tapped another guy on the back. Some of us yelled “What kind of birds don’t fly?” as they led him away. (The answer, of course, is Jailbirds.)

 

Then to my surprise I felt a tap on my back, and was told to “come along.” They took us all down to the city jail. Fats Hamilton was put in a windowless room with tires in it and I was the only man in the women’s section. It was empty, however. We stayed in there for a couple of hours before the fixer sprang us. They knew about the murder, and decided to shake us down. As in Joplin, the show had to get us out. We went back to the lot and were not shaken down again for the rest of the season.  And now for a curious sidelight to Butch’s death. He was mis-identified as me at first.

 

They found a post card in his pocket addressed to me and identified him by it. The news of his death was broadcast over the radio, including the false identity. My mother and relatives heard it. Some of my relatives were no doubt smirking. But the ID question was soon cleaned up.

 

I have not just quit the case of Butch Petit, but have started a new chapter to talk about another aspect of it. I shall also get to the solution of the case in this chapter. I want to talk about how the press handled the story. I picked up a paper in every town that we played, especially Springfield. When I read about the story I thought I was reading some other story. They only had the names right. I have some photocopies of the Springfield Leader-Press before me as I write. They are dated Tuesday, October 28, 1948. They devote about two paragraphs to Chester Somers and his “surly” attitude----- and “sneers”. I knew Chester and he was not a tough guy. He was an illegal alien from Canada. I am sure that he must have been afraid they would find him out and ship him back to Canada.

 

The newspaper mentions that Oscar Dennis, the prop boss “carried a chain to use as a club”. and beat up some members of his crew. I did see Oscar beat up some guys that goofed off, but he never had a chain. He was just a slim guy that drank a bit and sometimes got mean. The few times I saw him beat up anyone he had members of his crew to back him up.

 

The paper also said that Butch Petit had carried a knife and was a bad character. This they got from the show’s fixer. That was not true either. They had a picture of Frances, Oscar’s girl friend. She was identified as a “star of the circus”. That was hardly true.

 

She was just a Bally Broad. Bally Broads in the circus are like chorus girls. They do simple aerial acts that can be learned in two weeks. They fill out the show, and sometimes get into other acts if they are talented and lucky. The whole story in the papers was poorly done. I know that some of their mistakes were caused by the circus personnel lying to them and maybe passing Francis off as a “star”. Many more mistakes were caused by their prejudice against the show people. We were about the same as gypsies to them, a foreign folk that had entered their little county.

 

Nevertheless, they got the whole story wrong. All they got right were the name of the victim and the names of the suspects. I have never believed anything that I read in the papers since then. Nor do I believe anything that I hear over radio to TV. I have seen my skepticism justified more than once. The media did a story on a subject of which I had expert knowledge. They got it all wrong too. I have more respect for a sideshow geek than I have for a “Journalist” of any kind. To Hell with them.

 

There was a picture of some of the prop men in the paper. Everybody looked at the camera and smiled. In their midst was a little fellow in coveralls that did not look at the camera, but hung his head. Any detective, looking at the picture should have seen that this was the man who had killed Butch Petit.

 

Mac had been driving trucks for Dailey all season. Butch was in the white coveralls we all wore as “Casey Candy Company Representatives.” I saw him as we tore down the trampoline. He must have staggered off into the dark about then. He fell down somewhere and Mac ran over him. We used to sell “Banners” to the local businesses in the towns we played. Old man Ray, the boss clown painted them. They were long white strips of paper 8 to 10 feet long. At teardown they simply threw the things out into the back yard and left them on the lot. I often came upon them as I left the lot after teardown. Mac must have seen Butch in his white coveralls and have mistaken him for some of these banners. He probably was drinking himself. When he saw that he had hit someone, he and somebody else just put him into wagon 41. It was teardown and the show had to move. They couldn’t be delayed by this body. Maybe they were so drunk they thought he would get better.

 

The coroner, a medical doctor had said that Butch was beaten to death. His white coveralls probably had tire trademarks on them.

 

Oh, and another thing. The Springfield detectives didn’t trace Mac down. He returned sometime later and gave himself up.

 

The Springfield coroner could not tell a man who had been run over from one who had been beaten to death. I have never met a medical examiner, but I would love to have a couple of beers with one and tell him the story of Butch Petit. I would pose that question to him.

 

The next season almost the same thing happened-----and to another friend of mine from Props. Bill Brewer was about 25. He had worked as a carnie for several years. During World War II he had been a merchant seaman on a freighter run to Murmansk, Russia. He told me the extreme tensions they had, had driven him to drink. (U-boats did get quite a few Allied ships on that run.) Bill had a little sideline to help him afford good booze. He broke into cars in the parking lots around the showground's. I bought a suit and a leather jacket from him. He was just like a storekeeper with cameras and things.

 

Bill was usually drinking. In Winston Salem, North Carolina Bill got falling down drunk. It was teardown night, and as usual, things were moving in high gear. We heard a yell out in the dark that someone had been run over. I ran out into the backyard and helped pull Bill out of a hole in the ground. The dogwagon (full of show dogs) had run over him and mashed his body into the soft ground, like in the cartoons. We got an ambulance right away. Bill was rushed to the hospital, where the doctor said he was all right. I was in the sleeper car when the ambulance drivers brought Bill back to his bunk. He was moaning as they carried him by his arms and legs. He was still clad in his white coveralls. I always thought that Emergency Room people cut clothing off badly hurt people. They put him into his bunk, still moaning and incoherent. I felt relieved, for Bill was my good friend. But he was gone the next morning. They had taken him during the night, for he was dying. There was another case of prejudice against circus people. I doubt if they could have saved him. But they could have at least given him some morphine to ease his agony.

 

Those two incidents taught me at an early age how many young men often needlessly throw away their lives, like Butch and Bill. Some get drunk and get into dangerous situations, like they did. Others ride motorcycles and drive cars in a careless manner.

 

And I had comrades in the army who volunteered for dangerous duty and lost their lives needlessly. Losing your life at 19 in the military is dumb, dumb, dumb! No country----I mean No Country is worth losing your life for. Other young men drown----I think that nature just trims a few by letting the young and foolish men throw away their lives, the one thing they should cherish above all else. Other young men (such as I was) are more careful and more conservative. They don’t risk their lives foolishly. Maybe they don’t lead exciting lives-----but they lead longer lives. I never drank much, nor owned a motorcycle. I was in the Korean war, but I didn’t volunteer to go out and meddle with the enemy like those who undertook impromptu “patrols”, I am 75 at this writing. I have lived a life that was exciting enough for my tastes.

 

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