Jolly Nellie Lane
Sideshow Attraction and Movie
by Jack R. Cox
Hocking County, Ohio, especially some senior citizens,
still talk about Nellie Lane, the girl who literally ran
away with the circus. They have heard about her, but few
know anything more. Here and there one will find a bit
of information, but there is still so much of her
history that is obscured.
What of her family? Nellie’s parents were Charles H.B.
“Charley” Lane and L. Jenny Showalter who were married
June 7, 1893 in Roane County, West Virginia. A son,
Clarence D. Lane, was born to them January 12, 1894 in
Nellie was born Nellie Blanche Lane May 1, 1898 in West
Virginia. The date was prophetic, for in the old days of
the circus, shows started on the road around May 1. New
people with the circus were known as “First of Mays.”
Somewhere in the early 1900s the Lane family moved to a
farm near Jobs, Hocking County.
Hocking County Birth Records show that other siblings
were born there:
Fred Lane, born January 9, 1904 in Jobs (pronounced with
a long “o”), Ohio
Bessie Lane, born February 20, 1907 in Jobs
Carl Wesley Lane, born June 29, 1909 in Murray City
Later records make no mention of Fred or Bessie. It’s
possible that they did not survive.
Nellie attended grade school in Jobs and high school in
nearby Murray City. She was very overweight and was
persecuted by some of other children. Her high school
teacher was Ruth Brooker, later Ruth Pinnick
According to a long-time Jobs resident, the late Hugh
Bateman, somewhere along the way Jenny Lane left husband
Charles and moved to Columbus, taking the children with
her. Hugh said that, perhaps, Charles sent them away.
Whether Nellie also went to Columbus or stayed in Jobs
is not known. Also, it is not known in what year this
occurred. The 1920 Federal Census shows that Jenny was
living in Columbus with three children: Clarence, then
aged 25; Carl, age 10; and daughter Mabel Alice, age 14
Clarence evidently was the sole support for the Columbus
family because he was the only one listed as employed -
occupation truck driver. During World War I he had
served with Company D of the 327 Machine Gun Battalion.
Clarence died March 10, 1970 in Dayton; he was still a
The 1920 Census lists Charles as still living in Jobs.
According to Hugh Bateman, he continued to live there
until shortly before World War II, at which time he
Clarence is said to have come from Columbus and taken
him away; people around Jobs never saw him again.
Nellie is not listed as residing in either Columbus or
Jobs. In fact, I couldn’t find her anywhere in the 1920
Census. I was to find that, for her, this was the norm;
she seemed to “stay under the radar” for much of her
As the story goes, in 1918 Nellie joined the John
Robinson Circus as a sideshow attraction, and was known
as Jolly Nellie. How she came to “join out” with this
show is not known. Perhaps she answered a “call” for
sideshow people in a show business publication, such as
Billboard or the New York Clipper. The Robinson Circus
did play Athens, Ohio (near Jobs) August 13, 1918.
However, that was late in the season to take on new
Customarily, circuses issued “route books” which, in
addition to listing the route traveled by a show in a
given year might include the program of acts, personnel
and their departments, and some interesting information
about performers, etc. These books were often sold as
souvenirs. In keeping with all the problems of finding
information about Nellie, it is not surprising to learn
that there were no route books for John Robinson for
1918 or 1919, only route lists, so I have been unable to
determine the circumstances of her joining the show.
Robinson records for 1920 and 1921 show her as being
with the sideshow. She is not listed for 1922 or for
In 1920 and 1921 postcard photos were made of Nellie.
Her weight was listed at 642 pounds.
By 1923 Nellie had made her way to Los Angeles where she
appeared in a silent movie titled Circus Days, starring
Jackie Coogan, then a child star. Jackie played the role
of Toby Tyler, and Nellie played the sideshow fat lady.
A still shot from this movie was found in a website for
silent movie fans, but this site is no longer available.
This photo shows Jackie on the sideshow bally platform
and in the background is a banner for Jolly Nellie.
A review of this film in the August 15, 1923 issue of
the Los Angeles Times praised the circus atmosphere that
it said was provided by a show “. . . which happened to
be wintering in Los Angeles. . .” Further research
revealed that this was Tom Atkinson’s Dog, Pony, and
Monkey Show. The movie was given a lot of publicity,
including a day of free circus performances featuring
Jackie doing some bareback riding. Among the attractions
listed for that day was the fat lady.
A notice in the January 5, 1924 Billboard lists Nellie
with the Northwest Carnival for the winter season of
1923-1924. This was a California-based carnival which
played winter dates in warm areas, such as Southern
In 1926 Nellie again played a circus fat lady in another
silent move, Spangles, which starred an actress named
Marian Nixon. I understand that Ms. Nixon played a
character based on the famous equestrienne, May Wirth.
This film was shot on the back lot of the Al G. Barnes
winter quarters in the community of Palms (Los Angeles
area). Information about it will be found on page 12 of
the July-August 1986 issue of Circus Historical
Society’s magazine, Bandwagon, in an article about the
1926 Barnes Season written by Chang Reynolds.
Later in 1926 Nellie was on tour in Hawaii. There she
met Carl Leon Terrell, also on tour, who was a
performing motorcyclist who did a motordrome act. Carl
had a cycle accident which resulted in a broken leg.
Nellie nursed him through his convalescence, after which
they were married.
According to Carl’s great niece and great grand niece,
at times he was a circus owner, and he also performed
for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus,
perhaps for other circuses. In 1946 Carl published an
autobiographical book, Seven Naked Women in a Tokyo
Jail. Here and there throughout this book he provides
information about Nellie, including her varied talents,
a little about her personality, her performances, and
her weight which he said was at the most 615 pounds.
Carl and Nellie Terrell returned to United States at the
close of the 1926 season, setting up residence in the
Los Angeles area. They were engaged to make a tour to
the Orient for 1927, which was to be the first of
several tours to that part of the world during the next
seven years. Most of Carl’s book concerns these tours.
He relates that Nellie was a phenomenal attraction in
the various countries in which they appeared. She had
her own show, while Carl presented his motordrome act.
For the 1927 tour they hired Nellie’s 17-year-old
brother, Carl, and a friend of his who at that time were
living in Venice, California (Los Angeles area). In 1933
Nellie’s 15-year-old sister, Alice (listed as Mabel
Alice in the 1920 census) went with them. No mention is
made of their mother, Jenny. Considering the age of this
younger brother and sister, one would assume that the
mother must have been in California with them. The 1930
census lists Jenny, showing her as head-of-household at
a residence to be in Bell City (Los Angeles area). Also
residing there was son Carl, now employed as a printer,
and daughter Alice.
In the concluding chapter of Seven Naked Women in a
Tokyo Jail, Carl mentions that he is married. However,
he does not say to whom. Among the picture pages of the
book are two photos of him, one when he was young and
very attractive to women, the other as he looked at the
time of publication when he would have been 67. In the
caption for the second picture he made the remark that
his wife had been trying to get rid of him for the past
10 years. His great niece related that the latter photo
was shot in the backyard of her family’s home in El
Monte, California (Los Angeles area).
My next reference for Nellie shows that she made a brief
appearance in the 1947 movie, Nightmare Alley. This
film, which starred Tyrone Power, was about a carnival
Pictures of Nellie Terrell were found in a book, Very
Special People by Frederick Drimmer, and on a picture
postcard for sale on the internet. Another picture was
offered on a online auction, and I bid successfully for
it. In the background in this photo is an automobile
that appears to be of 1920s or 1930s vintage. There is
also a short biography which reads:
“JOLLIE NELLIE TERREL was born in Columbus, Ohio,
U.S.A., is now 26 years old. At the age of 12 weighed 82
lbs; 5 lbs at birth. Parents both normal in size. Has
two brothers and one sister, all normal. She weighs more
than her entire family together. Is five feet, six
inches in height and measures eight inches larger around
than her height. 26 inches around upper arm. Wears 5 ½
shoes; enjoys perfect health, and eats only 2 meals per
day. Now on her fifth trip around the world.”
Although Columbus is listed as a birthplace in this
biography, it could be because Nellie Lane did live in
Columbus, and wished to claim it. The statement that
there were two brothers and a sister is consistent with
the 1920 census. I believe that they must have “fudged”
a little on her age; she didn’t meet Carl Terrell until
she was 28. That’s PR for you.
Nellie Lane/Terrell died of cancer in Los Angeles
September 5, 1955 at Los Angeles County General
Hospital. She was cremated September 12, 1955 at the Los
Angeles County Crematory. The Funeral Director was the
According to the Death Certificate, her residence at the
time of death was 142 ½ W. 90th Street, Los Angeles. It
was stated that she had lived at this address for 5
The Death Certificate listed her occupation as
Entertainer and business or industry as Show Business.
It was also stated that she was divorced, and her name
was listed as Lane.
On November 11, 1955, Nellie’s ashes were mailed to Rose
Hills Memorial Park, a prominent cemetery in Whittier,
California. There they were inurned in the Santa Rosa
Corridor of the El Portal de la Paz Mausoleum.
Arrangements for this inurnment were made by Nellie’s
brother, Carl, who by then was living in Hemet, a town
to the southeast of Los Angeles, where he had a printing
in Hemet on August 7, 2000 at age 91.
1- Jolly Nellie
2- 1920 Season Jolly Nellie,
age 18, weight 642 lbs
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