My grandmother's mother died when she was young. Instead of being raised by a single father, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Estella Lyle and Edward Roche. Her name is Elizabeth Roche-Smith. She was 4 at the time.

As I understand, Estella and Ed had a sideshow that traveled with the Jay Gould Circus in Texas. My grandmother was part of the Congoland show when she was 4. Her act involved a Gorilla or Chimp named Suzie who rode bicycles and smoked cigarettes. Suzie and my grandmother wore matching outfits in the show. Suzie was protective of my grandmother, but then became jealous. After awhile, Ed and Estella decided that it wasn't safe anymore to have Elizabeth in the act. My grandma said that when they traveled, that she would sleep in the same trailer with Suzie in bunk beds. Her best friend was a little boy whose mother was a stripper for the show. Apparently, when Suzie was in a cage for observance instead of in the show, she got fiesty. If someone came to look at her and she didn't like them, she would defecate into her hand and offer her hand to the person for a handshake.  In the photo, you can see a banner for "Marvo-the Armless Woman" my grandmother remembers her.

When Suzie passed away, the show crumbled. Ed chose to put the show up for a sale. He had a large profitable ranch and didn't need the show anymore.

Estella was a very eccentric person - as you can imagine. She was known for having extremely long black hair and wild makeup. She used to travel to India to get animals for the show and had dealings with "Louis Rue Inc.", a provider of animals. I have letters of correspondence between that company and Estella and photographs of elephants in a jungle...

I also have a small wooden circus box and a large ring of skeleton keys from her circus days. In the attic of an old barn in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, there are large circus trunks of my grandmothers. They are in horrible condition due to the pigeons that took over the barn. I've found Estellas wigs, hats, lingerie and love letters in them. I even found the skull of a young lion or tiger that was in the circus.

What a strange story! What a life for a 4 year old little girl.


Amber Tjeerdsma Rapid City, South Dakota


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