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
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
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
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
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
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.