I’ve been reading a lot of local histories lately. As I come across stories that get my attention, I’ll share them with you, like this one from Potosi, Wisconsin.

During the pioneer years in Potosi, brothers Samuel and Henry Redman were ornery cusses. They lived in Dutch Hollow, a German community that began life as a lead mining camp, then matured into the village of Tennyson. The brothers made good money from mining and spent it as quickly as they made it, mostly on booze. Dressed in their standard apparel – a red flannel shirt accented with a miner’s belt around the waist equipped with a large hunting knife – they ambushed dances, instigated fights, and generally terrorized their fellow citizens.

In June 1855 the Buckley Circus set up a single ring show under a big tent in Dutch Hollow. Because television did not yet exist and Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet, the traveling circus was a popular way to pass the time. On this June day, the big tent was overflowing with spectators. Not ones to let a big crowd dissuade them from their usual antics, the Redman boys yelled and heckled and berated performer after performer, especially the clowns. Bad idea.

Fed up with the drunken abuse, two clowns stepped from the shadows and into the crowd, grabbed the Redman boys and dragged them out of the tent. Once outside, the clowns – with faces painted white, ruby-tinted lips, and a plump burgundy ball covering their noses – delivered such a serious beating that they weren’t the only ones dressed in red. After thrashing the brothers up and down the village streets, the clowns relented and let the men go; the Redmans promptly ran back to their log cabin for cover. The clowns, though, returned to the tent and continued with the show as if nothing unusual had happened – as if beating the shit out of patrons happened every night. Maybe it did.

According to the story, the Redman brothers were so humiliated after being savaged by the clowns that they were no longer any trouble to the other residents of Dutch Hollow, and – no surprise here – both died at a young age.

Uncle Sam in 1898

The clowns, Warren Dailey and Dan Rice, enjoyed long and successful careers in clowning. Rice, arguably the most famous clown of the 19th century, achieved enduring fame by posing for artist Thomas Nast and providing the inspiration for the iconic Uncle Sam image. Yes, Uncle Sam – the face of America – was based on a clown, and one tough clown at that.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2008