Circus Star Mabel Stark: Confessions of a Cat Woman
Circus Controversy - Women Tiger Trainers
This is the gripping and shocking story of a tiny woman who ran away with the circus around 1900 to escape institutionalization by a husband who no longer wanted her.
This was a time before most people in America had electricity, indoor plumbing, or an automobile. The Wright Brothers were just now experimenting with flight!
The scarcely 5-foot tall lady became the only living female tiger trainer in her era, one or two having been mauled to death before her. She herself was mauled several times, but kept coming back to the big cat cage, until she left the Big Top in 1938.
This fictionalized biography is gripping, because it features danger and controversy.
The controversy surrounds the question of how accurate the fiction might be, especially written by a Canadian author about American culture. It is also controversial also in its explanations of animal training. It is controversial thirdly in its content of unorthodox means used by an independent woman to survive in a time in which women were little accepted in the US workplace, were not permitted to vote, and were largely immobile.
Survival of Mabel Stark
How did Mabel Stark survive The Great Depression? How did she survive lions and tigers, carnies, and cut-throat competition among circuses until WWII; and through to the end of their fast decline?
The story is as shocking as the film Iron Jawed Angels of the same era -- Some women were beaten and spat upon for wanting to vote, while others were ripped to bloody shreds in a lion cage, which was a step up from stripping in the sideshow.
The story is shocking for the inhumane lack of care with which some circuses ruined animals.
It is shocking for the lack of recognition of professionally and historically important women like this one.
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark
By Robert Hough. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003
Born in 1889, one of the most famous animal trainers in US history fled the mental health system of the early 1900s, married 6 times, suffered repeated catastrophic injuries, and ended up working with the big cats in California's JungleLand until she was 79 years old in 1968.
Survival During Intense Hardships
Ms. Stark never retired, never collected Social Security, never benefited from Medicare; and finally committed suicide after the death of her favorite tiger, as far as can be determined from archived records.
The wonders of Ms. Stark's life were more difficult than the abusive treatment suffered by her contemporary sisters seeking The Vote in America. Both lived in cages of a sort - one full of tigers and one filled with discrimination.
The extent of this cat woman's injuries was worse in her first mauling than those depicted for Jesus by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The film was nothing compared to the front row scene of a tiger knocking her down, ripping her open lengthwise and eating raw muscle.
Both lived in cages of a sort - one full of tigers and one filled with discrimination.
Physical Impact of Mauling Incidents
Stark loss massive amounts of skin and blood, but recovered to return to the big cats she loved. Like many people on Valentine's Day questionnaires, she'd choose an animal over a human mate.
During Stark's first massive injury, men and women jumped up and ran out of the tent, just as they ran from the theater during The Passion, appalled and sickened by the CGI scourging of Christ.
However, Mabel's injury was real and blood flowed everywhere. Some male spectators came forward to the cage thinking to help, but it was too late. Amazingly, ripped to shreds, she recovered - and that was just the first major scathing. She lived for her work; and there was no Workers Compensation or disability insurance in those days.
Animal Training Right and Wrong
Mabel Stark worked with a series of menageries and circuses, beginning possibly as a sideshow stripper or "cooch", but documented as a horse rider in the circus show. When she ruled Center Ring with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920s with 21 tigers, the circus was the top entertainment anywhere in the USA.
Animal training was crude. Wearing either a black or a white leather jumpsuit, Stark wrestled with 500-pound Bengal tigers and other cats and none were neutered nor de-clawed. Today, they are neutered, de-clawed, and de-fanged and do not live as long with the circus as they would in the jungle.
Author Robert Hough visited every city in America that had a circus museum, especially Circus World in Barraboo, Minnesota. Journals, letters, and circus posters provide an outline for his book, but fiction fills in major gaps, as he explains in his afterward to the book.
A Landmark Vanished
According to reporter May Okon in the New York Daily News on 2/26/1950, Mabel Stark suffered massive mauling injuries on three separate occasions at Center Ring, along with a dozen lesser attacks, but always came back.
In 1968, Mabel died and JungleLand declared bankruptcy and passed away as well. The only remembrance of it today is a restaurant on the former site, named the New Jungleland Cafe, where photos of Mabel Stark may be seen inside. She is a landmark just as much as is the cafe.
Movies At Jungleland
JungleLand provided scenes for the films "Birth of a Nation," a "Tarzan" film, and "The Adventures of Robin Hood." The MGM lion and Mr. Ed, The Talking Horse lived in JungleLand with many other animal actors.
New Perspectives and Key Testimonies
Virginia Barnes Stonehouse writes on Amazon.com with her own memories of her dad, Al G. Barnes, and his circus where Mabel Stark performed. She takes issue with two parts of the novel and stands up for her mom, who was also denigrated in the story The Last Confession Of Mabel Stark.
Circus History Message & Discussion Board contains some interesting personal histories of individuals that have seen or have known the Marvelous Mabel Stark. A visitor signing as Giovanni Iuliania tells that Louis Roth was a well known animal trainer, but also a respected trainer's trainer of his era.
Roth was allegedly was the trainer and mentor to Clyde Beatty and Mabel Stark, among others. Iuliania takes issue with author Robert Hough's contention that circuses picked up temporary labor from local drunk wards and insane asylums. That assertion may or may not be true.
Author Roger Smith posted on the same bulletin board that he was trained and coached by Mabel Stark at JungleLand for the last 3.5 years of her life, which would be approximately late 1962 through April 20, 1968. He has posted on at least one circus blog, with a photo of Mabel posed with her friend Mae West, whom Stark doubled for in the movies. Smith has been reportedly writing his own biography of Mabel Stark, to replace fiction with facts as he received them from Mabel about 50 years ago.
Stark had been at the entertainment complex/theme park for 30 years, since 1938. Mr. Smith lived across the street from her and remembered that her housekeeper found her dead in bed that morning.
Other stories of Mabel's end are circulating in Hough's book, by rumor, and on the Internet. One false legend is that she stuck her head in her oven, turned on the gas, and died by suicide.
Another is that she drank poison, stumbled out to her car in the garage, and sat inside it with the engine running until she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Rumors are that her favorite tiger, one that had mauled people to the extent that he was ordered destroyed, had been spirited away to a safe haven and Mabel learned that he had died on the day of her own death.
A Rare Book by Mabel Stark
A teacher posted a message on Amazon.com around Thanksgiving 2009 that she found a copy of Mabel's 1938 memoir Hold That Tiger and read from it in class every year until she lent it to someone. The book was named after a popular big band song of the era. The Internet Movie Data Base shows that Mabel appeared in a few films, but uncredited.
Biographical Films of the Cat Woman
Although documentaries have featured Mabel Stark, Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes purchased movie rights to Hough's book, but a screen play is not yet in hand. Ms. Winslet has planned to play Mabel Stark.
California animal trainer Roger Smith, who worked with Mabel Stark, is planning a film about her life that he has titled "Tiger Queen, The Life Of Mabel Stark." He already has appeared in the 2018 documentary "Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer."
Marvelous Mabel Stark
I enjoy re-reading this book often. During the golden age of circuses, Mabel Stark was the superstar of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a curious celebrity. A tiny Kentucky blonde in a white leather bodysuit, she was a daredevil, reportedly sexually adventurous, and courageous beyond reason. Enter 1968, where Mabel is age 80 and losing her job at Jungleland in Southern California. She worked until the day she died - was it suicide?
The End of Mabel Stark
Mabel Stark did not receive credit enough for her life of accomplishments, even though animal training was cruel in itself in many ways – whips, guns, shouting, and many atrocities. In addition, she never worked under Social Security, had no retirement fund, and had to work to the day she died at age 79.
She had no retirement income except from continued work at the mismanaged end-time JungleLand amusement park. She may have worked herself to death.
Her happiest times may have been when she doubled for Mae West in films, when both stated that each would be just as happy to be the other woman. That was a short time of happiness.
Glasgow Barfly sing "The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark"
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Patty Inglish MS