Researchers uncover details about a famous aerialist who was shot and later died in Staunton more than a century ago
STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — Throughout its history, the City of Staunton has attracted many things, including shows like the circus.
The railroad that runs through the Queen City and being at the intersection of two major highways are mainly what made Staunton a popular stopping point, welcoming its fair share of interesting and talented people.
“Coming to Staunton was a logical stopping point, because we had a railroad and we had good facilities for hosting a circus,” Lucinda Cooke, with the Augusta County Historical Society, said. “People would come in from farms and other communities for the circus, even if it was only for one night.”
But after performing in Staunton one night more than a century ago, a famous aerialist would have never guessed it would be her last act.
“She could sing. She could act. She did things well beyond the Cole Brothers Circus, where she appeared in 1906 here in Staunton,” Cooke said.
Eva Clark was an aerialist from Cincinnati, who headlined for the Cole Brothers World Famed Triple Railroad United Shows, which stopped in Staunton on September 6, 1906.
“We know that she performed. She was an aerialist. She also did flying ladders and trapeze work. We know that she was in her tent, ideally, probably her dressing area, and there was some type of altercation,” Aíne Norris, who has spent years researching Eva Clark, said.
The altercation was between Eva and a circus worker named James Richards. Newspaper articles from the time report Eva’s husband, Lum Clark, also appeared with a pistol.
Eva was shot in the abdomen, suffering from a wound to her intestines, which had been pierced 16 times.
“She was taken to King’s Daughters and ended up living for a month, but eventually she did succumb likely to what we now know as sepsis,” Norris said.
Eva died on October 1, 1906, and was buried in Staunton’s Thornrose Cemetery where she still lies to this day.
“She was quoted as saying, until her death, that it was an accident, but she was never directly interviewed either. So, all of the paper coverage had people speaking on her behalf,” Norris said.
The mystery surrounding Eva’s death soon became a part of Staunton’s story.
“The Augusta County Historical Society sponsored a program and a fundraiser, called ‘Conversations from the Grave: Meet the Residents of Thornrose Cemetery’... Well, Eva Clark became one of the favorites... I think probably [because] her story is full of mystery and intrigue,” Cooke said.
Her death had sparked some interest for people to learn more about her life.
Norris grew up in Staunton and learned about Eva on one of the ghost tours around the city.
“We know a lot about how she died. But why don’t we know more about her life? What did she do? What was her career like? I always asked myself that question,” Norris said. “As historians and as researchers, if we have the means to find out people’s whole stories as things are digitized from the archives, we kind of have that obligation to make sure we’re updating this idea of the collective memory.”
After digging in and doing extensive research to learn more about Eva, Norris met another woman, Dawn Tucker, who was also looking to learn more about Eva.
Tucker went to graduate school at Mary Baldwin University, and she would frequently go on runs around Thornrose Cemetery. On what would have been her last run in Staunton before moving out of town, Tucker said something felt different.
“I always ran the exact same route,” Tucker said. “This particular grave, I got two steps past her gravestone, and I just heard this voice say ‘turn around.’”
That’s when Tucker saw Eva’s grave, and she says that is what pushed her to want to learn more about Eva’s death and why she was buried in Staunton.
“There are so many questions still along the lines of that story, but also about her life. She had a fascinating life as a circus performer,” Tucker said.
Researchers learned Eva was born into a circus family and began doing trapeze work as young as 8 years old.
“The Howards were all circus royalty at that point. Her mother did jumping barrels and flying ladder. Her dad was also in the circus,” Norris said.
But learning more about her was hard to come by, partly due to the inconsistencies in reports and the number of different names Eva went by.
“It almost felt like she had been intentionally erased, like I found her mom’s performer card, her dad’s performer card and her step dad’s performer card, but not Eva,” Tucker said.
Tucker was inspired by Eva and took up trapeze, which she said brought her closer to Eva.
“How incredibly strong she must have been, and I’ve had injuries and falls, and it is so nerve-wracking to get back up there,” Tucker said. “When I think about the time that she sliced her legs open and fell unconscious to the ground, and then was back up there three months later, it just tells me that she had a fortitude.”
Tucker also bought a converted Chevy Astro Van and lived in it for a few weeks while following Eva’s circus routes.
Eva married into another famous circus family through 20-year-old Lum Clark when she was a young teenager.
“All I can really prove about Lum Clark is that there was a behavior of violence. He [was] wanted at one point in the state of Tennessee for murder, the divorce petition from Eva Clark and her attorneys says that Lum Clark beat her and shot at her once,” Norris said.
The local lore in Staunton was that Lum Clark and James Richards fled to Mexico after Eva died and were never seen again, but Norris said that’s not necessarily true.
“Her husband came back to the states about a year later, settled down in Louisiana, married a Louisiana Creole woman, who looks strikingly like Eva Clark, had children, lived a full life,” Norris said. “Not as much is known about [James Richards], but his name does come up in later circuses in the ‘20s. It’s kind of a common name, it could be a coincidence.”
And while Eva had many talents, she still struggled along the way, which prompted another family, the Brannigans, to take her in and care for her.
“They did that because she was one of the singers at the theater they owned, and she was so destitute she needed a place to live, so it also made it clear how much of her life was necessity,” Tucker said.
But through it all, her strength and perseverance seemed to shine through.
“She was such a strong personality, and sometimes that’s lost when if all you know about is someone’s death story because they’re immediately a victim, but she was a lot more than a victim,” Norris said.
Researchers pieced together a pretty comprehensive timeline for Eva, but there are still some questions unanswered.
“Honestly, we’re interested in who has the coroner’s report because no one has it, but all of the other ones from that time in Staunton are still there, but hers is missing,” Norris said.
And there may also be some unfinished business.
“The big missing piece for me is in those Cincinnati articles. Elizabeth Brannigan says that she wants to bring the body back, Eva’s body, home,” Tucker said. “She must have cared a great deal to go all the way to Staunton to try so hard to get the body. And I’m sure she didn’t stop trying, I mean, she says she won’t in the article.”
Tucker said she eventually wants to find where Brannigan is buried, and honor her and Eva’s friendship in some way.
“Maybe it’s a gravestone, maybe it’s a plaque, maybe it’s just some remembrance of Eva in that location with also something about their friendship and about how much Elizabeth cared about her,” Tucker said.
While Staunton is not home to Eva, it could be home to learning more about her life. Researchers hope the community can help uncover more about the “Queen of the Air.” You can send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read more about Eva’s story here.
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