Long before the days of television and motion picture stars, circus performers were among the celebrities of the day. Circuses were popular, being a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, and there was a mysterious and off-beat glamour surrounding the performers. One of the brightest circus stars of the 19th century was Helen “Gert” Swasey, the Big Top Queen, whose bareback riding and skill in training horses brought her fame and fortune when she traveled with Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Swasey was born in Haverhill in 1855. As a young girl, she practiced riding her horse on her family’s spacious lawn and was often seen, atop her horse, galloping around town. She attended Bradford Academy, but grew bored and began to hate school. Apparently, simply quitting school was not a possibility, so Gert Swasey read up on the school rules and found an obscure one stating that married students would be expelled. Well, that was good enough for her and she found herself a man.
Neither the school nor Mr. and Mrs. Swasey took kindly to the 16 year old’s marriage. It’s not terribly clear from our research, but it seems as though the Swasey’s had their daughter’s marriage annulled and she was sent to live with an aunt in Illinois.
Still not satisfied with her lot in life, Swasey managed to do what most of us have threatened our parents we’d do – she ran off and joined the circus. Swasey found an ad in the newspaper looking for circus performers and moved to Chicago to join up with them.
Gert Swasey’s past experience with horses paid off in the circus. She was an expert bareback rider and would even train her horses to jump through rings of fire. Within a few years, she was a star, touring with the “Greatest Show on Earth” and earning $20,000 per year (a great sum for the late 1800’s – a little over $500,000 in today’s money).
Whoever said that “all good things must come to an end” must have known Gert Swasey personally. As the beautiful, glamorous star aged, her career began to taper off. Younger performers were coming into the circus and Swasey found herself being pushed out. She left the “biz” to care for her dying father and legal matters regarding his estate seemed to have drained her fortune. We can’t help but assume that, like many people who suddenly find themselves “in the money,” Swasey was a little careless and indulged herself in expensive clothes, jewelry, parties, etc. Once her circus career ended and the money stopped coming in, she soon found herself flat broke.
With no income and her fortune gone, Swasey took any job she could find, including scrubbing floors. She adopted a small family of alley cats and disheveled dogs and made the newspapers again in the 1920s when she was sued for $90 in back rent and facing eviction. She was saved by a friend’s generosity and continued to live in obscure poverty until her death in 1934.
With seemingly no family to take care of her funeral, the city of Haverhill paid for the burial costs and buried Gert with her parents in Linwood Cemetery. Poet Winfield Townley Scott immortalized her in the poem “Gert Swasey” – “To travel like a gypsy/ To dress like a queen/ To see all the world that she’d never seen/ That was never the world where she had been.”