Glencoe woman was part of her father-in-law’s popular ‘Million-Dollar Show’
As a child growing up in Hamburg, Minn., Vi (Hebeisen) Gould never imagined she would be a circus performer. But when she was in her teens, she became a member of the Jay Gould Million-Dollar Show, which Jay and Mable Gould started in 1923. Vi soon became part of the family when she wed their son, Eddie, the youngest of the Goulds’ nine children.
Vi first met Eddie when she was 13 and he was dating her older sister, Emily. A few years later, after Emily passed away, Vi accepted an invitation to go to a movie with Eddie. She explained, “All of the boys in Glencoe would come to Hamburg to date all of the cute girls.”
When it came time for the circus to go on the road in May, Eddie asked Vi to join the show so that he could see her over the summer. Her parents agreed because of the upstanding reputation of the Gould family.
“Jay Gould was known for beginning every show with a prayer and the singing of God Bless America,” Vi said. “Eddie’s sister Patsy led the singing. She had a voice as good as Kate Smith’s.”
The entire family seemed to have musical talent. Eddie’s sister Gloria played the calliope, and her husband, Ernie Stibal, played the drums, usually on one of the parade wagons as well as in the circus. Their daughter, Gloria Ann, did an aerial act on a ladder. Jay and Mable’s daughters danced as chorus girls on the stage.
“Jay allowed no gambling and nothing vulgar or filthy on the shows,” Vi said. “The side shows were all clean. There were some animals in cages, a mechanical farm and whole town, and every part moved. One side show was the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth on display in the back of a semi truck. Stairs led up to the display, and you could touch the mummy. The leg was broken and he also had a scar where an actress had accidentally jabbed a fingernail into a boil on his neck. I really do believe this was the body of John Wilkes Booth.”
Jay made sure all of his children played a musical instrument, and he would line up his band on stage. One of the boys, George, was even able to play three clarinets just about simultaneously, which earned him a spot in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
When Vi joined the circus in 1942, she thought it was just for the summer.
“Here I was, a 16-year-old Hamburg girl, one of six chorus girls,” she said. “A choreographer came from Chicago and did six weeks of dance training, and we had a costume maker. The stage was folded up and loaded on a semi for going on the road from town to town, two towns a week, maybe 50 miles apart.”
In 1942, Eddie enlisted in the Marines to avoid being drafted into the Army. Stationed on the West Coast, he asked Vi to move to Santa Monica, Calif., to live with his sister because he missed Vi so much. She took him up on his suggestion.
“I left the show in Illinois–it was closing for the season–and got on a train,” Vi said. “I went to Santa Monica instead of finishing my last year of high school. We got married in October 1942, two weeks before my 17th birthday. I wasn’t pregnant. Our first child, Eddie Val Gould, was born Feb. 14, 1944.
“My husband never went overseas,” Vi said. “and problems with his feet resulted in an early discharge.”
The couple returned to Minnesota, where Eddie tried selling various products. When he saw an Electrolux vacuum cleaner in operation, he knew he had found his niche.
“He took orders and then delivered the vacuum maybe four months later, after metal was available,” Vi said, referring to the metal shortage during WWII. “He became a top salesman, but we traveled with the circus from May through September. Eddie was the drummer. We had two babies then.”
Vi’s mother-in-law asked Vi to become the secretary-bookkeeper for the circus. During this time, Eddie, Vi and their children lived in a semi trailer that was hitched onto a fifth wheel. She said, “We’d put the children to bed and then I did the paperwork. We had only a one-ring circus then. One ring in front of the stage, with elephants, dogs and ponies. We also had aerialists and clowns performing on the stage about eight feet off the ground.”
With the birth of more children, Vi and Eddie decided to leave the circus life permanently and settled in Glencoe, where they had a home built in 1950. When Vi was 57, she took a job at the Green Giant/Seneca plant in Glencoe, where she eventually became the lab supervisor.
“I was appreciated because I was a good worker and always smiling,” she said. She retired in 2012 at the age of 87.
In her later years, Vi became a long-term caregiver. Eddie’s parents had built a home nearby, which led to Vi helping to manage her mother-in-law’s finances. Vi also helped care for other relatives who lived with Mable, as well as coping with Eddie’s depression and, later, his dementia.
Throughout her 94 years as a circus chorus girl, military wife, mother of five children, bookkeeper, lab supervisor and care giver, Vi developed a strength rooted in faith.
“My experiences have made me strong because I had to be,” Vi said. “Experiencing all of the burdens, I developed a deeper faith and trust in God through it all. God has provided me with security.”
When Vi listed her home for sale recently, it sold in four days. She now resides in an assisted living facility in Glencoe.
Was John Wilkes Booth’s body on display in circus?
When the Jay Gould Circus displayed the “mummified body of John Wilkes Booth,” there was some question about the veracity of the display. Although Booth’s acting career was cut short by his supposed death in 1864, shortly after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, his supposedly mummified body had a long career touring the country as an exhibit at fairs and circuses.
On Feb. 10, 1938, the Saturday Evening Post printed a story, written by Alva Johnston, that attempted to shed light on Booth’s mummified body. The following information is excerpted and paraphrased from Johnston’s story, which appeared under the headline “John Wilkes Booth” on Tour.
Many historians believe that John Wilkes Booth was killed in Virginia on April 26, 1865, 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Another version said that Booth escaped and lived in Texas and Oklahoma under various names, principally under the name St. Helen. He committed suicide by arsenic in Enid, Oklahoma on Jan. 13, 1903. Forty pounds of affidavits maintain that this mummy was the genuine John Wilkes Booth. If they are true, then Booth, in a magnificent state of preservation (for which there apparently is no explanation), had an interesting post-mortem career that brought failure and disaster to most of those involved in it. Nearly every showman who exhibited Wilkes’ mummy was ruined. Eight people were killed in the 1920 wreck of a circus train on which the body was traveling. Bill Evans, the wealthy Carnival King of the Southwest, exhibited the mummy for years. He was ruined financially. Other similar situations occurred as the body was bought, sold, leased, held under bond, kidnapped and seized for debt. It seemed to be a harbinger of failure.
In 1932, the body was purchased for $5,000 by a former circus tattooed man, John Harkin. In the Harkins’ battered exhibition truck, the mummy “slept” between Harkin and his wife. Like others before him, Harkin failed to become wealthy from his unusual display, but in 1937, he connected with the Jay Gould Million-Dollar Show. Gould, always on the lookout for a “good cultural attraction,” bought the mummified Booth. Gould was the first showman to succeed in making Booth pay for himself.
Four years earlier, Booth’s supposed mummy was X-rayed, operated on and studied by a group of medical men and criminologists in Chicago. It was claimed that the fractured leg, the broken thumb and the scar on the neck were all verified. The X-ray allegedly revealed a metal object deep inside of Booth. Drilling into the mummy produced a bit of metal with an engraving that looked like the letter B, resulting in speculation that Booth had sought to conceal his identity by swallowing his ring.
Whether the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth made the rounds of circuses and fairs, or whether the display was a hoax, the legend lives on.