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Archives Find of the Month: McMahon’s New York Circus, 1892

In preparation for what would be his third summer setting up shop in Seattle, John McMahon purchased a circus license from the city for $50. The license gave him permission for two performances of his McMahon’s New York Circus, on May 14 and 15, 1892.

From what we can tell, the May 14 performance went off as expected. However, according to a letter McMahon wrote to the Mayor and Common Council, the city’s “authorized officials prevented said exhibition” on the 15th. He claimed this cost him several hundred dollars, and asked that his $50 license fee be returned to him. The Committee on Police, License, and Revenue considered his request, but stated that since the circus “gave part of a performance on May 15th and did not return money collected,” they advised against granting the petition.

Two weeks after the shortened performance, the Council considered the following resolution: “Resolved, By the City Council that the license heretofore issued to McMahon’s Circus, be and is hereby directed to be revoked, and that the license officer be directed to collect the amount provided by ordinance for a circus license, to wit – one thousand dollars per day + fine said circus company.” The resolution was indefinitely postponed and not voted up or down.

The Post-Intelligencer did not report on the shutdown of the circus in Seattle or the dispute with the Council, so the back story to these events remains unclear. The circus had gotten good reviews in other cities, with particular praise for McMahon’s bareback riding skills and his trained elephants. The Tacoma Daily news said the circus had “the finest railroad cars, the finest ring horses and the finest elephants in the world.” The only hint of trouble in area newspapers was a May 12 mention of financial trouble reportedly caused by a “wicked advance agent who ran away with the funds of the show.”

McMahon’s story ended six months later, when the Tacoma Daily News reported that he had died of consumption on a train en route to Chicago.

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