Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Susan Grund, Oversexed Murderess

Circus City

Peru is a quirky little city on the Wabash River in north-central Indiana.

Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Its most famous native son was Cole Porter, the songwriter. He is buried there, but cynical locals like to point out that he had the sense to leave Peru when he was young and didn't return until he was in a pine box.

Peru claims a curious title as America's "Circus City."

It was a key railroad hub in the late 1800s, during the heyday of traveling circuses. Its circus connection began in 1882, when a local businessman and circus buff, Ben Wallace, bought out a bankrupt "railroad" show that had passed through town.

But Wallace wasn't satisfied with a cut-rate circus. He collected exotic animals, ordered ornate new wagons and took his show on the road in 1884, as "Wallace and Co.'s Great World Menagerie, Grand International Mardi Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo and Alliance of Novelties."

The Great Wallace Show
The Great Wallace Show

The Great Wallace Show, as it became known, was one of mid-America's biggest, and Wallace used Peru as winter quarters to tend the animals, repair equipment and prepare for the following season.

Over the years, the Wallace Show merged with many others, and the winter quarters in Peru were in steady use by one circus or another for most of 50 years. Among them were the most storied of America's traveling shows, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Peru residents were treated to free previews of the acts, and circus legends like Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced clown, became regular habitués of Main Street.

The Great Depression slowed the road show gravy train, and the last circus finally pulled out of Peru winter quarters in the 1940s, destined for warmer environs. Sarasota, Florida, became the nation's circus hub when Ringling moved its winter quarters there.

The circuses forgot Peru, but the city never got the circus out of its blood.

Greatest Amateur Show on Earth HQ
Greatest Amateur Show on Earth HQ

In 1958, Peru began staging an amateur circus that continues today in a weeklong celebration each July. And in 1981, when Sarasota's Circus Hall of Fame went on the auction block, Peru bought it and moved it back to Indiana.

With three marriages, countless affairs, two pregnancies and a child abuse conviction under her belt, Susan Whited joined the parade of clowns headed back to Circus City.

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