November 20: A Fire, A Fiery Lady & A Hungry Lion



On November 20, 1887, fire raged through the winter quarters of Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. The five-acre compound in what is now Bridgeport’s Went Field Park housed circus animals, staff and equipment during the chilly off-season. Unfortunately, if there was anything to be said about the nineteenth-century circus, it’s that it was extremely flammable. The compound’s main building, an expansive two-story shed, was packed to the rafters with stores of tent canvas, advertising paper, costumes, parade equipment and hay. The fire started at the north end of the building in a horse training area, and within minutes the complex was an inferno, raining cinders down upon trainers as they tried to release animals from their enclosures. Despite their efforts, the vast majority of the circus’s animals were lost. The New York Times grimly reported that, “Three elephants and all the menagerie excepting one lion and hippopotamus were burned.”

Amidst the intense heat and chaos of the fire, that lion managed to slip away into greater Bridgeport, prowling its way in the wee hours of the morning to the backyard cowshed of one Christina Gilligan. The shed was home to Gilligan’s prize dairy cow and the cow’s new calf, who quickly became the hungry lion’s late-night snack. The lion’s meal-preparation awoke Mrs. Gilligan, who strode into the shed stick in hand, thinking a dog had gotten into the barn and was harassing her cow. Gilligan poked in the dark at the rough shape of the intruder. Getting no response, she drew back the stick and smacked the offender full force. The unnerving roar-of-a growl she got in response instantly convinced her the now-angry intruder was not a dog, but the veritable king of beasts. Undaunted, Giligan fought gamely with broomstick in hand, until the lion roared a little too fiercely for comfort, at which point a conveniently armed neighbor arrived and shot the beast.

Thanks to her Yankee blend of spit and polish, Mrs. Gilligan became an instant celebrity. Newspapers nationwide fawned over the woman who had fought off Barnum’s lion. “As between any given Connecticut woman and any given African lion,” one paper advised, “it will always be safe to bet on the woman.”

The press knew what to do with a good story –– stretch it till it broke. Barely two weeks after the fire, readers were told that Christina Gilligan would be the latest addition to the Greatest Show on Earth. Not only would she appear in the 1888 season, she would also create a grand spectacle by getting married to an artistocratic Mexican rancher on the show floor in Madison Square Garden, standing on the skin of the lion she had gamely battled.

The New YorkTimes felt the need to try to temper these exaggerated accounts with the “Less Romantic, But True” story: Christina Gilligan had indeed showed enough spitfire presence of mind to whack a hungry lion in her backyard. And yes, Barnum and Bailey had paid in cash to compensate her for her lost cow. But that’s all, the Times sighed. “She hasn’t been engaged as a star to outshine professional beauties, and she won’t travel with Barnum’s show. She hasn’t received any offers of marriage, and she positively will not be married to a ranchman in Madison-Square Garden in ‘February under the management of P.T. Barnum,’ as the Bridgeport romance asserts. At least, that’s what Mr. Bailey said yesterday, and he may be supposed to know a trifle about the show he manages.”

By the fall of 1888, only a year after her encounter with the lion, Mrs. Gilligan had been reduced to a “where are they now?” item – and her tenacity seemed far less appealing when it involved selling liquor on Sundays. Then the headlines read, “Lion-Whacker Arrested ”and the follow-up account of her previously announced marriage stated, “Evidently her whacking propensities looked more dangerous than the Don had anticipated, and he had no desire for a taste of her broomstick.”

Further Reading

John Berguson “Barnum Lost Mansion, Attractions to Succession of Fires,” CT Post

Burning of Rare Animals,” Scientific American