Queen of the Big Top
Helen Gertrude Swasey was well known in her hometown of Haverhill from the time she was a young girl until her death in 1934. She was born into a wealthy family in 1855, attended Bradford Academy, and often was seen riding through town on her horse and practicing tricks in the circus ring her father built in their yard. She wasn’t a fan of the academy, so she researched ways to get expelled, eventually selecting marriage at 16 as the best method.
Her parents had the marriage annulled and she was sent to live with an aunt in Illinois, where she responded to an ad for circus performers. She rode bareback and performed tricks such as jumping through a ring of fire for Barnum & Bailey. Her iconic image was seen on posters around the country.
At the time, circus stars had “movie star” status. Swasey was referred to as “The Toast of Broadway” and stories spread that she earned as much as $20,000 a year. But the work became harder as Swasey aged, and she eventually returned home to care for her ailing father. Despite lawsuits following his death, she retained none of his fortune.
News stories reported that she scrubbed the floors of the Haverhill railroad station to feed herself. Upon her death, the city paid for her funeral. Swasey was the 27th person inducted into the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame.