Circus trapeze artist dies in shootout in Staunton.
It was to be a semi-annual occurrence in the years immediately after the tragic death of Eva Clark that when the circus came to Staunton for its yearly visit a contingent of performers would gather at Thornrose Cemetery to leave a bouquet of flowers on her grave.
Their mutual interest in the doomed trapeze artist, whose untimely end would go on to make her an indelible part of Staunton lore, was hardly a coincidence.
As the story of her murder made the rounds among circus people in the summer of 1906, it struck an obvious chord. Indeed, to an itinerant performer, the thought of dying and being left behind for burial in a strange town, with no family or friends in attendance, was haunting in the extreme.
All would have realized that in the uncertain and often dangerous world in which they had to make a living, Eve's sad story could have just as easily been theirs.
But what a story it was.
On the night of Sept. 6, 1906, local police were informed that a woman had been shot and seriously wounded at the Staunton fairgrounds and that she was affiliated with the circus currently encamped there. At least they thought it was still there. To their dismay, arriving officers found that the scene had disappeared. In less than an hour the Coles Bros. circus had packed up and gone, leaving only one incontrovertible piece of evidence behind.
This, of course, was the victim. Twenty-five year old Eva Clark had been admitted to King's Daughters' Hospital with a gunshot wound to the abdomen that, as it was later learned, had pierced her intestines in 16 places and perforated her bladder.
Not surprisingly, doctors gave her only a slim chance of recovery.
Despite the seriousness of the wound and the suffering it caused her, police found a surprisingly cheerful, coherent young woman when they visited her in the hospital.
She described the incident in detail, telling them that an argument had erupted after the evening performance between her husband, "Lum" Clark, and a 'friend', James Richards. What the argument was about she didn't say, but when Richards lunged at her husband, Lum pulled a .38 revolver and squeezed off a shot.
The first bullet missed, and when Richards kept coming, Eva said, he fired again.
The second shot missed the attacker but hit Eva.
With both men long gone and the victim having failed to accuse her husband of intentionally shooting her, Staunton police decided they could do little.
The discovery that both Eva and James Richards had been adopted at a young age by Lum's father, only added to the confusion of the tangled relationship between the three.
Eva rallied in the days ahead, her spirits buoyed by an outpouring of sympathy from the Staunton community. Flowers and get-well messages poured into King's Daughters' as local newspapers issued daily reports of her condition. But on Sept. 30 she took a turn for the worst. In agony, she was wheeled into surgery, but in a world as yet without antibiotics, her doctors could do little to ease the infection.
She died the next day, attended to in her last hours by Staunton's venerable minister, the Rev. A.M. Fraser of the First Presbyterian Church.
Eva told him she was a peace, content in her belief that her husband hadn't really intended to shoot her.
In the years to come, her story wouldn't be forgotten. The number of graveside visitors reached its maximum on June 1, 1910, when a memorial service attended by more than 200 people was held over her still markerless gravesite at Thornrose.
Officiating was the man who had been at her bedside at the end, the Rev. Fraser.
As usual, noted the leader, a "circus band and troupe marched from the show grounds to the cemetery in a body," where they met Fraser" at the grave. The band played 'Nearer My God to Thee' as an opening piece and tears came to the eyes of nearly every person present."
By Terry Shulman-Special Writer.
Staunton News Leader, VA
Jan. 2 2001
Age 25 yrs. Stone erected 1923 by friends w/Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
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