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Historical Account of Cole & Coopers ‘Circus Girl’ Who Came To Boone in 1908 for a Show and Died of Illness

By Terry Harmon

July 4, 2014. An article entitled “Circus Leaves Girl in Boone Cemetery,” appeared in a commemorative 1972 Centennial Edition of the Watauga Democrat and, from the time I was a boy, I was intrigued by the story of Rita Sheridan, whose broken tombstone now lies flat in the Boone City Cemetery. News articles from the Watauga Democrat in 1908 and 1912, as well as census and other records, provide additional details of the story.

Circus AdRita was born circa 1877. Her maiden name is unknown to me, but she was a member of the Episcopal Church in Paris, Texas, where her father was a physician. Sometime after June 6, 1900, she married Ross G. Sheridan, who was born in July, 1871 in Iowa. Ross was a son of John Sheridan (a native of Ohio) and Harriet “Hattie” Christy (a native of Illinois). Ross had siblings named Della, Lee, and Hugh Sheridan. In 1880, the Sheridan family lived in Iowa. By the time of the 1900 census, John Sheridan had died and the family lived with Christy relatives in St. Louis, Missouri. A Ross G. Sheridan is recorded as having enlisted with the U. S. Army on May 12, 1898, and this may have been Rita’s husband.

It is unknown how Ross and Rita Sheridan met or exactly when or how they became associated with the “Cole & Cooper Shows,” but the circus performed in Blowing Rock on August 3, 1908 and in Boone on August 4. A large crowd attended the Boone performance and the Watauga Democrat reported that the exhibit was fairly good for a show of its class. When time came for the circus to move on, Rita was ill and was confined to a room at the Critcher Hotel (later the location of the “Dime Store” and now the present site of Grapevine Music and the Boone Mini-Mall on King Street). Two months later she was reported to still be “very low” but thought to be a little improved. After the passing of a third month, at midnight on Sunday, November 8, 1908, Rita Sheridan died. The Watauga Democrat reported, “It seemed that her husband, physician, and friends did all in their power for her, but the disease would not be bullied, and death must have been to her a sweet relief. Although a stranger in our midst, the sympathy of the entire community went out to her from the first, and gladly would each one have done something to have relieved and comforted her but they could not.” Her funeral was conducted on Tuesday afternoon, November 10 at the Episcopal Church by Rev. William R. Savage, and Brothers Brendall and Davis assisted with her graveside service.

Almost a week after the funeral, Ross Sheridan left Boone for his mother’s home in California. At the time of his departure, his “Card of Thanks” was published in the Watauga Democrat:

“I wish to publicly thank the good people of Boone and vicinity for their great kindness during the long illness, death and burial of my dear wife. Surely there was never such kindness shown by any people to strangers within their gates as was accorded us. I may never see you again, but your kindness will ever be a green spot in my memory. Again let me say thank you, and God bless you.”  R. G. SHERIDAN

Likewise, Ross’s mother wrote a letter of thanks to Rev. Savage in which she expressed “great and sincere appreciation of both my bereaved son and myself for the timely help and solace extended through the darkest hour of his life. We will bear you always in our hearts and prayers.”

Ten days after Ross Sheridan’s departure, Rev. Savage felt compelled to clear up some uncertainty among the local citizenry as to Rita’s church membership or affiliation. In a letter to the Watauga Democrat, he stated that Ross Sheridan told him his wife rarely ever failed to attend Sunday services when there was a church to go to. Rev. Savage also stated that he had administered communion to her and Mrs. W. C. Coffey [Ada Worth Coffey, second wife of William Columbus Coffey], and that Rita had said in a feeble voice that taking the Lord’s Supper was a great comfort to her. Rev. Savage was satisfied that Rita had expressed belief in her Savior and her trust in His all-redeeming blood.

It is evident from Rev. Savage’s letter that he was concerned about the fact that some of the populace had unfairly judged the character of, and perhaps even gossiped about, Rita Sheridan. He wrote, “Having ‘lifted the veil’ that light may be thrown upon the real life of ‘a stranger in a strange land,’ and hoping this will satisfy any who feel that so-called show people cannot be Christians, and just here may I add respectfully that Mr. Sheridan told me that his wife never took part in the show, and he was only Treasurer. I feel that I have endeavored to do justice to fellow-beings, and helped to open the eyes of some, perhaps charitably blind people, blind only because their eyes had not been made to see the true state of the case through no fault of theirs. In this generation, when light insufficient is hourly being replaced by light more abundant, we cannot refuse to make use of that intensified light to read the lives of others, beside ourselves, in the reading of which we must necessarily become more broad minded, which is just another mode of spelling the word ‘charity’ and let us not forget that charity means love – love for God and humanity.”

I have not been able to establish the whereabouts of Ross Sheridan after he left Boone in November 1908 other than mention of him going to his mother’s home in California. I do not find him in any California census records, but have located his mother, Mrs. Harriet Sheridan, and his youngest brother, Hugh Sheridan, in census records and city directories living at 725 South Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, which was also the address from which Rev. Savage received Mrs. Sheridan’s letter.

[As a side note, Ross Sheridan’s brother, Hugh Shirley Sheridan, died in 1922 and is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. According to this cemetery’s web site, it “is the final resting place to more of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on earth. Founded in 1899, the cemetery was an integral part of the growth of early Hollywood. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original Hollywood Cemetery, where the studio is still in operation today. The cemetery of choice for most of the founders of Hollywood’s great studios, as well as writers, directors, and, performers, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.”]

There was a Ross Sheridan who died in 1908 and is buried in Topeka, Kansas. If this is Rita’s husband, then he would have to have died between November 16 and December 31 of the same year she died. There is also record of a Ross G. Sheridan of Multnomah County, Oregon having married a Floss D. Anderson of Cowlitz County, Washington on May 23, 1928 in Clark County, Washington.

In September, 1912, almost four year’s after Rita’s death, “the Jones show” came to Boone. Although none of the members of that show were related to Rita, the Watauga Democrat reported that “through the kindness of their heart,” they intended to erect, as soon as possible, a nice grave stone to her memory as their last tribute to a dead friend.

Rev. Savage’s letter is proof that Rita Sheridan was not a show girl and that the 1972 article portraying her as riding into town on an elephant’s trunk is incorrect. Sometimes the truth is less glamorous, yet this remains an interesting story – one of humanity and compassion.

Rita Sheridan Tombstone Today

Circus Ad Rita Sheridan