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Crawfordsville’s Greatest Showman – Part 2: Lew Graham’s Private Life


The “fannnnntastic and marrrrvelous” Lew Graham, Crawfordsville’s greatest showman, built an impressive resume in the circus world but his private life was a little tumultuous. In between tours, he slipped back to Crawfordsville occasionally to visit his three sisters and two brothers-in-law. In 1894, he returned to Crawfordsville for a family emergency. His brother-in-law, John Courtney, who was married to his sister Elizabeth Graham Courtney, was dying and Lew arrived to see him one day before he died. For six months, John had suffered from convulsions and other afflictions, and was delirious. An 1873 Wabash College graduate, John had been a prominent lawyer in town. He was in his 40s, and was quite the character around town since starting his law practice in Crawfordsville at age 21. He was known for his “sparkling wit and adeptness at instantaneous repartee” and at times was hard to miss; when in his 30s, he had luxuriantly long curly hair that the locals referred to as “a la Buffalo Bill,” and he sometimes showed up in court in a full-length white doeskin suit.

Lew’s other brother-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Franklin West, was also present to see John before he died. Dr. West first married Lew’s sister Mary and then after her death during childbirth, he married Lew and Mary’s sister, Leticia, known as Letty. It was luck that Dr. West and Letty could be there because their primary work was abroad in Singapore where they served as Methodist missionaries largely to Chinese immigrants. Dr. West founded the Anglo-Chinese school there, today known as the Penang Methodist Girls’ School. He also founded the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church. He and Letty spent a year learning Chinese in order to provide in-home services more adeptly to the Chinese immigrants in Penang.

Like the Wests, Lew also became a world traveler in the late 1890s when he toured with the Barnum & Bailey Circus for three years in England. There he met Helen Harrison Brown. Lew told a reporter for the Indianapolis Journal in 1902 that meeting Helen in 1898 was the first time he fell in love. She was the daughter of a professor of Greek and Latin at the Queen’s College in Oxford, England. Lew and Helen married on April 3, 1898 in London. She immigrated with him to the United States when he returned with the circus but she made periodic solo trips back to England to visit her family while Lew was touring for the circus. It is unknown what happened to the couple by 1906 but sadly, Helen died or they divorced.

Lew married a second time to Anna L. Harwood Hutchinson in Milwaukee on Feb. 18, 1907, at the Grand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church. She was the daughter of David Harwood and Elizabeth Adeline Williams of Lynn, Massachusetts. Anna was married previously to William Howard Hutchinson, and had a daughter Marian with him, but Anna and William divorced prior to 1907. At Lew and Anna’s wedding, Fred M. Loomis, a personal friend of the Ringling brothers and an employee of the Ringling Brothers Circus, stood up with Lew as a witness to his and Anna’s marriage. It is possible that Lew and Fred were in the area of Milwaukee because they were staying near Baraboo, Wisconsin, the home and winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers. The Ringling brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1907 but if they did not actually own it by mid-February, then perhaps the paperwork was being processed. Neither Lew nor Anna can be found on the 1910 census, and Anna’s daughter, Marian, was living with Anna’s sister Mabel in Lynn, Massachusetts. Perhaps Anna was traveling with Lew and the circus around the country. In an obituary for Otto Ringling, it reported that Lew Graham traveled from New York to attend the funeral. In addition, when Marian married Albert McMaster, their wedding in 1914 took place in Manhattan, so it is possible that Lew and Anna made New York their home during the off-season as early as 1908. He and Anna remained married until Anna died in November 1916. She was buried in her family cemetery, Pine Grove Cemetery, in Lynn Massachusetts.

Lew married for the third and last time to Della H. Meyer in Lake County, Indiana, on April 5, 1918. On the 1920 Federal Census, Lew and Della were living in New York City though Lew was still on the road most of the time. It was in 1926 that Lew co-wrote a highly entertaining and informative article for The Elks magazine about his life in the circus. However, just four years later, according to the 1930 Federal Census, he was living in the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, New York. Mental health was not greatly understood then for issues like work-related stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or many types of depression. Two of Lew’s sisters were also hospitalized at times in their lives so it could have been hereditary to a degree. Tragically, Lew died in that same hospital (It is now named Dr. Woodman’s Hospital) on Sept. 20, 1935, at age 69. He was laid to rest in Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts, beside his wife Anna.

Two years later, Della attended the funeral of one of Lew’s circus friends Frank Cook, known as Cookie to his friends, but then her trail grew cold. Maybe she kept in touch with other circus friends, and for her, the circus did go on.


Amie Cox is a local history specialist at the Crawfordsville District Public Library and the district media specialist at the Crawfordsville Community Schools.


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