Mollie Bailey, who ran a circus in Texas and the South for almost 50 years, the only woman to do so, was dubbed the "Circus Queen of the Southwest." As a young woman, she rode with Texas Confederate troops and served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines. Later, she ran away to the circus with her husband Gus. They later owned their own circus and turned it into a highly successful enterprise. When Gus died, Bailey ran the circus herself. She bought property in small towns across Texas so her circus would have performance space, which she loaned to communities for playgrounds and other public use in her absence. Her nine children were born and raised on the road.
Written by Nancy Baker Jones
Read by Elizabeth Muñoz
Mollie Bailey, called “the Circus Queen of the Southwest,” was born in the 1830s or ‘40s. During the Civil War, she traveled with Gen. John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade as a nurse and, some said, a spy, claiming to have crossed enemy lines with quinine hidden in her hair to get it past federal troops.
In the 1880s, along with her musician husband and brother-in-law, she operated a traveling one-ring circus, advertised as “A Texas Show for Texas People,” which regularly gave free tickets to poor children and war veterans from both the north and the south. Recognizable by the Lone Star, Confederate, and U.S. flags flying over the big top, the circus grew to have 31 wagons and hundreds of animals, including elephants and camels. After her husband’s death, Bailey continued to operate the business, often buying land in various towns to guarantee locations for the show as it moved from place to place. She frequently donated these lots for local church and camp meetings and eventually moved the circus by rail. In her comfortable parlor car, she met with Texas governors, senators, and old friends from Hood’s Brigade.
The mother of 9 children, “Aunt Mollie” continued to run the circus into the 20th Century and reportedly showed the first movies in Texas in a tent just for that purpose. Mollie Bailey died in 1918 in Houston and is buried there.
Diana J. Kleiner, "BAILEY, MOLLIE ARLINE KIRKLAND," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Biography Source Information
Biographies are reprinted from the Foundation for Women’s Resources (now Women’s Resources), Dallas, Texas. They originally appeared in "From Gutsy Mavericks to Quiet Heroes: True Tales of Texas Women," video study guide, Austin: The Foundation for Women's Resources, 1997. Death dates have been added where needed.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.