Though her name is relatively unfamiliar today, during the early ‘20s Mabel Stark ruled the big-top as the world’s first woman tiger trainer. Like the cat’s she adored, many aspects of her life are mysterious. She was born around 1889, maybe in Princeton, Kentucky. Her parents died before she reached adulthood, and when she turned eighteen, Mabel started nurse’s training.
How she came to Barnes’ Circus is unclear; did they meet by chance when Mabel vacationed in Los Angeles, or did she bump into the show’s proprietor working in burlesque? Nevertheless, she paid her dues and soon had the biggest tiger act in America. Her performances were famously theatrical and Mabel was scooped-up by Ringling Brothers. By the mid-1920s, she was out of favor and working a second-rate circus. Here, she was almost fatally mauled, the first of three severe attacks.
Mabel finished her career at Jungleland, a California theme-park. When its new owner’s fired her, she overdosed on barbiturates. She was 78 years old. While her pioneering achievements might not be remembered today, Mabel Stark’s courage and determination transcends generations.
To read more about Mabel’s circus exploits check-out:
MabelStark: The Lady with the Tigers
Mabel Stark, Lion Tamer