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Texas History

The Rope Walker of Corsicana

Unraveling the mystery of a one-legged tightrope performer

A curious grave site in the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery has puzzled historians and fueled local lore for more than a century. A fragmented narrative and the words “Rope Walker 1884” chiseled on the headstone provide the only information about these mortal remains. However, the mystery at long last may have been unraveled.

The story tells that a traveling, one-legged tightrope walker came to town in 1884. One account has the rope walker hired by Meyers & Henning Dry Goods Emporium, which conducted business under the motto, “The Biggest Shovels to the Biggest Bodices, We Have It.”

However he came to Corsicana, the aerial ambulator wore a peg leg with a notch on the bottom to help him balance. Legend suggests that he had a heavy iron stove tied to his back when he ascended to the rope stretched across Beaton Street, the town’s main business thoroughfare.

“He had a long bar in his hand to help balance himself,” according to an account preserved in The Perpetual Record Book of the Jewish Cemetery, Corsicana. “When about halfway across he lost his balance and fell to the street from a 2-story height. He was badly crushed by the weight of the stove on his back.”

The injured performer was carried to a nearby hotel, where Dr. J.W. Gulick attended to him. When the man declared his Methodist faith, the evangelist Abe Mulkey was summoned. But when the rope walker sensed he was near death, he announced that he actually was Jewish. With no rabbi in town, a Jewish merchant was summoned and heard the funambulist’s recitation of a Hebrew prayer.

No one could persuade the dying man to state his name or whether he had any family. He remained an enigma even as he was lowered into his place of final rest. A 1936 article in the Corsicana Daily Sun repeated these details, as related by Rachel Mae London, daughter of the late Max London, keeper of The Perpetual Record Book. Rachel Mae had witnessed the tragedy as a girl.

Frank X. Tolbert, author of the Dallas Morning News’ Tolbert’s Texas column, investigated the rope walker’s saga in 1958. Ten years later, Tolbert ran into artist and author Tom Lea in El Paso. Lea told the columnist that he had come across an account of a one-legged tightrope walker billed as “The Great Professor Berg” in a late 1870s Mesilla, New Mexico, newspaper story. Lea immortalized the professor in his 1952 novel The Wonderful Country.

A 1998 Corsicana Daily Sun report figured that Tolbert and Lea had cracked the case. Then came the internet. Massachusetts genealogist Jim Yarin ran across the rope walker story while researching a Corsicana family, and through digital diving in vintage newspaper databases, he unearthed two names for a one-legged funambulist who toured the U.S. from 1868 to 1883, Professor Daniel De Houne and Professor Moses Berg.

A 1969 Pittsburgh paper Yarin found confirmed that Berg was the funambulist’s real name and that De Houne was a showbiz alias. An 1873 article in the New York Evening Telegram stated that, just before the Civil War, De Houne immigrated to Texas from Berlin, where he had performed for 13 years with a circus. Fighting for the Kansas 7th Cavalry in the Civil War, he lost his leg at the Battle of Middleburg in 1862. To support his wife and six children back in Texas, he took his showbiz stunts on the road, swallowing swords, swinging on a trapeze and dancing with a table balanced on his teeth.

Appearing in Fort Worth a month before his fatal fall in Corsicana, Professor De Houne ballyhooed that he would even cook pancakes on the stove while walking on the rope.

Not all Corsicanans accept Yarin’s evidence. Babbette Samuels, who took on the responsibility of caretaking the Jewish cemetery with her husband in the 1990s, says, “Logically, a Jewish husband and father’s dying words would mention his family, especially since he was risking his life to support his family. For 133 years, no family member has shown up to claim him.”

Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in Texas history and music.