After completing my blog on Annie Etheridge I went back to the people I had saved to my favorites from Find-A-Grave’s Necrology Listing and began a tree on the last one left. This was on Felix Adler. I’d saved him because I hadn’t done one on the circus/sideshow people in a long time and because I’d been wanting to do one on a couple. I had actually planned on doing a couple back when I did the blog on Peter Robinson but that just hadn’t worked out. This time it seemed made to order.
I debated about doing this blog because there was quite a bit out there known about him but I decided to try anyway. The question was how to do this one as a couple. I finally settled on doing it as two concurrent timelines, his and Amelia’s. Also, instead of writing a lengthy “what was already known” segment I chose to just begin his story. If you’d like to see what is “known” already, just read his bio here. I’m also not going to cover his training and working with animals, especially the pigs. This is already well-known and covered at every site about him.
Felix was born Frank Bartlett Adler on 17 June 1895 in the town of Clinton, Iowa. His parents were Joseph Adler Jr and Minette S Nugent. Joseph was born 19 September 1867 in Clinton and Minette (called Nettie) was born 11 April 1870 in Camanche, Iowa. Joseph and Nettie had gotten married on 17 October 1888 in Whiteside County, Illinois and began their family back in Clinton County, Iowa.
The first place for Frank to show up is the 1900 US Census. This one was done there on the 4th of June of that year. In it we find the family at the top of the page living in the town of Clinton at 408 2nd Avenue. It shows Joseph being born January of 1869 in Iowa. He is a carpenter and they rent their home. Nettie says she was born April of 1873 in Iowa, that they’ve been married for 12 years and that she has borne four children, all of whom are living and all born in Iowa. Next up is their oldest child, a daughter named Abbie (Abbie L), born April 1889. Then comes Walter (Walter Irvin), born January 1891. The third child is Edward (Edward Hugh), born December 1892 and lastly comes Frank. From here on I’ll refer to Frank as Felix. 1900 Census
The next Felix shows up is in the Iowa State 1905 Census. This census is not like the normal censuses that you may be used to. It’s basically a small piece of paper with a few items noted about each person. About the only thing of note in it is the fact that they’ve now moved down the street to 528 2nd Avenue. 1905 Census
On the 26th of April in 1910 the US Census was done in Clinton. This time they are are still living at the 528 2nd Avenue address. There is just a few things to note in this one. First off, the only child working is Walter, who now drives a meat wagon. Also, there are now two new children. The first one is Theodora (Theodora B) who is incorrectly listed as a son. She was born in 1905 and then comes Vinall (Vinall Carlson) who was born in 1907. Nettie has now been a baby-maker for 18 years. Vinall will be her last child. 1910 Census. 1910 is also about the time that Felix was supposed to have started with the circus, but I’ve never seen any hard evidence of it. If he was truly working for the circus he probably wouldn’t be in this census because it was done in late April an he would have been on the road.
With the larger family, Joseph and Nettie moved their family across the street to 527 2nd Avenue. This is where the family is living when Felix appears in the 1915 Iowa State Census. It shows him as 19 years old, his occupation is now actor, and he’s earned $2000. I never saw anything in the newspapers about it but this is supposedly the time-frame that he got into vaudeville and burlesque so it fits. 1915 Census
This brings us up to World War One. When Felix filled out his WW1 draft card in June of 1917 he stated that he was a showman for Ringling Brothers. It also says that he had served three years in the Hospital Corps with the Iowa National Guard. Unfortunately these military records are not online so I don’t know exactly when he served, but I have to assume it was about 1912 to 1915, plus or minus. WW1 Draft Card
Felix ended up in the Army for WW1 and assigned to the 163rd Depot Brigade. This unit was stationed at Camp Dodge in Polk County, Iowa. The 163rd was basically a boot camp and training/processing station for other units heading overseas. As near as I can tell, Felix never left Iowa during the war. He essentially ended up as the mess sergeant for the camp. He was discharged from the Army on 22 March 1919.
The earliest I could find any mention of him in the newspapers with the name Felix were these two stories from April and May of 1919. Oddly enough, the first one talks about his not being released yet but this was a month after he actually had. Sometimes you’ll see the same stories circulate around the country for months after so this isn’t too surprising. The second story talks about him getting his discharge and his subsequent and immediate rejoining of the Ringling Brothers. 12 April 1919 31 May 1919. The last story makes me wonder if the discharge date, which comes from his headstone application, was a mistake and it should have said 22 May 1919 instead. This would validate both of these stories perfectly.
Ringling would sometimes winter-over in Wisconsin. In 1920, regardless where they did, Felix apparently went home because he was caught there in the US Census done on 9 January. He is back with his parents at the same address from the 1915 state census. Beginning on line 38 you’ll find Joseph & Nettie, then Abbie, Vinall, Theodora, and finally Felix. He now actually used the Felix name for it, too. 1920 Census
This is the point where Amelia joins our blog. Amelia Raine Irwin was born 1 September 1919 in Henrico County, Virginia. Her father was Robert Raine Irwin, who was born 7 July 1879 in Goochland County, Virginia. Amelia’s mother was Bessie E Melton, who was born 20 September 1894 in Henrico County, Virginia.
We pick up Amelia in the 1920 US Census which was done on her family on the 5th of January. They are living in Richmond with her paternal grandfather. Beginning on line 85, it shows her family’s surname as Raine (her and her father’s middle name) instead of Irwin, a not-so-unusual enumerator mistake. Her father is shown to be a sheet-metal worker for an engineering company. Next up is Amelia’s mother, Bessie. She is 26 and she and her parents are all shown to be from Virginia. Then comes Amelia’s sister Louise (Bessie Louise), aged 5. Next is her sister Helen (Helen Grayson), aged 4 years and 5 months. Lastly comes Amelia, aged 4 months. 1920 Census
Back to Felix, I found numerous newspaper stories about him during the 1920s. These are just a sampling of them. You’ll need to click on the picture to zoom in. 22 May 1930. These next two are both parts of one story about performing for some children at a hospital, something he would do very often. 22 May 1924-A 22 May 1924-B. Here are two more assorted stories. 17 May 1928 11 May 1929.
With all the moving around a circus does it’s not real surprising that I never found Felix in the 1930 or 1940 US Censuses. In lieu of that, here is another selection of the many newspaper articles about him during that time. 28 Aug 1930 8 Jan 1931 1 Jun 1939. This one is interesting because of a bout of food poisoning hitting the circus and their trying to make the best of it. 19 Jun 1943
This takes us up to the Hartford Circus Fire of 6 July 1944. This was a fire that was one of the worst in U.S. history. It happened at a matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. Felix was there, along with over 8000 other people. 167 people died (almost half were children 15 and under) and over 700 were injured. Here are three parts of a news story done the next day about it. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3. I would also recommend checking out this site about it: CircusFire1944.Com. There is also a very interesting side story about the unidentified young girl known as Little Miss 1565 and who was finally identified in 1991, although there is some doubt to that identification even today. Just do a Google search for Little Miss 1565. It’s very compelling.
Now back to Amelia for a bit. We next find her in in the 1930 census. The family is now living at 1314 Claremont Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Amelia’s father Robert is now a machinist for a company that makes tanks and boilers. He also owns the home in which they are living. Her mother Bessie is there and it shows that when she and Robert got married he was 33 and she was 18. This matches up to their marriage in Washington DC on 2 October 1913. Next are Amelia’s sisters Louise and Helen, who are now 16 and 14. Then comes Amelia, aged 10. There are then two new additions to the family, Elizabeth M (Elizabeth May) who is 4 and Jack F (Jack Frederick) who is 1 year and 4 months old. The last person is Robert’s older sister, Milly Louise. 1930 Census
The 1940 US Census, done on 19 April, shows them again at the same address in Richmond. This time though, Robert has gone from years of metal-working to now being a salesman for the retail grocery business. Bessie is still there and Amelia’s sister Louise is now 26 and a stenographer for a supply warehouse. Next up is Amelia, who is now 20 and says she is an artist for the N Y A Bureau of Fine Arts, whatever that is. I assume it has something to do with President Roosevelt’s WPA. Her sister Elizabeth and brother Jack follow. Lastly is her Aunt Louise, who is still with the family. This one is in two parts. Amelia is at the top of the second. 1940 Census A 1940 Census B
Two months after the census, on the 8th of June, Amelia married a young mechanic named Frank Leslie Spence Jr. He was born 11 May 1921 in Christiansburg, Virginia to Frank L Sr and Eula Lee Brame. Marriage
The next I found them was in a 1943 Richmond city directory. In it, they are living at 304 W Brookland Park Blvd. Frank Jr is now a driver for a freight company. As near as I could tell, the address now is a car wash. 1943 City Dir
I stumbled across a news story from 18 January 1946 about Frank Jr but it came from a news story that I didn’t have access to. However, I was able to transcribe it in its entirety and this is what it said:
THE PITTSBURGH PRESS
FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 1946
Accused Auto Thief Faces FBI Charges
A Virginia man who stole an auto in Washington, D. C. to take his wife to Miami and back was in Federal custody today after his arrest by Chief of Police Charles W. Senn of Mt. Lebanon. The motoring vacationist, Frank Leslie Spence Jr., 22, of Newport News, Va., faces Federal Court action on an FBI charge of stealing a coupe and driving it from Florida to Pittsburgh. After exchanging District of Columbia license plates for Virginia tags he drove to Mt. Lebanon, where he was picked up Jan. 9 for allegedly trying to pass a phony check. Spence was held under $1500 bond for Federal Court following a hearing before a U. S. Commissioner. The FBI said he also is wanted in St. Louis by Postal authorities on a charge of cashing and forging a money order.
Frank Jr later pleaded guilty and did some time. Meanwhile, Amelia had enough and had moved back in with her parents. By early 1947 she had filed for divorce on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. The divorce was granted in Richmond on 23 Sep 1947. Divorce
Around this same time Felix was performing at the Miller & Rhoads department store in Richmond where Amelia worked as a credit adjuster. He asked her out, in costume, and she accepted. They ended up getting married on 6 March 1948 and she then joined him on the road. They would maintain a residence in New York City from then on. I was never able to find a marriage record for them but the date comes from a news story done some years later. It also comes from the Felix Adler Children’s Discovery Center, created in 1993 as an offshoot of an event started by Felix’s niece, Theodora Smith. She was one of four daughters of Felix’s brother, Edward.
For the first few years Amelia was content to follow him with the circus and make his costumes. Then about 1954 Felix lost his assistant and Felix convinced Amelia to take his assistant’s place, and it worked out beautifully. The following year she was on an episode of What’s My Line. Here is the video up on YouTube. She is the first contestant on the episode. WhatsMyLine
I’ve selected a few articles from the late 1940s through the late 1950s to show their life during that decade. Click on the pic to zoom in if needed: 3 May 1949 21 May 1952 15 May 1956 19 Jul 1956 24 Oct 1957 13 Dec 1957 28 Aug 1958
Now comes an odd thing. I stumbled upon a story from March 1957 that lead me astray for a while. It was about an aerialist performing and falling 25 to 30 feet during a performance. This caused her some serious injuries but she survived. Not an unusual event in any circus but in this case it’s claimed that she is Felix’s daughter. Her name was Madeline Long but she had recently married a Jimmy O’Connor. Madeline Fall
This really baffled me since I never saw anything in the records, news or websites about any other marriage for Felix. Her age in the story makes her born about 1938. So did he have an earlier marriage? Or was she his step-daughter? Did he and Amelia adopt? Madeline had gotten married just the month before in New York. Marriage. Here are two items from April 1957 about her recovering. 1 Apr 1957 2 Apr 1957.
I was never able to determine who she really was. Her maiden and married name were both too common to do me much good without having more information to go on. I did find her performing prior to this from about age 16, but she totally disappears from the news after this. To make it more perplexing, she isn’t mentioned in Felix’s or Amelia’s obituaries at all. I suspect it was more of a case of Felix and Amelia taking her under their wing than an actual family relationship. I would love to know more about this though.
Also, you never know with the news media. We lament about how much better they were about their reporting way back when but the media was just as screwed up back then as it is now. I see it all the time while researching. For example, I came across a story from Anderson, Indiana about how Felix had called on his sister Laura May Smith while in town with the circus. He didn’t have a sister by that name. After looking into it I found another story where she was the sister of the famous clown Emmett Kelly. He didn’t have a sister by that name either, although he did have one named Sylvia L Smith. So who was she? When it comes to the media, who knows what the truth is.
At this point I need to catch you up on what happened to everyone else in Felix and Amelia’s life. Felix’s mother died on 22 February 1938 in Clinton from acute cardiac failure. His father never remarried and died there also on 23 January 1953. His sister Abbie never married and I never saw her listed with any occupation. She passed away on 18 Dec 1956. His brother Walter Irvin worked for the railroad, married Metabell Nelson, and then passed away on 9 May 1962 in Clinton. For his brother Edward, he married Antonia Schlüns and they proceeded to have seven children that I know of, one of them being the Theodora Smith I mentioned earlier in the blog. He died in Clinton on 8 January 1980. Felix’s other sister, Theodora, never married either and lived to be almost 90, passing away finally on 26 October 1994 in Clinton. Lastly, his baby brother Vinall married Claranell Welch and he died in Clinton on 14 June 1972. With the exception of Edward, every single one of the family is buried in Springdale Cemetery there.
For Amelia, the year after she married Felix her father discovered that he had bladder cancer. He lasted two more years though and passed away in Richmond on 26 August 1951. Her mother Bessie passed away from heart-related issues on 23 May 1971. Both of Amelia’s parents died at home at the same 1314 Claremont Avenue address they’d lived at for decades. Her sister Bessie Louise married Bernard Russell Pace and died in Richmond on 11 September 1993. Her sister Helen Grayson married Edward Warren Thurston and was a month shy of her 99th birthday when she passed on 11 Jun 2014 in Henrico County. For sister Elizabeth May, she married Alfred Fred Baroody and they had at least five children. She passed away in Charles City County in Virginia on 31 July 2008. Lastly, her baby brother Jack just died fairly recently in Richmond, on 8 January 2015. He never married.
This takes us up to Felix’s death. On 15 January 1960 he had gone to St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan for ulcer problems. He developed liver complications during his second surgery and died on February 1st. His funeral was held back in Clinton and he was buried in Springdale Cemetery with the rest of his family.
As far as Amelia, she was difficult to track after his death. She gave up clowning and I assume she went home to Richmond. I had seen mention on various sites about her marrying a Joseph Mullen. Some of these sites said it was an earlier marriage before the one to Felix but this isn’t true. When women got married after about the 1940s they usually went and adjusted their name on their Social Security applications. They didn’t always do it right away, though. In April of 1965 Amelia adjusted hers to the Mullen name so she got married sometime between February 1960 and April of 1965.
With nothing but his name I was never able to pinpoint exactly who he was. I was able to find a possible candidate in Richmond and one in Clinton, Iowa but nothing definite. It’s also possible he was in New York City since this is where she and Felix were living when Felix died. I do know that by 1992 she was back home in Richmond living with her brother Jack at the same 1314 Claremont Avenue address she had lived in while growing up. She finally passed away at the Chippenham Manor Nursing Home there on 16 June 1999 and was buried in Riverview Cemetery, the same as her parents. Here is her gravesite. The information on her husbands there came from me contacting the administrator of that grave page: Amelia Grave
One of the things I’ve seen repeated over and over was Felix’s involvement with shows for children or grandchildren of various presidents. These were Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt. I only ever saw one single thing in the newspapers about it, and that was for Roosevelt. What I did find was President Harding’s and Coolidge’s involvement with Professor Felix Adler, a totally different Felix Adler. For Roosevelt was this single story from 4 Jun 1933 about the Roosevelt grandchildren visiting the circus where they did meet Felix (click on pic to zoom) 4 Jun 1933.
With the exception of that one Roosevelt story, I never did see it mentioned that he had entertained the other two Presidents’ families while they were actually President. And I never found one single case where he actually entertained at the White House for any president. Every story I did find talking about it was from many years, and sometimes decades later. Also, none of these gave any details whatsoever. You would think that any performance at the White House would be in the papers somewhere. I am not saying it never happened but until I see something concrete I have serious doubts about it. I’m totally open to my being wrong and I welcome anyone to send me any proof so that I can include it in the blog.
Also, let’s discuss a couple of other myths. He was not the first clown on television. That was an Italian clown, but Felix was apparently the first on American TV. Lastly, he and Amelia were possibly not the first husband/wife clown act. Supposedly there’d been a couple of others, Freddie & Mickey Freeman back in the 1930s being one example. So far though, my checking into the Freemans haven’t proven that claim. Consequently, I’ll lean toward and remain very open about the Felix and Amelia claim.
When it was all said and done with I couldn’t help but think that Felix and Amelia had to be two of the nicest people around. The joy they spread during their lives, especially to children, was something this world could really use today everywhere.
I’ll end this blog with some random photos I came across while doing the research. Number six is the one from when the Roosevelt grandchildren visited the circus and met Felix:
Thanks for stopping by! – Ray
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