The Circus Bank

By Cara Wick

In the early 20th century, the traveling Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, led by rewards-based animal training pioneer Carl Hagenbeck, was famous for its humane animal acts. Based in Peru, Indiana, it was also famous for its banking.

In March 1904, after Peru National Bank refused to deposit the circus’ proceeds because they were in barrels of nickels (the shipping containers were labelled “nails” to discourage theft), circus proprietor Ben Wallace decided to open his own bank, the Wabash Valley Bank and Trust. For the better part of a century, the bank operated on the corner of Main and Broadway in downtown Peru, with the third floor of the building a workshop for circus costumes.

In June 1918 the circus became infamous for tragedy when 87 of its members were killed in the worst train wreck in U.S. history. The cause of the crash was an over-worked driver who fell asleep at the wheel and plowed his train into the idling circus cars. The death toll was exacerbated by the sleeper car’s kerosene lamps, which upon impact set the wooden sleeper cars ablaze.

Charred beyond recognition, most of the dead were never identified. Their Woodlawn cemetery headstones read “unidentified male” or “unidentified female,” though some have been marked with “Smiley,” “Baldy,” and “4 Horse Driver.”

After the train tragedy, Wallace and Hagenbeck sold the circus to Jeremiah Mugivan and Bert Bowers, who renamed it the American Circus Company. In 1929, John Ringling bought the ACC and formed the largest circus in the world at the time, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey.

So, too, the Wabash Valley Bank and Trust went through a series of mergers. In 1992, the bank became First of America Bank, which was in 2006 acquired by National City Bank. After the 2008 financial train wreck, the former circus bank became part of PNC Bank. PNC’s acquisition of Cleveland, Ohio-based National City was financed in part through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And thus the one-time circus bank came home through the $700 billion TARP bailout—a process described by former Office of Thrift Supervision Director Tim Ryan admitted as “a four-ring circus.”