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Circus Town!

Sells Brothers' Show
Called Columbus Home

By Nancy Patzer


The timeline below was provided by David and Erica Brownstein, the current owners of the old Sells mansion:

1895 to 1924: The main house at 755 Dennison was used as a private residence by a series of four families. During that time, the carriage house was used to house servants and served as an out building.

1925-1953: The main house was used as a meeting facility for the United Commercial Travelers Columbus Chapter. The UCT also allowed the building to be used as a meeting place for other community organizations.

It is unknown what the carriage house was used for from 1925 to 1937.

1938-1956: The carriage house housed the Wm. E. Cooper Food Company. From at least 1940 to 1943, Wm. E. Cooper used the carriage house at 215 Buttles as his personal residence.

1953-1959: The main house at 755 Dennison served as the meeting house for the Fraternal Order of Police. After 1956, the carriage house was vacant.

1960-1961: The main house served as a shelter house for the House of Hope for Alcoholics.

1962: Both the main house and carriage house were vacant.

1963-1996: The main house was a nursery school, with a private residence on the second and third floors. The carriage house was used as a kindergarten with an apartment on the second floor.

1997-Present: The entire main house has returned to private residence, owned by the Brownsteins, and the carriage house has been developed as a second residence.


Victorian Village is home to many interesting architectural landmarks, and one of the most fascinating examples is the Sells mansion at 755 Dennison Avenue. The magnificent Romanesque style home was built in 1895 by Peter Sells, circus magnate, for his wife Mary and their young daughter Florence. Designed by prominent architect Frank Packard, creator of landmarks such as the Governors Mansion on East Broad Street, the old Columbus Country Club at Big Walnut Creek and the Jeffrey Mansion in Bexley, the Sells home cost $40,000 to build.

The Romanesque style was popular during the latter part of the 19th Century, but the exterior of the Sells mansion is exceptional because it is crowned with a bell cast hipped tile roof, reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish architecture. The carriage house, located at 215 Buttles Avenue, shares the same hard-fired brick and other exterior features as the main house, including Moorish arched windows and doors, and the same tile roof. The dramatic flared rooflines of both buildings evoke images of the circus big top; their Moorish influences and tile roof may have been a result of Peter and Mary Sells' trip to California in 1891, where the same styles and materials were (and are) common.

Since 1895, the home has been occupied by several owners and has undergone numerous architectural changes, many of which have created a more institutional look to the once grand interior. The first floor has been almost completely gutted, and few original elements, such as the hardwood oak floors and tile fireplaces, remain. There is a frame addition to the rear of the first floor that was added by the United Commercial Travelers in the 1930s to provide more kitchen space. On the second floor, several original features remain, including ornamental plaster arches in the common area and master bedroom, a stained glass window featuring the initials PS (Peter Sells) and a grand curving stairway. The roof facing east (Goodale Park) was once embellished by three dormers, located off the third floor attic. These were lost in the early 1970s. The current owners, David and Erica Brownstein, bought the home in 1997 and are attempting to restore some of the home's original grandeur.

During the late 1800s, the Sells Brothers Circus was one of the largest, most successful shows of its kind in the country. At the time the home was built, Peter Sells and his three brothers were among the wealthiest citizens of Columbus. As front man for the operation, Peter traveled ahead of the circus to book engagements, post advertisements and arrange railroad transportation for the massive operation. Peter married Mary (Luker) in Canton, Missouri in 1878, and shortly afterward the couple moved to Columbus, where the circus was headquartered.

The Sells family owned several properties near downtown Columbus, particularly the near north side, and the couple resided in various homes until 1895 when the mansion was built. Mary Sells didn't enjoy circus life and did not often accompany her husband in his travels. It is believed that the mansion was built partly to accommodate the Sells' young daughter Florence, born in the late 1880's, and partly to appease the discontented Mary.

The family's stay at the mansion wasn't a long or a particularly happy one. In late November of 1899, Peter Sells moved out of the house and shortly thereafter filed for divorce from his wife, due to Mary's alleged adulterous activity with two men, one of whom was an associate of Peter's. The stories surrounding the divorce and divorce trial proceedings kept Columbusites at the edge of their seats for over a year. During the trial, much of the testimony centered around the Sells mansion, where Mary and Florence lived while Peter was traveling and where, Peter's lawyers alleged, she entertained at least one of her lovers. Mary continued to reside in the house during the trial, but in early 1901, Peter Sells regained possession of his home and reestablished residence there with his daughter Florence. He and Florence were estranged from his wife for over a year before the divorce was made final. Shortly after the divorce was granted, Peter sold the house.

History of the Sells Family

During the late 1700s, Ludwig Sells, a German immigrant, sent his two sons to Ohio from their homestead in Huntingdon County, Pa. to look for land to settle. Those sons poled a flatboat up the Scioto River to what is now Dublin and, liking the lay of the land there, brought their father and the rest of their family to settle in 1801. One of Ludwig's grandsons, Peter, moved from Dublin to Columbus in 1834 and found employment as a truck gardener and Methodist lay preacher. He raised 11 children and was quite prosperous. Peter had five sons, and all of them served in the American Civil War. One died in Andersonville Prison, but the other four survived and were residents of Columbus in the late 1860s. Three of them, Ephraim, Allen and Lewis, were in the auction business and followed circus troupes around the country in order to take advantage of the audiences they attracted. After one failed attempt at running their own circus show, they enlisted the help of their brother Peter, the youngest member of the family, then employed as a reporter for the Ohio State Journal.

The brothers became fascinated by a man named "Cannonball George Richards," a performer who billed himself as a "percussive aerialist." In other words, he shot himself out of a cannon on a daily basis. In 1871, after adding Peter to the Sells team, the brothers purchased George Richards' act, some cast-off circus equipment, nine cages of animals, and two camels for $6,500. The first show was presented in downtown Columbus at State and High Streets in the spring of 1871. It consisted of the small menagerie, Cannonball George Richards, a few side- show acts and some horseback riding acts.

Following a successful year, the brothers decided to invest all of their savings (as well as several thousand in borrowed funds) back into the circus: about $35,000 total. They felt they needed an elephant to make the show complete, and in 1873 purchased their first of many pachyderms to come.

Elephants became somewhat of a passion for the Sells Brothers, who, less than a decade later, boasted eight elephants. The show grew steadily, and by 1878 was transported all over the United States by railway cars, rather than by wagonn train over road, a much slower method of transportation. By 1890 the Sells Brothers Circus was the second largest circus in America. In 1887 the title of the show exemplified the advertising skills of its proprietors:

"Sells Brothers World Conquering And All Overshadowing Three Ring Circus, Real Roman Hippodrome (indoor circus area), Indian Village and Pawnee Bill's Famous Original Wild West Show."

The circus continued to operate successfully over the following 35 years; the brothers building larger, more exotic shows, many times combining their acts with other circus outfits. The brothers divided the duties as follows: Allen Sells was the manager; Lewis was assistant manager and superintendent, with Ephraim as treasurer and superintendent of tickets. Peter was the "front man" for the show, meaning that he traveled ahead of the performers to establish contracts and routing, post advertisements and secure railroad reservations. Peter had no liking for hanging around with the actual performers or their gear, but was an expert at routing, advertising and publicity. And in the quiet, provincial atmosphere of late 19th century Midwest, news that the circus was coming to town was good reason for celebration.

During the mid-1880s a typical season would run from mid-April, opening in Columbus, to early December, usually closing in a southern city. In 1884 the circus traveled 11,537 miles. The Sells show was strongest in the Midwestern United States and westward to include Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. The circus occasionally visited Maryland and some areas of the Mid-Atlantic states, but rarely ventured into New England, which was then the territory of the Barnum and Forepaugh shows. Their circus eventually traveled westward, profitably competing with other shows and even visiting Australia in 1891. That year the company logged over 40,000 miles on the road. At its height, the show was transported from town to town in three sections with a total of 47 special railroad cars carrying it. The outfit included a 328-foot big top, six other large tents, 322 workers, 64 performers, 50 cages of wild animals, 13 elephants, and 7 camels.


(From the April '99 issue)

(Part II)

Winter quarters for the circus were located in Sellsville, an unincorporated area west of the Olentangy River and north of Fifth Avenue. The community was contained within about 1000 acres of that riverfront land, and included living quarters and a dining hall for 50 workers, a large building to house the animals, a train shed for railroad cars and a wagon shed. On Sundays, local residents and sightseekers were allowed to visit the Ring Barn, where animal trainers rehearsed. Winter quarters were a lively place, full of animals, colorful residents and curious visitors. In addition to the circus grounds, there were truck gardens, orchards, slaughterhouses, saloons, black-smith shops, and mills. The woods between King and West Fifth Avenues were occupied by a group of gypsies in the summertime, and there was a hobo town along the Hocking Valley Railroad (now the CSX tracks).

Sellsville was an integrated community. The school, located on Virginia Avenue near Chambers Road, was called the "Polkadot School" because the enrollment was of an equal number of black children and white children. Some of the older black residents had been slaves who came by way of the Underground Railroad. The community had a black 21-piece band called the Clippers, and a black baseball team called the Sellsville Sluggers.

The people of Sellsville occasionally bore witness to some humorous and frightening "unrehearsed" animal acts. During the height of the show's popularity, the menagerie included 18 elephants, pumas, black panthers, hyenas, antelope, lions, tigers, leopards, zebras, bears, rhinoceroses, sea lions, monkeys, hippopotamuses and around 250 horses.

Carl H. Weisheimer, author of SelIsvilIe Circa 1900, describes several events where escaped animals frightened the local residents. One longtime Sellsville resident reportedly ran into five escaped polar bears on his way home from work. Needless to say, the man took less time to get home that day. Another family cowered in terror inside their home while an escaped elephant tore off their front porch. Stray elephants and bands of itinerant monkeys were amusing and not uncommon occurrences in Sellsville, but the training of circus animals sometimes proved injurious and even deadly.

One day in 1900, Patsy Forepaugh, who trained elephants for the circus, was at his job at winter quarters. Sid, a giant bull elephant, grabbed him with his trunk, raised him up and threw him against a wall, breaking the wall and killing Patsy. A year later, Sid killed another man at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N. Y. Sid's offenses were not deemed punishable by death, and he continued to perform.

In April of 1896, The Columbus Dispatch reported that 21-year-old Charles Taylor, a lion tamer, was attacked, bitten and gored by Nero, a lion who was purchased by the Sells brothers "at an enormous price on account of his beauty, being a magnificent animal, and of a vicious nature." It was difficult to find a tamer to even enter the cage with Nero, much less train him to do any tricks. However Taylor, whose previous occupation with Sells Brothers was that of peanut vendor, volunteered to give Nero a whirl. Part of Nero's training session consisted of a series of jumps over Taylor's uplifted leg. After clearing the leg several times in succession, the lion ran towards Taylor's leg and, instead of jumping over it, sank his huge teeth into the meatiest section, causing serious injury to Taylor, who lived but joined the ranks of other lion trainers who had been "subdued" by Nero.

Since the early 1880s, the Sells brothers had been noticing a popular trend in circus attractions: the "wild west show and exhibition." A Major Gordon W. Lillie was commissioned to furnish Indians, cowboys and equipment for their 1887 season. After doing a considerable amount of advertising for the new act, the brothers were informed that the Major was having difficulties rounding up the Indians for the show, due to a recent government order preventing the taking of Indians from their reservations for the purpose of making them entertainers. Major Lillie was arrested and detained, and the deal was eventually called off. This didn't deter the Sells brothers from creating their own "Midwest" Wild West Show, using their own performers. Using cowboy and Indian costumes, their own horses and lots of makeup, they went on with the show.

Occasionally this would-be Wild West Show got a little bit too wild. One day in Clinton, Iowa, a pistol used by the performers was mistakenly loaded with real bullets (as a matter of protocol, blanks were normally used). The discharge killed three people, including the wife of the County Attorney. The show was hurriedly torn down and hustled across state lines. For several years afterward, the Sells brothers didn't include Iowa in their itinerary. The brothers eventually owed up to $50,000 in damages.

In 1891, the show traveled to San Francisco and then boarded a steamship to Australia. The previous years had been so good for the brothers that they were encouraged to travel in wider circles than ever before. However, the tour of Australia in 1891 turned disastrous when an outbreak of glanders, a contagious disease, virtually decimated their animal menagerie. Most of the stock was quarantined for almost two months and the brothers had to purchase many new animals in order to operate. Theirs was the third largest circus operation to visit Australia, but the Sells brothers' attempt at inter-continental commerce did not pay off well. Following their return to the United States in 1892, the show traveled all around the far western states before returning east.

Increased competition from new shows did not help the brothers' luck after returning to the United States. But they continued to run the business, often forming partnerships with other acts in exchange for funding and promotional assistance. In 1895, James A. Bailey acquired one-third interest in the circus, giving the show some financial help and adding attractions. In fact, transporting all the trappings of the 1896 circus by rail required it to move in three different sections, each made up of multiple railroad cars. The menagerie was large and included African elephants Mike and Topsy, Asian elephants Sid, Queen, Dutch, Babe, Rubber, Betts, Romeo, Vic, Dick and John. Other menagerie stock included two hippos, several bears (both brown and polar) one zebra, one llama, seven camels and four ostriches.

Sideshow features included a man and wife team of giants, who were paid $35 a week in 1896. Other performers and their weekly stipends were: Wesley Baum and his wife, tattooed people, $20; William Parkinson, magician ($45) Willie Ray and wife, midgets ($30), Nettie Leona, snake charmer ($15); W.H. McFarland and wife, knife throwing ($40); and the Hindoo giants and wives ($20). Also, one man was paid $5 a week to have rocks broken on his head and another received the same pay to act like a wild man.

There was also a minstrel band, orators and ticket sellers. Total cost for the sideshow was $282 a week. One day's gross for that same sideshow (for an engagement in Winnipeg, Canada) was recorded at $514.25. The Sells were running a profitable business, at least in the sideshow departnent.

However, the strong family bonds that kept the circus going were weakened by the death of Ephraim, the eldest brother, in 1898. After Ephraim's death, James Bailey of Barnum and Bailey and W.W. Cole (of Cole Brothers Circus) each acquired a quarter interest in the business. When Peter (aged 59) and Allen both passed away in 1904, and with no family members interested in carrying on the family business, Lewis Sells sold the remaining shares of the show to Bailey for $150,000 cash in 1905. Bailey then sold half share of the Sells circus to the Ringling Brothers, whom the Sells brothers had contemptuously dubbed "the Ding Dong brothers." In 1906, Bailey died and the Ringlings bought the entire circus. They sent the Sells outfit on tour in 1907, 1910 and 1911, the last years that the circus toured under the name Sells Brothers. The Columbus head-quarters was closed by 1910. The act eventually became part of the conglomerate Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth.


(From the May 1999 Issue)

(Part III)

In the latter years of Peter Sells' life, the mansion at 755 Dennison became the scene for several unhappy events. It was here that Peter and Mary lived out the last days of their marriage, and Peter the last days of his life. The near north side of Columbus was home to many of the wealthiest families in the area, and Sells hired prominent Columbus architect Frank Packard with the intention of having their home stand out among the others in the neighborhood.

The mansion continues to overshadow other houses in the neighborhood because of its unique architecture. The dramatic rooflines, curved Moorish windows, and Spanish-tiled roof evoke images of the circus big top, suggesting the exotic life Peter and Mary Sells lived, not typical of Columbusites in the late 19th century. The couple had traveled all over the country, to Canada and Australia. The home was embellished with furnishings from their travels, and the large stained-glass window above the spiral staircase on the north side of the house was designed with the initials "PS" in it.

The magnificent three-story home accommodated the small family and their servants in grand style. The couple entertained lavishly, and Peter enjoyed having friends and colleagues over for card games when he was home.

Peter Sells' life with the circus was exciting and prosperous, but the raucous world of the circus performers was not his forte. His position as front man for the Sells Brothers Circus suited him well because he didn't enjoy the noise and flash of traveling with the actual show and its performers. However, it also required him to be on the road for about seven months out of the year.

He was respected in his field, and had a reputation as one of the best front men or "routers" in the business. It was said that his memory was so good that he could name the towns and the routes through which the circus had passed for the past 30 years. By simply looking at an outline map of any state, Peter could locate any town of importance. He had an excellent knowledge of the geography of the United States and of its railroad routes.

After he married Mary Luker in 1878. he continued to travel the United States as extensively as before. Mary was 18 when the couple wed, and Peter was in his mid-30s. They were married in Canton, Missouri, Mary's hometown. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Columbus. The Sells family owned several properties near downtown Columbus, particularly the near north side, and the couple resided in various houses until 1895 when the mansion was built. Peter was considered a family man by his friends and reportedly built the mansion at 755 Dennison as an expression of his devotion to his wife and their daughter Florence. Mary traveled with Peter often, but after their daughter Florence was born she began to accompany him less and less.

The Sells family stay at the mansion wasn't a long or particularly happy one. Florence, the couple's only child, was born in the late 1880s. Mary Sells reportedly resented her husband's preoccupation with business. It was alleged that during the late 1880s, she had affairs with two men and was romantically involved with another during the time she accompanied Peter to California and Australia in 1890-91. In late November of 1899, Peter Sells moved out of the house at 755 Dennison Avenue and shortly thereafter filed for divorce from his wife, due to Mary's alleged adulterous activity with the two men, one of whom was a business associate of Peter's.

The stories surrounding the divorce and divorce trial proceedings kept Columbusites at the edge of their seats for over a year. During the trial, much of the testimony centered around the Sells mansion, where Mary and Florence lived while Peter was traveling and where, Peter's lawyers alleged, she entertained the first of her alleged lovers, William Bott, on several occasions. In January of 1900, Peter Sells filed suit against Bott, a Columbus socialite, alleging that he "alienated his wife's affections." Sells' schedule precluded him from being in court for this suit and the divorce case itself, but he was represented by two of the most prominent attorneys in Columbus at the time, N. J. Booth and J. E. Sater. Bott's attorney, Walter Page, argued that Sells' petition was barred by the statute of limitations and that the alleged acts had occurred six years prior to the suit. Counsel for Sells claimed that correspondence between Mary Sells and Mr. Bott had occurred more recently than six years prior, and the two had "met at various times and places" during the years 1888 and 1889. They claimed that these meetings and the written correspondence enabled Bott to alienate Mary Sells' affections from her husband for a total of 16 years. Although the case against Bott was eventually dismissed, evidence in the form of letters was used in the divorce trial later that year.

The trial opened on Monday, November 12, 1900, to a packed courtroom. Columbusites were fascinated with the proceedings and each day jammed into the courtroom in record numbers. A rumor was circulated that women were to be excluded from the courtroom to preclude overcrowding, but court officials denied it, and everyone who could squeeze into the room was allowed to attend. Mr. Harry Lyons, a railway clerk and acquaintance of Peter Sells, was the second man accused of adulterous activities with Mrs. Sells. Peter's lawyers presented several letters sent by Lyons to Mary Sells during her trip to Australia in 1891; some addressed to "Miss Mame Luker" and "Mrs. Mame S. Smith." All of the letters recovered by Peter Sells' attorneys gushed over with boyish professions of true love. Lyons was, at the time of writing those letters, engaged to be married to a woman from Pittsburgh whom he stated he "wished would give him the bounce" so he could be with his "loved one, his angel queen."

During most of the proceedings, Mary Luker Sells sat emotionless beside her mother. The Columbus Dispatch reports that she would venture occasional glances around the courtroom, sometimes looking disdainfully at Bott and Lyons as they testified. Mary Sells gave a deposition before the trial but did not testify. Peter Sells often arrived late to the proceedings and did not testify either.

The most incriminating evidence against Mary Sells was supplied by "detectives" hired by Peter Sells to watch the house on Dennison Avenue during his absence in the fall of 1899. There were a total of six men assigned to watch both William Bott and Harry Lyons from October 23, 1899, to the third week of November that same year. Most often, one or two men stationed themselves in Goodale Park to watch the activity at the Sells home, and the others observed the actions of Bott and Lyons around Columbus. During this time, William Bott was frequently observed calling on Mrs. Sells in the evening. John Mahoney, who was most frequently assigned the task of observing the Sells home, took the witness stand about halfway through the trial. He testified that on the night of Monday, October 23, 1899, he saw William Bott enter the Sells home around 10:30 pm. Bott had ridden his wheel (bicycle), and left it in the archway upon entering the house. Mahoney took the wheel from underneath the arch that night, saving it in his attic as evidence. During the trial, his presentation of it to the court was met with considerable excitement. He added as further evidence verbal testimony that he had seen Bott coming and going late at night on several other occasions during the month-long stakeout.

Lyons was questioned about his visits to the Sells home for "penny ante card games" but was relatively unscathed by testimony by Peter Sells' detective team, because his visits were always at times when Peter Sells was at home.

Further testimony by Mrs. Augusta "Gussie" Sivalis, a family friend from Houston, Texas, caused equal clatter in the courtroom. Mrs. Sivalis testified that in 1888 she and her husband accompanied Peter Sells to the hospital because Sells was suffering from vertigo, and that Mrs. Sells stated she "hoped Peter would never come back alive"; that she didn't love him and never had. Mrs. Sivalis added that the couple seemed affectionate when together and she never heard Mr. Sells refuse his wife anything. She added that in 1898 she complimented Mrs. Sells on two "very pretty rings of turquoise and . . . diamonds." Mrs. Sells replied that William Bott had given them to her as a present. When asked whether Mr. Sells knew about it, Mrs. Sells replied, 'No. He is so blind he can't see anything but business, business."

The trial lasted for exactly five weeks, and on Wednesday, December 19, 1900, the court granted Peter Sells a decree of divorce on the grounds of gross neglect of duty. Mrs. Sells was not present in court for the decision, and the amount of alimony to be paid her by Mr. Sells wasn't given specifically. The Columbus Dispatch reported that a "trustworthy source" stated the amount as $30,000; $20,000 in real estate and $10,000 in cash. The Judge dismissed all allegations of Sells' alleged adulterous activity with Grace Beall in Kansas City, Missouri, saying that "He (Sells) has had every opportunity in (his travels) to indulge in the base passions if he were inclined to do so. The petition here filed a year ago and the search of able and diligent counsel to obtain testimony to sustain these charges has failed . . . "

During the trial it came to light that Sells was worth approximately $150,000 He paid about $12,000 in attorney fees. Mrs. Sells would have to vacate the home at 755 Dennison, where she resided during the duration of the trial. In January 1901, Peter Sells would reestablish his residence at the mansion with his daughter Florence. He had been estranged from Mary Sells for over a year before the divorce was made final. About the outcome, Peter was quoted as saying "the wound may heal, but the scar remains forever."

When asked whether he would resume business with the circus as before, he replied that he was uncertain, and that he had spoken with J. A. Bailey, who had made him a good offer for more shares in the circus.

Mrs. Sells stated that she would spend her days following the trial traveling, and would later reside with her mother. As part of the alimony payment, she received two houses, one brick, located north of Warren Avenue, where she would reside, and a frame house on North High Street, which she would rent. When asked why she didn't take the stand, Mrs. Sells replied, "because I would have had to tell it all."

Peter Sells sold the house at 755 Dennison Avenue within two years of the divorce decree. He continued to reside in Columbus and took on much less responsibility with the circus as his shares were sold to various investors. In mid-August of 1904, he suffered a stroke, which resulted in partial paralysis and a severe worsening of his state of health. Six weeks later he died peacefully at home. He left most of his assets to Florence, his only surviving brother Lewis, and his six sisters. He did not leave Mary any inheritance whatsoever.