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The Clown In The Free Ground

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CCHS

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by Kelli Huggins 

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Our 2016 Woodlawn Cemetery Ghost Walk ended in a little-known part of the cemetery: the free ground or Potter’s Field. Many of those in the free ground were destitute and their families could not afford a private plot. Others outlived all of their family, leaving no one to make arrangements. Some were simply unidentified. For Ghost Walk, I researched some of the people buried there using the clues I could find with the help of the staff at Woodlawn Cemetery. This was understandably hard to do. Still, I found some information and with beautiful staging and performances by the Elmira Little Theatre, the stories of some of the inhabitants of the free ground were brought to light (you can read the script from that night here). But there was one story I found that we didn’t tell that night. I’ll share it with you now.

Hiram Day was born in his family home along the Newtown Creek in the late 1830s. At age 10, he ran away from home to work in a hotel in Syracuse. He was not long for the hotel business, because soon after arriving, he found work with a circus. Young Hiram traveled around the country and South America with the troupe.

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He next joined Dan Rice’s famous show, where he was highly regarded for his impersonation, equestrian, and acrobatic skills. He skipped around from company to company, later even performing on a Mississippi River boat. He worked in the circus for 40 years. 

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That, however, was the high point of Hiram Day’s life, because as one newspaper put it, “Hi Day had made and spent a fortune.” After moving back to Elmira at the end of his career, he was left with little money and even less family. Although he was twice married and said he had a son down south, his wives were dead by then and his son seemed not to care. Hiram repeatedly said his son would come help him out. That never happened. 

By 1895, “Hi” was far from his former glory and resorted to eking “out an existence as a ‘human sandwich’ for the ‘Budget.’ That is he wears a board over his breast and back, advertising the special features the next issue of the paper will contain.” Rheumatism had left him crippled, with his feet particularly affected. 

Hi Day died on July 16, 1897 at home of his brother Stephen Day at 608 Magee Street. He had been sick with pneumonia for 4 days before he expired. The Elmira Gazette published a sympathetic obituary that discussed his glory days in the circus, but ended with:

“In striking contrast to this picture of a dashing, strikingly-costumed young man with plenty of money in his pockets, is the familiar sight of the poorly-clad, bent old man hobbling along Water Street, asking for alms.”

Hiram Day was buried in the free ground at Woodlawn. His grave is unmarked. 

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Kelli Huggins is the Education Coordinator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com

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