The Grandest and Best Circus Ever Produced,
And the Death of the Sword Swallower in Bridgewater, Maine
By Dena L. Winslow, Ph.D.
Copyright 2021

The Grandest and Best Circus Ever Produced
In the summer of 1903 when Sig. Sautelle’s circus came to Aroostook County there was great excitement and anticipation. The Circus, owned and operated by George Shatterly, who changed his name to Signor Sautelle which was shortened to Sig, was also a performer in his own circus.

Times were good for the circus which was originally established in the 1880’s, and Sig was a very wealthy man. He was not to remain so, and ultimately sold his circus in 1904 after his wife had a stroke in 1902. He owned 26 flatbed railroad cars that were used to move his circus from town to town on the railroad in 1903. Sig also published a newspaper called, Tent City News about the glories of the circus.

In the advertisement from the Presque Isle newspaper, The Independent, of July 9, 1903, the schedule for the circus that July can be seen: “Caribou, Saturday, July 4; Fort Fairfield, (Thursday), July 9; Bridgewater, Saturday July 11; Ashland, Monday July 13; Island Falls, Tuesday July 14; and Dover, Wednesday July 15. It was an ambitious schedule for the performers and animals involved.

The life of a circus performer was a difficult one, lots of hard work, training, and constantly moving from town to town, setting up the big top and exhibits, tearing them down after performances… but they were a community unto themselves and most would not have wanted any other life no matter how difficult or how poor the pay was.

One man drawn to Sig’s circus was N. J. Rogers, whose stage name was William Griffin. Sword swallowing was his claim to fame and he traveled throughout the country giving performances.

No one knows what his full name was, or where he came from. What we do know is that he died on July 13, 1903 as a result of an injury to his throat from swallowing swords two days earlier, and that he is buried in Bridgewater, Maine. At the time of his death he was estimated by Dr. A. E. Schriver, who recorded his death, to be about 45 years old, and identified him as “White.”

Upon his death, William joined the ranks of a very elite few. In spite of the dangerous nature of the circuses over the years, surprisingly few accidents occurred. According to Wikipedia, there have only been 29 deaths of sword swallowers recorded (not all part of circus acts) since 1880 (

sig sautelle

The Independent, July 16, 1903, “Bridgewater” news.
The Janesville Daily Gazette (of Janesville, Wisconsin) of July 20, 1903 says:

“Sword Swallower Dies.”

“Bridgewater, Me.” July 20 – Bill Griffin, a sword swallower, died here from injuries received while doing his turn in the side show of a circus which showed here. Griffin was using a long knife when his foot slipped and the knife pierced his windpipe. He died after intense suffering.” (From: “The Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame,” fame.php)

This was not Griffin’s first brush with death from his chosen profession. It was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle of Monday July 1, 1889:

“Stuck in his Throat.” “A Sword Swallower Gets into Serious Trouble.”

“William Griffin, who for the last eighteen years has been eking out a precarious existence as a sword swallower, very nearly came to grief yesterday afternoon out on the beach near the Cliff House. He had been amusing people all the morning, and at about 2:30 o’clock had three swords down his throat, the largest measuring twenty-eight inches, when he commenced to cough, and when he withdrew them they were covered with blood. The exhibition stopped immediately, and Griffin started to crawl back to his room on Howard, near Sixth. There he became very sick, and about 9 o’clock last night he was brought to the receiving hospital for treatment. Dr. Enright examined the man and found that his throat was ulcerated, and that the sword had lacerated it. He was given medicine and sent back home.” (From: “The Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame,” fame.php)

The Santa Cruz Sentinel of the following day, July 2, 1889 also ran the story:

“A Sword Swallower’s Feat.”

“William Griffin, who follows the profession of sword-swallowing for a living, came to grief at his last performance, and had to be taken to the Receiving Hospital for relief. Griffin has an abnormal breadth of throat, combined with an exceedingly elongated person, and the feats he is in the habit of performing are astonishing by reason of the length and sharpness of the knives and swords that he uses. On Saturday night he surpassed himself by swallowing a sword at least three feet long, with the result that he injured some internal organ, and yesterday hemorrhage resulted which nearly finished his career as a freak. The amount of blood which was discharged from his stomach so weakened him that when taken to the hospital he fainted away, and was with great difficulty revived. He was relieved by the Hospital Surgeon. Griffin formerly resided in Santa Cruz.” (From: “The Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame,”

Indeed, being a “freak” and eking out a living swallowing swords must not have been all that lucrative. Two years after he injured himself with the three-foot long extra sharp sword, he was arrested in Colton, California as reported in the San Bernadino Daily Courier of Saturday, February 1, 1890:

“A man named Griffin, belonging to a traveling circus combination, was arrested yesterday, at Colton, on a message from the Chief of Police, of Los Angeles, being wanted in that city on a charge of petit larceny. Griffin is a sword-swallower and is accompanied by a small boy who, he claims, is his son. An officer will arrive from Las Angeles this morning to return him to that city.” (From: “The Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame,” fame.php)

Nothing else is known today about N. J. Rogers, alias William Griffin. He apparently died two days after he was injured in the circus show held on Saturday, July 11, 1903. He lies buried in Bridgewater, Maine, a casualty of a freak accident that claimed his life while he was performing for the “grandest and best circus ever produced.”

What of the circus performances? There seems to have been a wide variation in how the Aroostook County audiences received the shows. The Independent of July 16, 1903 gave several reports from various places. Page 1 of the issue indicated, “A large number of our citizens attended Sautelle’s circus at Bridgewater, Saturday.” Ashland news in that issue gave the names of those who attended, “Joe Robinson and Miss Nelson of Presque Isle were among those who attended the circus.” And, “W. J. Ervin and Miss Essie Kirstead drove from Presque Isle, Monday, to attend the circus.”

The circus show at Ashland, held on Monday, July 13th – the day the sword swallower died in Bridgewater, was also described in The Independent:

“Sig Sautelle’s circus exhibited here Monday afternoon and evening. A large crowd was in attendance and pronounced it a fair show. Of course, to some of the youngsters who saw a circus for the first time, it was simply grand. An excursion train ran from Fort Kent, which greatly increased the crowd. The quiet and order which prevailed during the entire day, was a credit to the town of Ashland.”

Interestingly, at Ashland, The Independent reported, “Services were held in the Congregationalist church Sunday morning, and in the evening Rev. McIlleny preached in one of the circus tents to a large and appreciative audience.”

Not all of the reviews reported in The Independent on July 16 were flattering. The folks in Green Ridge had this to say:

“Quite a number from this place attended the circus at Caribou, Saturday, and all who we have heard mention it, pronounced it a fraud.”

Folks in North Maysville (now the northernmost part of Presque Isle), had this to say:

“Several from this place attended the Sautelle circus at Caribou, which proved to be the greatest fake and biggest pack of thieves that ever struck this part of the country.”

Reports of the Sautelle Circus from other town newspapers where the circus traveled throughout the Northeast, are similarly divided as to the quality of the “Grandest and Best Circus Ever Produced.” However, when the circus left town, they left someone behind in Bridgewater. Someone whose story deserves to be told. N. J. Rogers, alias, William Griffin, Sword-swallower.