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Sunday Favorites: Death by Voodoo?

The Ubangis women came from Ethiopia to Sarasota to be part of the circus.

By the 1930s, Sarasota had become a mecca of strange and outlandish tourist attractions ever since John Ringling announced that Sarasota would serve as the winter headquarters of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” But when a healthy French Explorer wound up dead for no apparent reason, rumors that he’d fallen victim to the voodoo spell of an all-woman sideshow imported from Africa began to run rapid around the region.

The seasonal move of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was anticipated to provide much-needed employment opportunities for Sarasotans and an incentive for tourism after a major hurricane in Miami in 1926 contributed to the end of the Florida land boom during the 1920s. 

The world’s circus barons had made it their mission to seek out unusual humans, and went to great lengths to acquire them. 

In 1929, a French explorer by the name of Dr. Eugene Burgonier was embarking on a fifteen thousand mile expedition through Africa. He came into contact with a group of women that enhanced their bodies in a unique way. The Ubangis women considered it a sign of beauty to stretch out their lips with ceramic disks, a sight Burgonier believed would attract spectators from all over the world. 

According to the book the Hidden History of Sarasota, by Jeff LaHurd, the Frenchman brought the 12 African women along with their tribal leader and escort, King Nebia, to tour Europe and South America, concluding the tour at the circus’ summer headquarters.  

At the winter headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn. the women served as an act in the circus. During the show, they were paraded around the arena in front of circus goers and advertised as “the world’s most weird living humans.” The performance was completed after Burgonier gave a speech about their lifestyle in Africa. 

The deal was, that Burgonier would share the earnings with the tribe so they could be in a good financial standing when they returned to Africa. However, King Nebia did not trust the Frenchman, and believed he was keeping more than his fair share of the profits. 

The women adorned themselves with lip plates. 

When the heat was too much for him to handle, Burgonier left the women in the care of Abdoulay Samba, his African servant of twenty-five years while he went to Sarasota to prepare for their winter session of the tour. 

Although Burgonier referred to the tribe as “my people” to the masses, he secretly feared for his life and began carrying a pistol wherever he went. The bad blood culminated in October when all parties were back in Sarasota for the circus’ winter session.

The tribe became hostile toward Samba and, rumor has it, began practicing black magic hexes and stabbing pins in a doll that bore a striking resemblance to Burgonier. 

On Oct. 13, 1930, the top headline of the Sarasota Herald Tribune blared in all caps, “Famed French Explorer Dies Here,” with a subtitle of “Poison Kills Importer of Ubangi Tribe.” The medical examiner listed the cause of death as “septic pneumonia.”

According to Lahurd, the local journalists “had a field day” reporting the doctor’s death mainly because the King and a few of his wives went to the mortuary to confirm the death. Before approaching the corpse, they “sprinkled powders and made scores of gestures to repel the doctor’s evil spirits before they approached his body,” then they lifted his eyelids to be certain he was deceased.

The article had everyone in town talking, especially Burgonier’s wife, who demanded the paper print a redaction for tarnishing her husband’s reputation with the article. She also threatened to sue the paper for defamation.

The day the Sarasota Herald issued an apology to the widow, the Ubangi tribe departed the Seaboard Railway Station and John Ringling himself accompanied them at the beginning of their long journey home. 

Lahurd reports that they used their circus money to purchase a cattle ranch in Africa, and presumably lived happily ever after.


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