Lewis Willis was born around 1852. By 1867, he was one of the star performers of the John Robinson Circus. He did fancy stunts on horseback and sometimes – his specialty – on the back of an elk.
One of the first press notices of Lewis Willis was in the Staunton (Virginia) Spectator for August 27, 1867: “The negro boy, ‘Lewis,’ who so astonished the spectators in Robinson’s circus by his daring bare-backed riding and successful performance in the hurdle act, was born a slave in Charlestown, Jefferson County, and when a child was sold to a trader and taken to Mississippi.”
John Robinson II (son of John H. Robinson) later said that he had rescued Lewis Willis by carrying him out of a burning building during the Civil War – a building that Union soldiers had been ordered to burn down. This was typical circus hyperbole. Lewis Willis later testified in court that he went to work for Robinson on January 10, 1859 – more than two years before the outbreak of the war. A later newspaper article said that Lewis had shown up looking for work while the circus was in Eufaula, Alabama.
Willis began helping with the animals, and he was still attached to the circus when it returned to its winter quarters in Terrace Park, Ohio, just east of Cincinnati. The original John Robinson house still exists in Terrace Park, at 1 Circus Place. It is the only remaining structure from the winter quarters site, which at one time included stables, an elephant barn, sleeping quarters, a paint shop, wagon shop, pole shed, and other structures.
One day in rehearsals at the winter quarters, a white performer didn’t show up, so Robinson ordered Willis to run into the ring and jump onto a trotting pony. That was the start of a long career.
Lewis Willis was a terrific performer. “Startling and novel,” said the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in 1868. John Robinson, Jr., had a son named Gil Robinson, who called Willis “really expert” and said that in the early 1870’s, “every colored person in the South” knew about Lewis Willis. A 1947 article in The Union says that Willis “distinguished himself by his daring feat of performing on the back of an elk, running at top speed around the hippodrome track.”
Willis was sometimes billed in circus advertisements as “The Cherokee Chief.” At other times, he was simply called, “The Negro Lewis.”
Willis stayed with the John Robinson Circus for 16 years. But circuses and their attendant sideshows had a history of exploitation, and the Robinson show was no exception: Willis was not paid for his labor. In 1875, Willis sued John Robinson II for back wages. Robinson’s only promise to Willis had been to “pay him what he was worth.” Willis figured his services were worth $1,500 per year, so he sued John Robinson II for $24,000. Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of the outcome of the suit.
Sometime in the 1870’s, Lewis Willis married a woman from Zanesville, Ohio: Elizabeth H. Simpson, daughter of a former Underground Railroad conductor named Joshua McCarter Simpson. Lewis and Elizabeth had a daughter, Frances, born in 1878.
The same year that his daughter was born, Lewis Willis left for England. By December, he was performing in London “on his wild horse, Zanzibar” with Cook’s Royal Circus. By the following June, however, Willis was back in America travelling once again with the John Robinson Circus.
Willis made one more tour abroad, this time in Europe. By the time he returned to the United States, he was ill with consumption. John Robinson II later said that he found Willis in New York, now “a perfect wreck, not a dollar to his name.” Robinson continued: “I bought him some warm clothes and paid his fare to Zanesville, so he could be with his wife and children. Within a few days after he got there, he died.”
Even allowing for Robinson’s typically self-serving interpretation of events, it’s still true that Lewis Willis died in Zanesville around the end of March 1881, and his obituary says that he had recently returned from a professional season in Europe. His widow Elizabeth worked in Zanesville as a hair dresser until her death in 1929.