The artist formerly known as Diavolo

I can't get the Cat & Fiddle out of my head. When I got home from work yesterday, I looked up locks 15 - 16, (that's where the blurry YouTube video said the Inn had been) in a really interesting book called Delaware Canal Journal, by C. P. Yoder. It's full of old photos and forgotten history and is just an all-around wonderful resource on the canal and its history. (I also drove up to see the place in person, but that's a story for another post.)

Anyway, after a bunch of paragraphs about the building of the locks and so on — lo and behold — there was a bit about Joseph Aaron, the retired circus performer who built the Cat & Fiddle in 1932.

In the early 1900s, the book related, Joseph Aaron was known as "Diavolo." I guess he was sort of a forebear to the extreme sport freestyle bikers of today. I looked him up on, which quoted a newspaper article that ran in a California paper in 1938:

Years ago, crowds thrilled to a circus act put on by a man who called himself 'Diavolo.' Audiences saw him come zooming down a steep incline on a bicycle, swing up into a terrifying loop-the-loop in midair, and then land safely on a small Incline.

Today, Diavolo is simply Joseph Aaron. 'I reformed,' he said, 'and gave up the act twenty-nine years ago.' He is bright, cheery and, with his wife, runs the most unique inn called the 'Cat and the Fiddle' near the little town of Point Pleasant, Pa., on the old and charming Delaware Canal.

His wife is also a former circus performer, and can spin a heavy two-by-four round and round with her feet till you'd think it was a top.

Mr. Aaron has a pert, little, smiling face, and his eyes snap at you from behind a pair of rimmed spectacles. He wears a little red hat with a feather in it - probably a hangover from the days when he was a clown. He bounces about as though coiled steel springs, flying in and out of his inn with the quickest movements I have ever seen.

He is very handy on his place, he built and installed a huge water wheel which provides him with all the electric power he needs. He put up a sawmill, built his own inn, made his own furniture, erected an exact replica of the Oliver Goldsmith house, and made for himself an elaborate and completely equipped trailer.

He paints scads of pictures of the picturesque Delaware Canal, raises chickens and ducks, and has lumbered and sold fine old weathered oak from the woods he owns.

Has he forgotten the circus? Hardly!

He still rides a unicycle, that trick one-wheeled cycle that vaudeville performers use, and when we mentioned a circus at the county fair, a wistful look came into his eyes.

- Daredevil of Old, by Talbot Lake, Times and Daily News Leader (San Mateo, CA), September 19, 1938, p. 8.

I love the language in those old articles. "He bounces about as though coiled steel springs," and "paints scads of pictures" especially.

Also: A circus performer couple? I just have to find a photo of these people.

But alas, the plot thickens: While looking for images of Diavolo, I came across a Web site that claims the man known as Diavolo was named Conn Baker, and that he lived in Ohio. There was nothing at all about the Cat & Fiddle or even about Baker setting foot in Point Pleasant. I sent an e-mail to the man who wrote the post:

Hey there,
I'm doing some research on a fellow who lived near me in Pennsylvania in the 1930s. I've read that he performed as Diavolo, the circus stuntman, at the turn of the last century. However, his name was Joseph Aaron.
I don't think he's the same fellow as Conn Baker, who you wrote about. I was wondering if there were two performers by that name? I'm curious where you learned about Baker's history.
Thanks so much!
Rayna Polsky

And he responded:

Conn Baker, aka JC Carter (the stage name for his Diavolo act) was a resident of Columbus who also did a great deal of log cabin preservation in the early 1900s. The Baker home is chock full of programs, mementos and even has his costume. Baker was a real daredevil in his day and the family has every last perfemance bill, letter and document about his career.

Well! I'm at a loss. Are my sources wrong? Was there more than one Diavolo looping the proverbial loop in the early 1900s? Stay tuned, dear readers, for more.


Anonymous said...

Loved it!

Anonymous said...

there is also THE GREAT DIAVELO in newcastle, stoke on trent who was usually accompanied by his wife GLADYS DE VERE

Anonymous said...

You might find this article in the 1904 New York Times helpful. According to the account in the NY Times, a performer known as Diavolo who performed the Loop the Loop was killed while performing. Conn Baker of Columbus, an artist and bicycle race record holder, wrote the owners of the Loop offering to take his place. See column 5 (Conn Baker learns of the death of Diavolo) and column 7 (Conn Baker gets the job as Diavolo). The article does not list the name of the man who performed as Diavolo who died. It appears that at least 2 men have played the part of Diavolo in performing the Loop the Loop. The article ends explaining that Conn Baker was quitting the Loop the Loop so perhaps Joseph Aaron took over as Diavolo after that.

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