Bill Stephens: the Fairview Lion-Tamer and the American woman who witnessed his death
January the 27th, 2023, marked the 70th anniversary of the death at Dunsoghly Farm, St. Margaret’s, of the Fairview lion-tamer, Bill Stephens, mauled to death by his own lion, Pasha, at only 29 years of age. In 2015 , Stephens was the subject of Joe Lee's affectionate documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which told the extraordinary tale of how a lioness escaped from Stephen's yard and ran amok through Fairview's Merville Avenue.
Bill Stephen’s horrifying death was witnessed by his young wife, Mai Carton (who died in late 2015), and several members of Fossetts Circus. Among those onlookers too was an American woman named June Badger. At the subsequent inquest, Dublin Zoo superintendent Cecil Webb claimed that the ill-fated show at Dunsoghly Farm had been arranged specifically for Mrs Badger to see Bill Stephens and his lions in action. Stephens wanted to take his act to America and it was Cecil Webb who set up the meeting between the two.
Who then was Mrs June Badger, the supposed talent scout from America whose interest in circuses and animal training was to have such tragic consequences for Ireland’s Bill Stephens ?
Born June Wilson in 1901 at Olney, Illinois, to Rowland Wilson and Florence Sensemen, June’s first marriage in 1924 was to John Bliss Brainard, an officer in the US Army. Having divorced Brainard in the 1930s, June went on to marry New Jersey horse trainer, Samuel Evelith Badger, who was killed by a kamikaze plane in 1944 while serving with the US Naval Reserve in the Philippines.
It is not certain if June Wilson Badger was always interested in animal welfare or had formal training in this area. What is known is that she started working with caged animals in circuses, zoos, shops and museums in 1951, two years before Bill Stephen’s death. Her job description was Care Taker of Menageries and she was also capable of riding elephants.
Her first job was with Campa Brothers Circus (1951), a small outfit based in Texas, which suffered its own circus disaster involving escaped big cats and bears that same year. Other troupes and organizations associated with Badger included Hunt Bros Circus (1953 & 1962), Rare Bird Farm (Kendall Florida), Museum of Natural Sciences (1959), Mill Bros Circus (1963) and Hoxie Bros Circus (1968).
Passenger records show that Badger was a frequent visitor to Ireland, although she appeared to have no connection to the country. She came on average every two years in the 1950s and was pictured in the newspapers at several point-to-point horse races throughout the country.
In 1952 she found unlikely fame in the press as the keeper and constant travelling companion of Joey Roo, the kangaroo movie star who appeared alongside Maureen O’Hara and who was famous for having slept in the Waldorf-Astoria, tucked into his bed by Badger.
In 1970, June Badger was called as a witness at the US Congress House Committee on Agriculture, where she spoke of her experiences working with numerous circus troupes. She claimed that no circus was interested in the comfort or conditions of caged animals and that it was cheaper to get a new animal than to pay a vet. Her suggestions on better flooring, ventilation and space were always met with violent opposition, she maintained.
The subsequent passing of the Whitehurst Bill (HR 13957) following on from the Committee, was the widest-sweeping animal welfare bill in the history of America and brought circuses, zoos, carnivals, roadshows and pet shops under Agriculture’s remit for the first time.
There is no public record of June Badger having commented or written on Bill Stephens, his circus act or the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. Nor was she asked to give evidence at his inquest in February 1953.
In the latter years of her life, June Badger lived in the town of Middleburg, Virginia, the ‘Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital’. It was there on the July 31st, 1987, that June Badger's lifeless body was found floating in her swimming pool, presumed drowned. She was 86 years of age.