The silent film seemed innocuous enough, with scenes of the 1915 Minneapolis Millers playing baseball, a woman trying on fall hats and public employees picnicking at a park.

But the movie of newsy happenings, distributed by the Minneapolis Tribune, also included eerie foreshadowing of a gruesome night to come on Aug. 19, 1915.

"The most spectacular feature of the film," the paper later reported, showed a lion tamer performing at a carnival on Lake Street. The big-cat handler, Frank Lewis, performed with five lions under his stage name, Major John Dumond (sometimes spelled Dumont).

The 32-year-old tamer from Nabb, Ind., had been performing his animal acts for seven years with the Kansas-based Patterson Carnival Co. He married a fellow carnival performer named Grace on June 2, 1915 — the day after his lion act on Lake Street was filmed.

"It was intended that the picture should be that of the trained animals put through their paces," the newspaper reported. "But even in this picture the lion called 'Romeo' became unruly and the trainer was forced to seize a chair to protect himself."

Less than three months later, the major took his lions to Northfield.

"Brilliantly lighted by electricity," the Northfield Independent reported, the carnival tent city brought with it "an air of oriental enchantment."

A crowd of 300 people watched bears lumber through their act before Major Dumond entered the performing cage with his lions.

Conflicting accounts describe what happened next. Some eyewitnesses say the sliding cage door landed on Romeo's tail. Carnival officials said the big cat fell from its pedestal.

The lion pounced on its handler, first biting his thigh, then throwing him to the ground. Other lions joined the attack, "evidently trying to tear him to pieces," one Northfield newspaper reported.

The major used the butt end of his whip and called their names, "but the sight of blood made them beyond control," the Northfield News said. "His cries for help were agonizing."

Some spectators ran away from the gory spectacle. "In the rush for the exits, several women and children were slightly injured," the Minneapolis paper reported.

Other gawkers crowded around as carnival workers tried poking bars through the cage. Only one of the five lions, described as Lewis' pet, stayed out of the fray.

Lewis, it was reported, "preferred to rule by kindness instead of force" — insisting no firearms were needed in the tent. After three long minutes, the carnival owner shot and killed Romeo with a revolver as other carnival workers fired .22-caliber rifles snatched from a nearby shooting gallery — injuring other lions, who finally retreated to a cage corner.

Lewis suffered a torn ear and wounds to his shoulder and throat. He was declared dead at the 3:25 a.m. at the Northfield hospital. The attending doctor later corrected newspaper accounts that said he'd been disemboweled. He simply lost too much blood.

Grace, his new wife, fainted when she learned of the attack.

"The tragic event cast a pall of gloom over the entire carnival company for Dumond was better liked, it was said, than any other person in the more than 125 people traveling with the show," the Northfield News reported. "Keen sympathy was felt for his young wife, who was prostrated with grief."

For the funeral the next day, a long procession of carnival workers, in double file, snaked from the carnival grounds to the Lee furniture store and undertaking parlor. A retired minister and Civil War veteran conducted the service and the carnival band played, "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

Lewis' remains were sent to southern Indiana, where his family lived. Relatives later sent a letter to the Northfield News, thanking residents "for your kindness and sympathies shown in our recent trouble" and for the "beautiful floral offerings."

The newspaper's film footage of Romeo forcing his trainer to use a chair earlier that summer wasn't the only hint of the trouble to come, according to Susan Hvistendahl — a Northfield history writer who researched the 1915 lion attack.

She said carnival workers reported that Lewis and his wife had witnessed a car driving over a dog shortly before the performance. "That's what will happen to me someday," he reportedly told Grace.

Lewis also mentioned to co-workers that the lions seemed uncomfortable with a recent wardrobe change from his khakis to a blue uniform.

"Major Dumond was an experienced lion trainer of great reputation," Hvistendahl wrote in 2014. She found a 1909 reference to his lion shows in a newspaper from Waterloo, Iowa. It billed the show as "the fight for life of Major Dumond in the iron bound den of the untamable lion …"

"Unfortunately," Hvistendahl wrote, "six years later in 1915, it would be a 'fight for life' which he would lose to the lions in Northfield."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: