Mabel Stark was born Mary Haynie outside Princeton, Kentucky, sometime around 1888-1894. (She would later falsify her age enough that no one is completely certain of her actual date of birth.) Her farmer parents both died when she was around eleven, and she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who she felt did not really want her. She trained as a nurse in Louisville, Kentucky, but left that career after a relatively short time.
Under the name Mary Aganosticus, she worked as a sideshow "cooch" dancer in the Parker Carnival in 1909. She left that show to marry a Texan, but not too long afterward was back dancing with the Cosmopolitan Amusement Company. The life of a traveling entertainer must have suited her, but not the dancing particularly; she joined the Al G. Barnes Circus, under the new stage name Mabel Stark, to work with animals. First she was a horseback rider and performing-goat trainer, but eventually she was assigned to well-known trainer Louis Roth, who reluctantly taught her to work with big cats. First she trained them for others' acts, and then she appeared in front of audiences herself; her first act was with two lions and two tigers, but after that she preferred to specialize in working with tigers. (She and Roth also married for a while, but his drinking and their other disagreements led to a divorce.)
Stark was a proponent of Roth's "gentling" method of training animals through rewards and friendship rather than fear, the preferred method of many previous large-animal acts. It didn't always work -- she was mauled approximately eighteen times throughout her career. But she always pulled through, went back to the ring, and lay the blame for her maulings on other factors than the animals who had done it (hunger, wet bedding, bad weather causing the animals to become grouchy, etc.). Being not only an accomplished trainer but an attractive woman (and barely five feet tall, making the tigers seem even bigger) made her famous, and an inspiration to future female trainers who wanted to do more with animals than look pretty on horseback.
One tiger, Rajah, was given to her as a cub by Al G. Barnes, and her most famous act became the "wrestling" she did with Rajah as an adult, which was really a kind of frottage for the tiger: "When I turned and called him, he would come up on his hind feet and put both feet round my neck. Pull me to the ground, grab me by the head, you know a male tiger grabs the female by the neck and holds her and growls till the critical moment is over. So, in this fashion, Rajah grabbed me and held me. We kept rolling over till he was through, and while the audience could not see what Rajah was doing, his growling made a hit." From this came her trademark white leather suits -- to hide semen that would have been visible against darker colors.
Stark became well known enough that in 1920 she became part of the Ringling Brothers Circus, the best-known one of the day and a step up from the Barnes organization. She also married again, to the Ringling circus accountant Albert Ewing. However, her new husband turned out to be an embezzler; they divorced, but possibly because of his thefts, or Mabel's association with him, the Ringling circus cut the big-cat acts from their traveling circus, citing the cost and time of erecting and dismantling the steel arena cage that kept the audiences safe in case the cats went wild. Mabel was demoted to horseback riding, despite her fame.
However, she stayed with the circus, probably to care for her tigers who were still being shown in the circus menagerie, and met and fell in love with Art Rooney, the head animal keeper. Apparently Rooney went around in nail polish and rouge, an even more eccentric habit for a man in the 1920s than it is now. Mabel later wrote, "I was told he never went with any girl, that he was supposed to be a woman." However, she also said that he was "the only one I ever loved enough to give up the tigers for." Rooney died not that long afterward; how it happened doesn't seem to have been recorded. (Robert Hough, in his novel The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, hypothesizes that he was mauled by Mabel's pet Rajah and that she felt responsible; however, his 5 April 2003 article in The Guardian makes clear that this is fiction and the real circumstances of Rooney's death are "a mystery.") Mabel said that after that, she "could find no pleasure or happiness anywhere except with the tigers." In 1926, she was passed on from Ringling Bros. to a smaller outfit called the John Robinson circus where she was able to perform with tigers again, though her employment with them led to the worst mauling of her life from two tigers who had not been fed before the performance because their train had arrived late. She was in and out of hospitals for almost two years due to the severe damage both legs and her torso.
When she was well enough to perform again, she worked with the Barnes Circus briefly before it closed, and then a few other small circuses, before settling down in one place in 1938 -- a theme park in California called JungleLand. There she worked for thirty years training and performing with tigers. She married again, to another menagerie superintendant, Eddie Trees, who died in 1953. Rip Reese describes seeing her act when he was a child: "a petite, elderly, unsmiling lady with a kind of Harpo Marx hairdo and spangly circus outfit, who commanded her striped charges to leap, growl, prance, roll over, run in circles, punctuating each trick with a twirly show-bizzy flourish of her right hand." However, in 1968, new owners acquired JungleLand, and either because of her age (the lowest figure is 74, and she may have been several years older) or because they didn't get along with her, fired Mabel. Three months later, she committed suicide "through a combination of barbiturate overdose and self-asphyxiation."
She remained a legend in circus circles, and she has inspired both a play, Mabel Stark by Trevor Schmidt, and a "fictionalized autobiography," The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough. As of May 2003, the latter is apparently being made into a movie, The Marvelous Mabel Stark, which Kate Winslet is slated to star in.
Hough, Robert. The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.