Q. How did you first learn about the Pallenbergs and their acrobatic circus bear.
A. In 2018, Arcadia Publishing asked me to write Images of America CLINTON, a pictorial history of Clinton, Connecticut, the town in which I live. In the course of researching and writing that book I met Dibirma Jean Burnham, aka Dib, the granddaughter of Emil & Catherine Pallenberg, who currently lives in the same house in which her grandparents lived – which is next door to the barn where her grandfather trained his bears. Dib graciously allowed me to scan a photo or two for the book; we became fast friends; and I began doing the research necessary to have her grandparents former property, where she and her husband now live, put on the National Register of Historic Places. We never did apply for that designation, because I became so enthralled with the family’s history, as my research turned up more and more fascinating information, that the project evolved into a book.
Q. What were the most valuable research tools you used while writing the book?
A. The most valuable research tools I used for this book, above and beyond Dib’s family archival photographs and vaudeville, circus, movie and theater contracts were: birth records; marriage records; Naturalization records; town clerk’s real estate and vital statistic records; myheritage.com and in particular the Netherlands’ statistical archives available on-line through that venue; news clippings for Pallenberg booking locations and dates; Circus museum archives; and information gleaned from an amazing circus historian.
Q. Did you learn anything new that the family did not know?
A. Yes. The more I researched, the more a picture began to fall into place of a family history that was quite different from the “conventional wisdom”.
Q. What did you learn that contradicted the family’s conventional wisdom?
A. Originally, I was led to believe, by both family lore and Ringling Circus’ press releases, that Catherine was in her late teens when she met Emil Pallenberg in the town in which she lived in Holland. There, it was said, that she worked, assisting her father in an inn that he owned and that one night she ran off with the bear trainer and his bruins, to St. Petersburg, Russia, where they were wed the next day. Yet my research led me to irrefutable documentation which showed that, in fact, twenty-one year old Catherine actually ran off with Emil and his bears to Russia, leaving behind, not a father, but her innkeeper husband and their two year old son. Catherine’s Dutch husband divorced her two years later, shortly before he remarried and four months before she and Emil were wed ... not in Russia, but in New York City, a mere three months before the birth of their first child. Catherine’s ruse continued throughout the years, as she made false declarations on her New York marriage license application; the birth certificates of both her children with Pallenberg; and even Emil Pallenberg’s obituary.
Q. What was the hardest thing you had to do while researching and writing the book?
A. Telling Dib what I’d learned about her beloved grandmother and that I could not write the book unless I could tell the true story ... what actually occurred. Dib, concurred, despite knowing that it would become public knowledge in the little shoreline town in which we live ... where her parents and grandparents lived before her.