Her exploits inspired a novel, “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” (2001), by Robert Hough, and last year she was the subject of a documentary, “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” by Leslie Zemeckis, that used footage of her confidently working with her tigers at Jungleland.
Hough, whose book is narrated by Stark’s character as she reflects on a career that at times seemed fantastical and difficult to document, wrote in an email, “I became overtaken with the desire to narrate the action in her voice and start putting her in scenes with others, and that all spells ‘novel.’ Also, at that point, nobody other than the odd circus historian had heard of her.”
Mary Ann Haynie was born in either Tennessee or Kentucky on Dec. 9, 1888, to Hardie Baxter and Lela (Pettypool) Haynie, who were poor sharecroppers. Mary began working in tobacco fields as a toddler. When she was a teenager, her father died, and a year or so later, after remarrying, her mother died.
During a court proceeding following her mother’s death, Mary, then about 17, said she did not want to live with her stepfather, whom she considered to be a cruel man. But her six younger siblings stayed with him — creating a lifelong rift that left her feeling abandoned by her immediate family. She lived with an aunt for a while, and became a nurse at a hospital in Louisville, although the extent of her education and medical duties are not known.
“How much nursing she did, I don’t know,” Linda Barber, one of her great-nieces, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve done some research and there were no accredited nursing schools at the time in Louisville.”
She did not like the job or stay in it for long.
Smith, her friend, said in an email that Stark took up erotic dancing in 1909 but quit two years later. She found lodging in a rooming house in Venice and went looking for a job.
When she took a walk and heard King on the circus grounds, she had her epiphany. She had to work with tigers.