VCU alum publishes research about a famous female aerialist

Aíne Norris is a writer and instructor of English and American literature.
Aine Norris

Aíne Norris is on a mission — to bring stories of forgotten women to life. Her first subject? Eva Howard Clark, a female aerialist in the 19th century, who made her fame performing with popular traveling circuses of the time. Norris first learned about Clark during a nighttime cemetery tour in her hometown of Staunton, VA. Clark had taken on something of an urban legend in the area after she was shot and subsequently died, following a heated exchange in her dressing tent. After years of research, Norris recently published her findings about Clark in Bandwagon: The Journal of the Circus Historical Society.

Norris received her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in religious studies in 2008. After working in marketing and copywriting upon graduation, Norris returned to VCU to pursue a master’s degree in English with a research concentration. Her research focuses on women throughout literature and American history who have been relegated to the sidelines. Norris has held a variety of positions within the literary community ranging from contributing and featured writer to book reviewer and copyeditor. The well-roundedness of her career reflects in her professional activities and social affiliations including involvement with the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, ACES: Society for Editors, American Association of University Women and Southern American Studies Association among others.

We caught up with Norris to hear more about her career, her writing and Eva Clark.

Describe your career path since completing your master's degree.

After completing my M.A. in English in 2016, my career path was split. I continued working as a marketing and communications specialist for VCU, but also used my new degree to forge a path in teaching and independent research. In 2017, I moved to Terre Haute, Ind., to support a career promotion for my husband. I continued to telework in my VCU position but also began teaching literature, composition and poetry at a small liberal arts college, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (SMWC). This was my first teaching position in higher education. In 2019, we moved to Pensacola, Fla., and I became an adjunct instructor at Pensacola State College (PSC), teaching composition and American Literature to a variety of students, both in the classroom and online. 

I’m currently still teaching online for SMWC and PSC, even though I moved back to Virginia at the end of 2020. Though teaching (and research) is my focus, I’m also doing some contract communications work for VCU and serve as the copyeditor for Metropolitan Universities Journal.

How did your experience at VCU impact your career path?

The M.A. program gave me new perspectives and information on research and teaching that I still use in my classroom today. More than anything, my experience at VCU provided role models that inspire me and influence the way I work, teach and interact with students. 

Tell us about your article "Lore No More: Uncovering Eva Clark's Rightful Legacy."

Believe it or not, I have been researching Eva Clark since 2003. I was drawn to her story when I first heard it but immediately wanted to know more. Why did we have so much information on her death, but very few details about her life and career? Though she was a bright star in the early 1900s, over time the collective memory had shifted her narrative drastically. Over the past few years, with the help of recent source digitization and other leads, I started to uncover information about her that wasn’t in any of the previous coverage for the last century. In 2018 I met another researcher, Dawn Tucker, and between the two of us we pieced together most of Eva’s life in articles, photos, ephemera, interviews and press coverage. Together and individually we trailed Eva to different states across the U.S. and collected more information, which finally culminated in my article “Lore No More: Uncovering Eva Clark’s Rightful Legacy,” published in a 2020 issue of Bandwagon: The Journal of the Circus Historical Society. 

For me, the article (and subsequent press coverage in Waynesboro, Cincinnati and Staunton) served as my way to update that incomplete collective memory surrounding Eva Clark, reminding the world that her dramatic death was nothing compared to her sensational life and career. As researchers, it becomes our duty to update the narrative when we have the tools, information and ability to do so. I was pleased to do that for Eva, and now that her story has been released in a way that is more comprehensive and authentic, I can move on to researching my next “forgotten woman.”

Describe who Eva Howard Clark was and how she died.

Eva Howard Clark was a well-known aerialist and performer who was popular in circuses and traveling shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was shot in Staunton, VA, after a show with the Cole Brothers Circus in 1906 and died a month later due to surgical complications. It is still not known definitively who shot her, but she was in her dressing tent with her husband and another male friend, and until her death she was said to have maintained that it was an accident. She became the subject of local lore that lasted over a century until our research rediscovered information about her childhood, family, tumultuous marriage and career.

Who is your next forgotten woman?

Though I won’t name my next study at this time, I’ll disclose that I’m researching the careers and enduring friendship of two early 20th century female performers and the high wire is involved.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I have enjoyed writing and research for as long as I can remember. For me, writing is a way to solidify and further the research process and the parts work in tandem.   

What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I typically start writing projects with scrawled notes, usually written diagonally across a legal pad, and then transcribe them to bulleted lists in Word. It’s my controlled chaos. 

What is one of the most surprising things you learned while becoming a published author?

More than anything, it surprises me when people want to discuss my article after reading it closely. It’s always an honor to look up from your own little research bubble and learn that people are interested in the topic. 

What is the most important thing you learned at VCU?

Comprehensive research can’t happen without libraries, archives, digital resources and all of the people who curate and cultivate these sources and spaces. 

What advice would you offer current students who want to make the most out of their experience at VCU?

VCU’s greatest resource is its people. Every student should find a faculty member who will not only teach them but be an advocate for their success to graduation and beyond.