The Visual Studies Research Institute at the University of Southern California is hosting a conference this week called Material Evidence, Visual Knowledge. As the title suggests, the conference looks at new technologies enable new ways of looking at material culture. My presentation analyzes the digitization of the American Numismatic Society’s paper money collection and considers what this tells about the Obsolete Bank Note Era (1782-1866). I’ll update with more after the conference.
I made my national television debut earlier today in a segment with the effervescent Nancy Giles on the history of the penny. You can view the video here. As regular readers will already know, I am doing the majority of my digital work over at Pocket Change, the website/blog of the American Numismatic Society. One of the things that Nancy and I spent some time discussing, and something that I will be exploring in more detail in a future post on Pocket Change was the relationship between evolving notions of womanhood and representations of ‘Liberty’ in the antebellum United States. The images below show how Liberty’s hair was tamed from the ‘Flowing Hair’ cent of 1793 to the ‘Braided Hair’ cent of the 1840s and 1850s.
For more information about how and why representations of Liberty followed this course, head over to Pocket Change. And thanks to Alan Golds, Nancy Giles, and the wonderful crew for producing the segment!
This weekend I was quoted in a column by Gail Collins of the New York Times about the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. WomenOn20s certainly seems to be gaining steam, but here’s hoping that this also sparks a broader conversation about US paper money, which is going on a hundred years without a significant redesign, whomever the personages pictured. For whatever reason, many Americans seem to regard the look of their currency as sacrosanct and any change is bound to be controversial, but it seems past time for something to happen.
As I pointed out in the column, Australia equitably has a woman and a man on each of their paper money denominations. Australians have also embraced a broader view of the type of person worthy of such an honor by choosing figures beyond the world of politics–artists, poets, inventors, etc. Making room for more and different kinds of people on American money would seem to be a worthwhile goal and might spark an interesting national discussion about who and what we value about our country. In this vein, the Times is hosting a fascinating Room for Debate discussion on potential candidates for the twenty. Collins cites me as supporting Amelia Earhart, but this was something that I mentioned in the course of a larger discussion about the politics of finding a replacement for Jackson. Quite simply, it needs to be a figure that can both garner popular support and be palatable to those on both sides of the political divide. I think, to take one example, that Margaret Sanger’s sexual politics would excite enough consternation to doom her candidacy. From a purely practical perspective, I think Amelia Earhart is an excellent candidate. She is someone who is a feminist icon, but also seems to be politically non-controversial. Her name is a familiar one to most Americans and her pioneering efforts in aviation certainly provide a strong narrative to mobilize around. Again, she is not my preferred candidate all things considered, but she seems like a more practical and possible one than some of the other names being bandied about.
For historians, I think this discussion is an interesting reflection of the vagaries of historiography and the volatility of the popular historical imagination. As numerous commentators have pointed out, when the decision was made to put Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill in 1928, his reputation was that of a war hero and as a hard-charging advocate for the common man. Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson (1940) perhaps marked the peak of Jacksonian adulation, but his reputation has more or less been on the decline ever since. In a recent, acclaimed, and perhaps now definitive history of his era, Daniel Walker Howe essentially presents Andrew Jackson as a villain. Moreover his reputation as a violent racist and infamy as the architect of Indian removal has even seeped into the popular imagination. The hit musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, for example, rather sympathetically portrays him as a democrat gone awry, and if you haven’t seen it, please watch the clip below. Sean Wilentz and a few other historians have mounted a measured defense that emphasizes Jackson’s essential contribution to American democracy, without ignoring his obvious failings. Still, it seems to me that Jackson now has one of the most compromised reputations in antebellum American history. This was why I described Jackson as the “low hanging-fruit” of figures on US currency, and why I think this effort to replace him will ultimately succeed. Moreover, I have not as of yet seen anyone leaping to Jackson’s defense. And while I am not inclined to do so here, it is worth exploring why Jackson gets singled out for derision given that many of his ‘moneyed’ peers were also slave-owning (Washington), Indian-hating (Jefferson), and corrupt (Grant).
Some heartening news out of the circus world this week as it seems that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are going to phase elephants out of their touring shows. I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News last year advocating for an end to the practice that you can still find here. Rather than recapitulate all of those points here, I will just say that what was perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement to me was the forthright acknowledgment by Ringling people were simply not “comfortable” with performing elephants. It remains to be seen whether the few remaining circuses in the United States that still employ elephants follow suit, but with Ringling giving up the ghost for a variety of legal and financial reasons, I can’t image these other shows will be far behind.
Janet M. Davis struck a rueful tone in her piece published today, citing the the elephant as an American circus icon. Suffice it to say that I am much less sanguine about this history (see this for but one example). I am also much more optimistic about what this might means for the American circus moving forward than most. Despite their outsized image, elephants were historically just one part of the vibrant and diverse form of live entertainment we know as the circus. Indeed, the vast majority of American circuses since at least the Great Depression have not had the herds of elephants that are supposed to be so iconic and necessary. In the New York Times write-up, Richard Pérez-Peña, quoted me as saying that Cirque du Soleil shows that the circus can succeed without exploiting animals, but I should point out that this emerged out a larger discussion about the contemporary vitality of the American circus. At least in New York City, the circus is flourishing and every month seems to bring a new show. Outside of Ringling, they are all succeeding sans elephants. Clearly the RBB&B show has some to decision that they can succeed without them as well. Moreover, having just returned from Australia, which has experienced a decades-long renaissance in the circus arts, I am pretty confident in saying that the prospects for the circus without elephants remains bright. It’s only a real problem if you understand the circus in a ‘traditional’ and narrowly American way. Whatever the future holds and despite my disappointment at the rather extended timetable Ringling outlined, I believe this is good news for the American circus.
Although John Bill Ricketts was not the first equestrian performer to entertain American audiences, his combination of skill and enterprise has earned him deserved credit for establishing the circus as an enduring and popular form of entertainment in the United States. While the late-eighteenth century circus did include clowns and acrobats, it was centered on equestrian feats and riders like Ricketts were the stars of the show. Among the acts he was publicized as doing in New York City during his first tour were dancing a hornpipe on a “horse at full speed”; military exercises “in the character of an American officer,” complete with sword and firearms; “standing erect” on two horses without breaking “two eggs fastened to the bottom of his feet”; and various other skills on horseback, such as leaping through hoops, standing on his head, and performing somersaults while mounting and dismounting. The “Two Flying Mercuries” act advertised at left featured an apprentice who perched on Ricketts’s shoulders as the horse galloped around the ring, with both balancing on one foot for the finale.
After his April 1793 American debut, Ricketts spent the balance of the decade touring up and down the Eastern seaboard, until a disastrous fire at his Philadelphia amphitheatre in December 1799 effectively ended his career in the United States. Ricketts was widely admired in his day as both a performer and a gentleman, which helped ensure that the circus was seen as a respectable form of entertainment. The early chronicler American circus T. Alston Brown observed that:
John B. Ricketts, the proprietor, was a very gentlemanly and neat fellow in society and dressed in rather the English sporting style and was received with favor in the best circles. As a performer he never offended the eye by ungraceful postures or by the nude style of dressing that now prevails at the circus. His costumes were like that of the actors on the stage–pantalets, trunks full disposed, and neat cut jacket–which were sufficient to make ample display of his figure for all purposes of agility and grace.
Indeed, his success was such that he sat for Gilbert Stuart, the foremost portraitist of the period. Although unfinished (supposedly due to his restlessness), the painting captures something of the pluck for which Ricketts was known.
The doings of Ricketts in the United States have been fairly well-documented, most notably in a dissertation by James Moy, and there are a variety of primary sources, from contemporary newspapers and ephemera to a wonderful memoir by the actor and dancer John Durang that chronicle his American years.
What has always been less clear about John Bill Ricketts is his life before and after his time in the United States. The availability of digitized historical newspapers and a recent find by Australian circus scholar Mark St. Leon has shed some new light on the former. It had generally been supposed that Ricketts was somehow associated with the line of Sir Cornwallis Ricketts of the Elms, Gloucester, owing to a bit of numismatic evidence. This is a token that was made at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia for the circus in 1796, which bears the coat of arms very similar to that used by Sir Cornwallis (the addition of the anchors allude to his naval career).
What St. Leon has unearthed is a record for the christening of one “John Bill Ricketts” in the Parish registers of the town of Bilston in Staffordshire. The entry was made on October 28, 1769, and no parental names were listed, implying that the child was a foundling or otherwise illegitimate. The year certainly aligns with what we know of Ricketts’s career as that date would mean that he was around seventeen when he began performing at the Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheatre in London (1786) and twenty-four years old when he made his American debut (1793). Moreover, it was also very common for circus performers of that time to have been orphans. Of course this does not necessarily disprove some connection to the Ricketts who were part of the local landed gentry, but had he been a legitimate part of the family, a career as a circus performer would have been a very unusual career choice. I would suggest that his use of the coat of arms on the token was a case of him ‘putting on airs’ in the United States given what seem to be his humble origins. The Ricketts name was rather common, though, and there were prominent families with the surname living both England and the West Indies that seem to have used variations of this coat of arms.
Ricketts has also commonly been described as a Scotsman, and that is one thing that this record would seem to debunk. This mistaken assumption derived from the fact that he spent many of his formative years performing at the Royal Circus in Edinburgh. Presently, the first indication of him in the historical record seem to be digital newspapers that show a “Master Ricketts” or “Rickets” performing as a clown with Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheatre in April 1786. Where and when he received his training remains something of a mystery as seventeen would have been a rather old for a performer to make their debut. Ricketts told John Durang that he was a pupil of the famed equestrian and manager Charles Hughes, but his well-documented association with other circuses suggests that this might have been a bit of braggadocio, though still quite possible. Whatever the case, this finding does clear up something of his previously obscure origins.
The big remaining mystery is of course what happened to Ricketts towards the end of his life. After the fire and some desultory efforts to resurrect his circus in Philadelphia, Ricketts sailed for Barbados (where one George Poyntz Ricketts was coincidentally the colonial governor). The schooner Sally departed in May 1800 with ten horses and a small company of performers, but the ship was seized at sea by the French privateer Brilliante. A prize crew then sailed the ship to Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe. According to Durang, who did not accompany the party, but saw Francis Ricketts (John Bill’s brother) after he returned, an intervention by a sympathetic merchant allowed the troupe to recover its property and to begin performing. Francis is said to have both married and spent time in prison on Guadeloupe, but the circumstances of these events are murky.
Of John Bill Ricketts, Durang writes only that after performing for a length of time in Guadeloupe, he “sold all his horses to great advantage and had made an immense amount of money; he chartered an old vessel to take him to England; the vessel foundered and he was lost with all his money at sea.” The language of this passage makes it unclear from where Ricketts sailed. The seizure of the Sally created some controversy in Franco-American relations and generated a lawsuit, details of which ultimately ended up in the Congressional Record. These indicate that Ricketts had taken out a policy with the Insurance Co. of the State of Pennsylvania for four thousand dollars before sailing. Factoring in an abatement of two percent, the company eventually paid John Bill Ricketts $3,920, but it is unclear if he had to return to Philadelphia to collect. Although Francis Ricketts later performed in the United States, there is no definitive indication that John Bill Ricketts ever set foot there again. There was a “Mr. Ricketts” who performed with Langley’s circus in Charleston beginning in September 1800, ending with a benefit on January 8, 1801. Historian Stuart Thayer supposes this is Francis Ricketts, and I am inclined to agree, but this makes the timing of the Caribbean adventure and the subsequent activities of the brothers hard to reconcile. There are independent reports (Durang, Decastro) of John Bill Ricketts’s watery end, but I have yet to see anything about exactly where and when this might have occurred. If you have any information, please do let me know.
In his memoirs, Jacob Decastro, who had seen Ricketts perform firsthand in London during the late 1870s, remembered him as “the first rider of real eminence that had then appeared.” He went on to observe that the fame of Ricketts “excelled all his predecessors, and it is said he has never been surpassed.” Given his exalted status on both sides of the Atlantic and the pivotal role that this “Equestrian Hero” played in the development of the American circus, the fact that the mystery of how he met his end persists is somewhat surprising.
Sources: The manuscript of John Durang’s memoir is held by the Historical Society of York County, and it was published in 1966 as The Memoir of John Durang, American Actor, 1785-1816; T. Alston Brown wrote a serialized history of the American circus for the New York Clipper that was published as “A Complete History of the Amphitheatre and Circus from Its Earliest Date to 1861.” That text has been usefully edited and republished by William Slout as Amphitheatres and Circuses (Borgo Press, 1994); Kotar and Gesser, The Rise of the American Circus (2011); Stuart Thayer, Annals of the American Circus (2000); The Memoirs of J. Decastro, Comedian (1824).
Later this week I will be giving a talk for a digital history symposium at the University of Newcastle on the subject of “Mapping Cultural Circuits.” Some of my work in this vein can be found under the Mapping subheading on this website, but I will be presenting a more complete view of historical GIS maps that chart the development of a Pacific entertainment circuit in the nineteenth century at the symposium. This information has unfortunately become rather difficult to display in a public-facing website as Google neglected to update the gadgets used to embed KML layers from Google Earth when it transitioned to the new maps API. So I have instead produced a short video that uses Google Earth and some rectified historical maps to trace the grand tour around the world undertaken by the General Tom Thumb Company from 1869 to 1872. The video highlights some of what I find most useful about using this combination of tools to visualize the history of transnational touring circuits.
The new Google Maps API does have some salutary features, one of which is the ability to create ‘heatmaps’ of data. The image below is a screenshot of the aggregate data from the touring routes of some three dozen American shows and entertainers that toured the Pacific between 1850 and 1890.
The visualization shows that Melbourne, which grew into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Pacific over the course of the nineteenth century, was the primary destination for American entertainers during this period. And while the cultural traffic between San Francisco and Melbourne was the primary axis of the emergent Pacific circuit, there are also indications of other noteworthy features, ranging from the importance of Honolulu as a kind of transpacific relay station to the somewhat surprising prominence of the Dutch East Indies. All of this will obviously be expounded upon in the talk, but for those that can’t make it, check back for updates as I will be posting more of this mapping material on the webiste in the coming months.
I was at the ABC Radio complex yesterday for an interview with the peerless Margaret Throsby. We talked a lot about the circus, a bit about entertainment around the Pacific, and even squeezed in some discussion of numismatics. All in all I had a wonderful time and our conversation can be found in podcast form here.
One of the things that I am packing up for the move across country is a fine print that I acquired at a garage sale here in Cheesman Park. It is an 1845 aquatint of a trotting horse named Lord William and a delightful example of the widely popular British sporting prints that were produced during the mid-nineteenth century. According to Bent’s Register of Engravings (1846), it was engraved and published in London by J. R. Mackrell after a painting by William Shayer. Prices are listed for both a plain (7s 6d) and colored edition (15s). After a bit of haggling, I paid $20 for this plain version, which I think actually looks better than the color print.
William Joseph Shayer (1811-1892) was an English artist and the eldest son of William Shayer (1787-1879), a noted landscape and figure painter from Hampshire. The younger Shayer specialized in coaching and hunting scenes, but as both signed their works “W.S.” and painted in the same style, there is often some confusion with regards to the attribution of their respective works. Given the subject and date, it seems clear that this particular print was based on an early work by the younger Shayer (and if a reader can point me to the original painting, do let me know). The painting below, descriptively entitled The London to Brighton Stage Coach (ca. 1850), offers a good impression of his typical subject matter and technique.
The pleasing pastoral and sporting scenes painted by the Shayer family made their works popular with printmakers who sought to capitalize on the seemingly insatiable public demand for such images. Hundreds, if not thousands, of different prints after the Shayers’ works were produced in volume in London and beyond during the nineteenth century.
The “Lord William” aquatint was made by a prolific engraver named James R. Mackrell (ca. 1814-1866). As previously noted it was first published in 1845, but some restrikes seem to have been made at a later date. An aquatint is a variety of etching that was invented in France in the 1760s, and its characteristic feature is to give the appearance of watercolor washes. The process involves a copper or zinc plate that is covered with powdered rosin and then progressively etched and bathed in acid to create the desired lines and tonal variations. An intaglio method of printmaking, the resulting incised image is able to hold ink and is then passed through a press with a sheet of paper to produce the final print. The appeal of the aquatint was that it provided printers with a way to more easily create large areas of tone, and the durability of the plates used allowed for large print runs. The distinctive “watery” look of the aquatint proved popular with the public as well, and even after the ascent of lithography in the mid-nineteenth century, aquatints were still being produced in large numbers.
I was initially under the impression that the titular “Lord William” was the driver, and it was only upon closer inspection that I realized that it was the horse. The descriptive text underneath the image indicates that he was the property of one Samuel Lawrence, Esqr., while also noting the following: ‘This Extraordinary animal Trotted a Match against time in harness, for a wager of 200 Sovereigns aside from London to Brighton in the unprecedented time of Three hours and Fifty minutes. October 14th 1842. Driven by the Owner.’ Harness racing, in which horses race at a specified gait pulling a wheeled cart called a sulky, had originated in North American in the late 17th century and the first recorded harness races in Britain were held in 1750. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was a favored form of sport and gambling among gentlemen of means, as the relatively large stakes of this contest suggest. Although races are now held at formal tracks, at the time they were usually staged as single matches between two gentlemen and their steeds over a proscribed road and/or distance. The famed Brighton Road (the modern day A23) was fifty-one and a half miles as measured from the south side of Westminster bridge to the seaside aquarium in Brighton, which was then a fashionable resort. Horses bred specifically for trotting came to be known as “Standardbreds” because they had to be able to trot a “standard” mile in less than two and a half minutes. In his race from London to Brighton, Lord William traveled at a clip of 13.4 miles per hour or a little less than four and a half minutes per mile, an impressive pace given the total distance. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a contemporary account of the contest, so this print might serve as the only record of Lord William’s victory.
Sources: Brian Stewart and Mervyn Cutten, The Shayer Family of Painters (1981); Wray Vamplew, The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing (1976); for a more recent and entertaining account of horse racing in New York see Steven Reiss, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime (2011)
One of the things that I referred to in the op-ed I had published over the weekend was the public execution of the elephant Mandarin, which occurred in November 1902. It happened shortly after the Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived aboard the S.S. Minneapolis, docking at Pier 40 on Manhattan’s west side. The circus had been on an extended tour through Europe, and just before departing London, Mandarin struck and killed a keeper with his trunk. He was unruly throughout the crossing, and owner James Bailey decided to have him killed rather than risk Mandarin killing or injuring another worker or the other animals. When the circus steamed into New York Harbor, the Evening World sensationally reported that there was a “MAD ELEPHANT” rampaging onboard and helpfully provided a sketch of the ship for readers.
Four years earlier, the circus had departed for Europe with a herd of eighteen elephants. A photograph on Buckles Blog shows the herd of ten large and eight small elephants. Six of them, including all four big males, died during the tour.
George Conklin (1845-1924) was a lion tamer and elephant trainer who served as the “Superintendent of Animals” for the Barnum & Bailey Circus while it was abroad. His memoir as recorded by journalist Harvey W. Root was published by Harper & Row in 1921 as The Ways of the Circus: Being the Memories and of George Conklin Tamer of Lions. Conklin believed that choking was the “easiest and most humane” way to put down an elephant. In his account of the tour, he describes how a rope and block system was first used to kill Don Pedro at Liverpool in May 1898 after he became aggressive. On the last day of that initial touring season at Stoke-on-Trent, another male Asian elephant named Nick was strangled after becoming unruly. The largest of the elephants, Fritz, was killed after going on a rampage in Tours, France. It was only with much luck that Conklin was able to get him chained to a tree, and a hundred men pulled for fifteen minutes before he was finally choked to death. Fritz’s body was donated to the Musee de Beaux Arts, where it is still on display today.
Last but not least was of course Mandarin. Conklin’s rather laconic account of the killing of the elephant is as follows:
Mandarin was about forty-five years old, all of eight feet high, and heavy in proportion. We brought him to New York in a big crate on the upper deck of the boat. On the way over, Mr. Bailey decided to have him killed, so instead of unloading him on to the pier, Mr. Bailey had a big seagoing tug come alongside, and the crate, elephant and all, was swung down to the deck of the tug, which then put out to sea. When far enough outside the crate was loaded down with pig iron, swung out over the water, and let go. And so ended Mandarin (131).
The New York Tribune, on the other hand, provided a much more sensational account of the proceedings in its November 9 edition. Mandarin, with “head cased in leather harnesses,” and “trunk and legs manacled with huge chains,” was slowly strangled to death on the deck of the ship using a two-inch thick hawser (rope) and windlass. The article also suggests why Conklin’s account was terse, observing that: “George Conklin, the trainer, who had made an especial pet of Mandarin, could not witness the elephant’s end. He watched the preparations, but just before the time for the execution burst into tears and ran away.” A crowd of spectators watched from the docks as the elephant was choked to death; it took about eight minutes and seemed “painless” to the reporter on hand. The next morning Mandarin’s body was disemboweled on deck with “his comrades trumpeting the while,” and then loaded onto another ship, weighted down with lead, and dumped out at sea.
Though less infamous than the electrocution of Topsy at Coney Island or the hanging of the elephant Mary in Kingsport, Tennessee, Mandarin’s execution was an instructive example of the way that the contemporary circus industry valued profits over the welfare of its animals. But part of what makes “The Elephant People” chapter of Conklin’s book so fascinating is that he so clearly cares for the elephants, even as he describes doing things that most modern observers would undoubtedly find troubling. Ideas about what constitutes the humane treatment of animals have simply changed over the last century, and this is what has made the use (and abuse) of wild animals in commercial entertainment increasingly problematic.
It took over half a century for elephants to become integrated into the circus in the United States, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that herds of performing elephants like the one advertised above became common (for a penetrating historical analysis of this process, see Susan Nance’s Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus). As the fortunes of the circus in the United States declined over the course of the twentieth century, so did the use of elephants, and the circus revival of recent decades has been driven almost exclusively by shows that have abandoned traditional wild animal acts. Clearly something akin to the public execution of Mandarin is unlikely to happen today, and the episode serves as an apt illustration of the way ideas about animal welfare in the United States have evolved. Now it is up to the American circus industry to fully catch up.
This past weekend I was finally able to see 12 Years Slave, which has been one of the most talked about and lauded films of the past year. Given the rather harrowing subject matter, it was not necessarily something I was looking forward to, but I came away impressed with the film as both a work of art and a powerful consideration of the historical legacy of slavery in the United States. As most readers will undoubtedly already know, it is based upon the experiences of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American from upstate New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After over a decade working on different plantations in Louisiana, Northrup was able to secure his freedom with the help of an itinerant Canadian carpenter and friends from the North. Working with an editor named David Wilson, Northrup subsequently published a narrative of these events entitled Twelve Years a Slave (originally published in 1853, link is to an 1859 edition). Although there is some scholarly debate about the veracity of all the happenings and anecdotes included therein, it is unquestionably a powerful account of the American slavery system.
John Ridley’s admirably spare adaption for the most part remains faithful to Northrup’s narrative, and the episodic fashion in which Steve McQueen’s film unfolds was, I thought, particularly effective. In short, I liked it because it does not try to do too much. I am not sure what I can contribute to the already voluminous and penetrating commentary on the film (see this great piece by Wesley Morris for one), but I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share. For one, it was simply refreshing to see an honest depiction of slavery in American popular culture. The racial power dynamics portrayed in the film long outlasted slavery, and the nation’s tortured race relations have been reflected and refracted in American culture in ways that typically marginalize black people and experiences or turn them into a form of entertainment for white audiences. In presenting the brutal historical legacy of slavery from a black perspective, 12 Years a Slave powerfully confronts the pernicious cultural legacy that haunts American popular culture. One of the more striking scenes in the film for me was when the drunken Master Epps rouses Solomon and the other slaves from their quarters late one night to dance for his amusement. Finding their enthusiasm wanting, an enraged Epps screams at the “damned niggers,” whip in hand, until sufficient spirit is shown and he begins to cavort with his “property.” The dismal scene is arguably an apt metaphor for the traditional dynamics of popular entertainment in the United States.
While I certainly found the film and its implications disturbing, it was not as hard to watch as I expected. Part of this was no doubt due to my knowledge about the history of slavery going in, but it was also due to McQueen’s masterful direction. Despite telling a relatively straightforward and downright brutal story, the film is not unrelenting. At times the camera lingers on the natural beauty of a scene; at others we see some of the small triumphs of Solomon and the other slaves in their struggle to preserve their humanity. Probably the most cutting scenes for me were those in the New Orleans slave market, where we see the dehumanizing process of chattel slavery at work (for a great scholarly take on the same, see Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul). The one scene that fell a bit flat for me, and one which I appreciate was supposed to be a very emotional moment, was Solomon’s singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” at the funeral of an unnamed fellow slave. Spirituals, and music more generally, clearly played an important role in slave life (see Shane and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery), but the use of this particular song in what was ostensibly a transformative moment just felt a bit contrived to me. I could probably write an entire book on the role of music and dancing in the film, though, so it is perhaps best to move along.
This might sound strange, but the work that resonated most with me in thinking about this film was James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Although McQueen is trying to represent something of the historical reality of slavery and Agee/Evans are considering the contemporary lives of white sharecroppers amidst the Great Depression, both are works of art that center on somehow capturing and communicating the humanity of their subjects. This probably deserves a much longer post and explanation, but I cannot help but think of the two as complementary. In the “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee struggles with the limits of representation and human experience, writing that “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point” than a “book,” and he goes on to warn the reader that if they were to truly understand what he wants to communicate, “you would hardly bear to live.” I imagine that McQueen likewise struggled with these issues, albeit in a rather different context. I also cannot help but think that Agee would have appreciated the naturalism, economy of style, and moral force of 12 Years a Slave. There’s a powerful moment in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (“Late Sunday Morning”) when a group of African-American singers perform for Agee and Evans at the behest of their white landlord, much to the discomfort of both parties. The scene eerily echoes Epps forcing his slaves to dance, though in this case Agee is “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise.” Though much had obviously changed in the intervening century, the stultifying racial power dynamics remain, and a disconcerted Agee plays his part through by tipping the young men, who thank him in a “dead voice” and go on their way. Agee and McQueen each in their own way grapple with the discomfitting history of American race relations, and their respective works of art succeed in part because they are so clearly moral efforts. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has produced an at once beautiful and harrowing film that forthrightly addresses the terrible history and complex cultural legacy of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
*A quick final note, and one that some will no doubt find superfluous. Solomon Northrup was lured from Saratoga Springs to Washington by two men, Brown and Hamilton, who promised him work with a circus company there. Brown was apparently a small-time magician and ventriloquist as he performed a show in Albany for an audience that Northrup recalled was “not of the selectest of character.” They arrived in Washington in early April and a quick check of the relevant sources shows that that there was no circus wintering there and a touring show did not arrive until later that summer. It thus seems clear then that neither Brown nor Hamilton were actually affiliated with a circus and this was simply a ruse to lure Northrup south. While the nineteenth-century American circus undoubtedly had its share of dodgy characters, skipping out on debts was more par for the course. Still, the deception does reinforce why itinerant entertainers were looked on with such suspicion by so many Americans at the time.
Further reading: Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853); Clifford Brown, et. al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (2013); Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (2001); Shane and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (2005); James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941); Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (1984).
Above is a large-format photograph of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing at the Bronx Coliseum in March 1929 that I recently acquired at an auction. It was taken by Edward J. Kelty (1888–1967), who has been described as the “Cecil B. DeMille of circus photography” for the spectacular series of oversize prints he made using a custom-built banquet camera in the 1920s and 1930s. The photograph is of the so-called grand entrée when the circus performers and animals paraded around the ring in spectacular costume to open the show. The 1929 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was notable for being the last of the lavish editions of the show produced prior to the stock market crash that plunged the United States (and the circus industry) into depression. The circus was also unique for the fact that instead of beginning the season at Madison Square Garden, it began in the Bronx to celebrate the public opening of what was then called the New York Coliseum. The building was originally constructed as an auditorium for Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, and it was subsequently purchased by Edward B. Whitewell, owner of the Starlight Amusement Park, which was a kind of Bronx version of Coney Island that flourished in the 1920s. The arena was reconstructed at Bronx River and 177th Street with a Romanesque facade and seating for around 15,000. The March 21st opening of the building was celebrated by ex-Governor Al Smith and other dignitaries, although the photo above seems to be from a later daytime performance by the Ringling show. The stars of the circus were Goliath, billed as “The Monster Sea Elephant,” and Hugo Zacchini, an Italian daredevil who sensationally reintroduced the “human cannonball” act to the American circus. After a successful week in the Bronx, the circus transferred to Madison Square Garden for the remainder of its New York run. Despite its glittering debut, the New York Coliseum was not very successful as a venue, although it hosted everything from boxing matches to midget auto racing before being repurposed by the U.S. Army as vehicle-maintenance center during World War II. It was subsequently taken over by the New York City Transit Authority, and the building is now known as the West Farms Bus Depot.
A massive collection of Kelty photographs is available via the Ringling Museum here. For further information, see Step Right this Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty and my own Circus and the City catalogue. All information about the history of the Bronx Coliseum is from a “Streetscapes” column by the peerless Christopher Gray in the New York Times.
*A reader noted that there is a Kelty photograph in Josh Sapan’s neat new book The Big Picture: America in Panorama