Joseph Cowell’s Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821

[cross-post from Pocket Change]

Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players (1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.

ANS, 1887.24.1

ANS, 1887.24.1

In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.


1817 admission check for Park Theatre ANS, 1898.4.51



The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.

Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831 New York Public Library

Park Row and the Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831
New York Public Library

This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.

ANS, 1896.4.1

1816 silver shilling, ANS, 1896.4.1

Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:

After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.

“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.

“English shillings,” I replied.

“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”

I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.

Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:

I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.

There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:

ANS, 0000.999.10106

ANS, 0000.999.10106

At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.

As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.

After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”

Evenign Post

Evening Post, October 30, 1821

Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.

Markets and Menageries, 1835

Common-Place, the wonderful digital journal published by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut, launched a new redesign this summer. The journal invariably makes for good reading, and it reminded that some time back before I had even started this website, I wrote a short essay about one of the largest and most spectacular pieces of show printing in the Society’s collection. The Zoological Institute was the mightiest entertainment conglomerate of its day and the image below hardly does their broadside justice so please check out the archived article for some great detail images.

American Antiquarian Society

American Antiquarian Society

Circus to the End

An eagle-eyed reader sent me a photograph of a gravestone they spotted in Oakwood Cemetery in East Aurora, New York. It memorializes George G. Gordon, who died on June 11, 1872. The stone is graced with a wonderfully cut illustration of a large circus tent, inside of which an inscription reads:


Erected by Henry Barnum

and the members of the Central

Park Menagerie and Circus.

In memory of


who departed this life June 11, 1872

In the 31 Year of his Age.


The Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus was a short-lived show that was organized over the winter of 1871-72 in Amenia, New York. The proprietor and manager of the operation was Henry Barnum, a longtime circus man and distant relative of the showman P. T. Barnum. Dennison “Den” Stone was the equestrian director and coordinated the riding acts, which were the primary draw for the circus in that era. In its spring preview of the “tenting season,” the New York Clipper gave the following summary of the show:

New York Clipper, April 13, 1872

New York Clipper, April 13, 1872

As you can see by the fact that 167 men, 212 horses, and 90 wagons were employed, it was a labor-intensive wagon show that was hauled overland each night and set up in a new location for two or even three performances each day. The Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus was one of the largest wagon circuses to ever tour, as it was put together just as railroads were transforming the show world. Indeed it was in this same year, 1872, that P. T. Barnum’s famous circus toured by rail for the first time, and by the end of the decade all the biggest shows had abandoned wagon travel for railroads.

Jamestown Journal

Jamestown Journal

The Great Central Park Menagerie, International Circus, and Iroquois Indian Troupe toured through western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont in April and May, and then veered into upstate New York in June. The show was a beefed-up version of the typical American show, featuring a large roster of circus performers, an extensive menagerie, and a sideshow with a French Giant, a skeleton man, etc. These attractions were arranged in separate tents, but they could all be seen with the purchase of one fifty-cent ticket. Seemingly the most unique element of this show was that it featured an “Indian Circus Rider,” Ka-Ke-Wa-Ma, who performed in the center ring. In addition, there was a larger Iroquois Indian Troupe that appeared in a spectacular pantomime called Life in the Wilderness for the show’s finale. Advertisements promised “characteristic scenes and dances,” and a staging of the story of Pocahontas & Captain Smith that featured a “terrible realistic scalping scene.” Part of what is so interesting about this Iroquois Indian Troupe is that it predated Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West Show by over a decade, but used many of the elements that made that later concern such a success. While Indians had often figured in American show business before, this kind of proto-Wild West entertainment was something of an innovation and was very popular according to press accounts. The newspaper advertisement to the left, from the Jamestown Journal, gives a full run-down of the show. Perhaps the most notable individual performer was Willie O. Dale, billed as the “Wonder Equestrian and bareback sensationalist.” Though just twelve or thirteen years old, he had been trained by his father of the same name, who was regarded as one of the finest equestrian performers of his era. Dale’s act consisted of various dramatic balancing and acrobatic feats performed on the back of a moving horse, most notably backwards somersaults. The fact that the Ring Master Robert Ellingham was also listed as a “Lecturer on Natural History,” suggests that the well-appointed menagerie played a prominent role in the show. Indeed, much of the show’s advertising centered on the animals, even if many of those pictured in the posters do not seem to have actually been present on the lot.

Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling Museum of Art

Whatever the case, George G. Gordon was certainly traveling with the show that year, at least until it passed through East Aurora, which is about twenty miles southeast of Buffalo. Legend has it that Gordon was a performer who fell off a horse, but a more reliable account suggests that he was simply a foreman of a tent crew who suffered heart attack while the big top was being raised. His elaborate tombstone was most likely purchased through funds donated by his fellow circus hands. An 1875 account in the New York Clipper noted that when the Van Amburgh circus visited East Aurora on July 31: “the members of the company and band visited the grave of George G. Gordon, who died while in the employ of the Central Park Circus, and had formerly been a watchman with Van Amburgh & Co. Many citizens were also in attendance, and appropriate remarks and a prayer were made by Rev. Mr. Adams.” Gordon was clearly well-regarded, and the story goes that a circus lady asked local children to plant flowers on his grave every spring, which became a tradition through the 1960s.

But “the show most go on” as they say, and the Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus continued its 1872 tour through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, ending its season in New York City that October. The show foundered the following year as the Panic of 1873 proved a disaster for the American circus industry and sunk many of the big wagon shows. The properties, animals, and many of the performers were subsequently absorbed into the Great London Show, which toured by railroad in 1874. Although they were both ultimately short-lived, George G. Gordon’s magnificent tombstone stands as a memorial to both the man and the Central Park Circus and Menagerie.

NPR and #TheNew10

Welcome NPR listeners! I do most all my money-related blogging now over at Pocket Change, the blog of the American Numismatic Society. If you are looking to read a bit about nineteenth-century U.S. history and/or explore the fascinating story of the American circus, please stay and have a look around this site…


The NPR segment can be heard below. One thing that was regrettably cut which I spoke about is that the reason that the ten-dollar bill is presently being redesigned is because the government is in the process of making a long-overdue change that will place tactile features on US paper money for the visually impaired. In this context, I suggested Helen Keller might be the best choice for #TheNew10 as she embodied both of the rationales behind the present redesign, i.e., including a woman and adding features for the visually impaired. For more on what should be a very interesting story to follow through the end of the year when the decision on whom to add is made, see this post.

Material Evidence, Visual Knowledge

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 presentations examine how new technologies enable new ways of looking at material culture. My presentation looks at what the digitization of the American Numismatic Society’s paper money collection and considers what this tells about the design and circulation of counterfeit money in the antebellum United States.


CBS Sunday Morning

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.

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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!

Cutting Down Old Hickory

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art

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.kspers 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. blog-latest-bbaj-artMoreover 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).

Free at Last

Wittmann Archive

Wittmann Archive

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.

National Geographic

National Geographic

Colonialism’s Currency: A Short Numismatic History of the Hawaiian Kingdom

Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library

Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library

In October 1874, a New Zealand traveler bound for San Francisco stopped over in Honolulu, taking lodging at the idyllic Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The gentleman’s pleasing stay was, however, soon disrupted when he tendered a sovereign to settle the bill for a sumptuous breakfast. To his “utter amazement,” he received the following in change: “one English sixpence, two American dimes, two ditto half dimes, one quarter-dollar, a silver coin of Napoleon III, a Peruvian dollar, and a Mexican coin of some value indistinguishable.” Dashing the money back in anger, he demanded “some one currency or other” that “represented something definite,” but it was coolly returned by the proprietor with assurances that it was “all current coin of the realm.” With nothing to do except pocket the “museum,” as he took to calling his new collection of coins, the bewildered gentleman went for a stroll while considering the extraordinary monetary system that prevailed in the Hawaiian Islands. While United States coins had become the predominant currency by the 1870s, a motley mix of English, Austrian, French, Italian, Russian, Belgian, Mexican, Peruvian, and Spanish coins also had legal tender status at fixed rates set by the minister of finance. Moreover, a table published in an 1875 Hawaiian almanac shows an even greater range of coinage in circulation. This combination of currency turned everyday transactions into complicated affairs that could often overwhelm unfortunate visitors like our touring New Zealander.

Silver dollar of the Hawaiian Kingdom, 1883

Silver dollar of the Hawaiian Kingdom, 1883                       (ANS 1933.122.4)

The diversity of coinage present was a reflection of the prominent role that the Hawaiian Islands played during the nineteenth century as the crossroads of an emerging Pacific world shaped by the integrative forces of colonialism and capitalism. What follows is a short numismatic history of the islands during this transformative century, one that begins with the introduction of Western money during the late eighteenth century and ends with annexation of Hawai‘i by the United States in 1898. !is period was defined by the rise and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the shifting cultural, commercial, and international relationships in which it was enmeshed. A numismatic perspective offers an illuminating, if admittedly idiosyncratic, way of looking at how Hawaiian history unfolded over the course of the nineteenth century. Coins and currency played a varying role in the islands, at once undermining the traditional basis of Native Hawaiian society while also buttressing the fortunes of the Kingdom in its struggle to remain independent. !e apogee of this story was the national coinage issued by King Kalākaua in 1883, which was meant to bring order to the chaotic currency situation and to reaffirm Hawaiian sovereignty. The removal of the Kalākaua coins from circulation a few years after the annexation of the islands in 1898 was thus a richly symbolic move by the United States as it consolidated control over the new colony…read more.

John Bill Ricketts, One Mystery Unraveled


The Diary, or, Loudon’s Register, September 12, 1793. Library of Congress

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.

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art

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).

American Numismatic Society

American Numismatic Society

from Burke's Peerage (1869)

Burke’s Peerage (1869)

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.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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).


Mapping Cultural Circuits

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.