A New Era of Circus?

Feld Entertainment made a surprising, but not necessarily unexpected announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which presently tours as two separate shows) will hold its final performance(s) in May. The present show traces its roots to 1871, which was the first season that P. T. Barnum fielded a circus, so some combination of its present title has been touring for over 146 years!

There are, I suppose, two ways to react to the news. The first is to bemoan the passing of the great American railroad circus, even though many traditionalists will tell you that the era already ended in 1956 when RBB&B abandoned the “big top” for indoor arenas. The other is to recognize that the model of touring a large and costly circus around the country is simply not viable in this day and age, and that it’s impressive that this all lasted as long as it did.

I would also add that when one era ends, another begins. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus historically has been its capacity for reinvention. And while this announcement coupled with the closing of the Big Apple Circus last year is a tough blow for circus fans, it’s not as if the circus arts are going to disappear. As I have argued in Circus and the City and elsewhere, it only looks like the circus is in decline if you have a very narrow and traditional idea about what the circus is. Cirque du Soleil is a veritable global entertainment empire. Les 7 Doights and other innovative companies put together and tour incredible shows. Organizations like the American Youth Circus and, in my neighborhood, the Boston Circus Guild show that circus retains its vitality and appeal. At the core of the circus is the delight people take in seeing the spectacular feats by performers, and the fact that one of our biggest entertainment companies does not find it viable to tour a large arena show does not mean that the circus is going to go away. I am hopeful that a reinvented American circus will find the audience that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer could.



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.

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 that 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

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).


Mandarin and the Strangling of Circus Elephants

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.

Chronicling America
Chronicling America

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.

Conklin and Baby Elephant
George Conklin at St. Vincent’s Hospital, 1908

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.

The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

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.

Elsmore & Forster Circus Jug

The other day a reader sent in an inquiry about an antique circus jug. It is a truly fascinating piece of mid-nineteenth-century English pottery that was manufactured in Tunstall by Elsmore & Forster sometime between 1853 and 1871.

Susan Silver Antiques
Susan Silver Antiques

8341_1292185161_5Tunstall was part of the so-called “Staffordshire Potteries” (modern-day Stoke-on-Trent), a center of ceramic production that developed in the late seventeenth century and which became a hotbed of working class radicalism in the 1840s. Elsmore & Forster seemed to have specialized in this sort of large glazed earthenware jug, which measures 14″ across and 10″ in height. The firm produced several different versions of these jugs decorated with popular entertainment motifs that were “transfer-printed” from wood or metal engravings (see other examples at the V & A here and here).

8341_1292185963_7In this case, the engravings were likely borrowed or purchased from a local printer who used these sorts of illustrations in advertising for circuses and menageries. The assorted animals pictured on the jug are based on the work of artist and engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). As I have written about elsewhere, Bewick’s works of natural history, most notably A History of Quadrupeds (1790), were also frequently copied by American printers and feature prominently in many early menagerie posters. A curious range of animals are represented, including an elephant, a zebra, a tiger, a squirrel, a frog, and several domestic house cats. After the outline of the illustrations was transferred onto the surface, they were colored in by hand before the piece was glazed. The line-up of animals are repeated on each side of the jug with a one or two variations and there are some additional ivy leaf and berry decorations inside of the rim and the spout, and along the main handle.


On either side of the smaller carrying handle there are twin images of a clown, identified by various sources as Joe Cashmore. According to John Turner’s biographical dictionary of British circus performers, Joe’s father was a clown named Ike Cashmore and his mother, billed as Madame Cashmore, was a noted tight-rope performer and equestrian. His full name was Joseph Henry Cashmore, and advertisements printed in The Era (a contemporary trade journal for entertainers) listed his skills as: “Comic Knockabout Clown, High Stilts, Juggler, Running Globe, Vaulter, &c.” The clown is the most technically accomplished illustration on the jug, with intricately detailed clothing and checkered tights that required real skill by the colorist to execute. For more on the fascinating world of the mid-nineteenth-century British circus, see The Victorian Clown by Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone. The book centers on a manuscript by a man named James Frowde, who performed with Hengler’s Circus in the 1850s, and offers a wealth of information about what life was like for clowns like Cashmore.

And, if you are interested, this wonderful piece of ceramic circus history can be found here for just $2600!

Rocky Mountain High, 1861

One of the most remarkable images in the collections of History Colorado is an ambrotype by George D. Wakely of a M’lle Carolista daringly walking across a tightrope extended over Larimer Street in July 1861. Interestingly enough, Wakely was himself an itinerant entertainer who had first arrived in Denver as part of the Thorne Star Company during the fall of 1859 when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush was in full swing. Charles R. Thorne was a veteran actor and manager who seemingly had a nose for opportunity, having been among the first American entertainers to visit the California gold fields and subsequently touring on the “Pacific circuit” through Hawaii, Australia, and China in the 1850s. Thorne enlisted Wakely, his wife Matilda, and her four children from a previous marriage to perform at the National Theatre in Leavenworth, Kansas, before traveling overland to open at Denver’s Apollo Hall. Although the troupe was initially very successful, Thorne and his son skipped town one evening when business declined, leaving the other members of the company stranded. While some of the Wakely clan continued to perform at the theatre, George opened up the first photography gallery in Denver, having already practiced the trade in Chicago years before. Wakely was a prolific portraitist who also took some wonderful street photographs documenting the city’s growth in the early 1860s.

Despite her rather romantic nom d’arena, M’lle Carolista was an acrobat from Cleveland who began performing on the tightrope following the sensationally successful North American tour by the French tightrope walker Charles Blondin during the late 1850s. Although American circuses had long featured tightrope ascensions on their programs, the rather more daring and spectacular feats of Blondin included a celebrated walk across Niagra Falls in 1859. After his initial crossing, Blondin introduced a number of variations such as walking blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, and with his manager riding piggyback.

Wikimedia Commons

M’lle Carolista performed many of these same feats, billing herself as the “female rival of Blondin.” Her husband and manager was Gus Shaw, and the two traveled around the country giving exhibitions through the late 1860s. Carolista typically performed as an entr’acte in a local gallery or theatre while Shaw attempted to drum up funds from the public for a more sensational open-air exhibition . Once a certain amount of money was raised, a date was picked, the rope was installed, and Carolista would go through her routine. Afterwards Shaw essentially passed a hat around in an attempt to solicit even more compensation from the excited crowds. Such was the format of their visit to Denver in July of 1861, as M’lle Carolista performed at the Criterion Saloon while Shaw circulated a subscription for a “Grand Tight Rope Ascension,” which eventually raised $170. A rope was stretched across Larimer Street from the New York Store to Graham’s Drug Store and on July 18, 1861, a large crowd gathered to witness M’lle Carolista’s daring feats. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity to cash in on the event, the Daily Republican and Rocky Mountain Herald reported that:

Mr. Wakely, Daguerrean and Ambrotypist on Larimer street showed us some beautiful views taken of the crowd assembled yesterday to see M’lle Carolista in her daring feat of rope walking. These are valuable not only on account of representing that interesting affair, but they also present a grand view of Larimer street, the pains, etc. Call at Wakely’s and see those pretty representations.

While the article suggests multiple views were made, the only extant version is the 4.25″ x 6.5″ half-plate ambrotype reproduced below.

Courtesy History Colorado
Courtesy History Colorado

By all accounts it was a very successful exhibition, and M’llle Carolista at one point balanced on the top of her head halfway across, amongst other dramatic variations. As the paper indicated, the ambrotype offers a beautiful view of Denver’s main thoroughfare, which is lined with newly built stores, including a confectionary and ice cream parlor. More entertainingly, a seemingly worried or flabbergasted man standing with his hands on his head can be seen in the center of the foreground.carolistadetail


At right is a detail of M’lle Carolista, who seems to have dressed up for the occasion, as she paused for Wakely’s photograph. This wonderful ambrotype offers both a tantalizing glimpse into the earliest era of Denver’s history and captures something of the vibrant world of mid-nineteenth century popular entertainment in the United States.

Sources: Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West (2000); Terry Wm. Mangan, Colorado on Glass (1975); Melvin Schoberlin, From Candles to Footlights (1941)

A Circus Treasure Re-emerges!

Frederic Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was an American artist who spent most of his career in France, but is now perhaps best remembered for the “Orientalist” paintings that he made during a series of visits to North Africa. My own curiosity about Bridgman was stimulated after finding a reference to a painting he made of a circus that caused a stir at the Paris Salon of 1870. Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and moved to New York City at a young age, where he worked as a draughtsman before departing for France in 1866. In Paris, he studied painting under the tutelage of Jean-Léon Gérôme and adopted his highly finished academic style. Like many other expatriate artists at the time, he traveled to Brittany during the summer and often stayed in Pont-Aven, a coastal town that was fast becoming a significant artist’s colony. Bridgman made of number of paintings during this time depicting rural Breton life, including one that was initially known as Un cirque en province. After debuting at the Paris Salon to wide acclaim, the painting was featured at the Brooklyn Art Association’s Annual exhibition in 1870, where it was again warmly celebrated. In 1875 and now titled The American Circus in France, it was included in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in New York City. It was at this time that the London-based Art Journal commissioned James Geraty to make a steel engraving of the painting, “which last year was the event of the National Academy Exhibition,” for the February 1876 edition of the publication.

geraty, after bridgman-american circus in france

It was also around this time that the original painting was sold to a Mr. Edward F. Rook of New York. Per the New York Times, it was subsequently auctioned off by the Fifth-Avenue Art Galleries in April 1888 for the then princely sum of $1,000. Although the buyer was unnamed, the painting later appeared in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1890. However, after that it seemed to have disappeared. Fred Dahlinger and I wanted to use the engraving as an illustration for his essay in the American Circus volume, so we made a concerted effort to find out more about the painting, with marginal success. Part of the problem we had in tracking it was the evolving title, having been variously displayed as Breton Circus, The American Circus in France, American Circus in Paris, A Circus in Brittany, Circus in the Provinces, A Circus in the Province, and American Circus in Normandy. I had actually come to think that the painting had been lost until one of my former students, who is now working at Sotheby’s, casually mentioned the other day that there had been an old American circus painting up for auction last fall. I fairly bolted for a computer and there it was, lot #5 in a 19th Century European Art auction at Sotheby’s this past November!


The painting was estimated at between $250,000-$350,000, but according to the results was either withdrawn or remained unsold. The provenance published by Sotheby’s indicated that Rook’s son was the unnamed buyer at the 1889 auction and revealed that it was subsequently gifted to Nelson C. White in 1960 and passed down through his family. It turns out that we had somehow missed the fact that it was included in a major traveling exhibition about American artists in Brittany and Normandy in the early 1980s, but that seems to have been its only public appearance since 1890. Really I was just happy to see that the painting survives as it is a rather lovely representation of a subject that greatly interests me, namely the American circus abroad.

Of course, much of the secondary literature has speculated about the veracity of the scene. According to Ilene Susan Fort’s dissertation, Bridgman wrote a letter to an unidentified correspondent on February 20, 1871 detailing how he made a model ring and tent using an old sail before going “to a neighboring city to make a study of the whole arrangement of the interior and costumes.” Fort speculates that it was a European troupe, and in his definitive history of the circus in France, La Merveilleuse histoire de cirgue (1947), Henry Thetard reproduced the engraving and described it as an English circus. In all likelihood though, this is an American circus. One obvious clue is the Native American figure sitting with his back to the ring by the bandstand, however, the simple fact that it is a tent circus with a sidewall and center and quarter poles more or less confirms that it is an American one as this was a very characteristic set up. Moreover, an American show managed by James Washington Myers (1820-1892), an all-around circus man who featured as both an equestrian and clown, arrived in France during the spring of 1867. Billing the show as “Le Grand Cirque Americain,” Myers spent the next two years performing in Paris and touring the provinces with an American-style tent circus. Below is a detail of the set-up from a herald in the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires which makes it fairly clear that this was the circus upon which Bridgman modeled his painting.


I will follow up with another post about the classic elements of the circus–ringmaster, equestrians, and clowns–depicted in the painting soon, but I just wanted to highlight Bridgman’s wonderful work and clarify something of its background first.


Sources: For the definitive treatment of Bridgman’s career, see Ilene Susan Fort, “Frederick Arthur Bridgman and the American fascination with the exotic Near East,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, City University of New York, 1990); David Sellin, et. al., Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910 (Phoenix Art Museum, 1982); David Fitzroy, Myers’ American Circus (Self-published, 2002).


Risley’s Circus to the Rescue?


Robert Hewson Pruyn (1815-1882) was an American lawyer and statesman from New York who is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Albany Institute. Presently, the fascinating materials on display focus on the years 1862 to 1865 when he served as the U.S. minister to Japan. As a diplomat, Pruyn played a pivotal role in resolving the Shimonoseki War, which was a series of military engagements waged by recalcitrant daimyos (powerful feudal lords) angry with the Tokugawa shogunate’s accommodation of foreign interests. While holding office, he also negotiated a number of shrewd trade agreements that allowed commerce to flourish. And though his diplomatic and economic accomplishments were undoubtedly significant, I was much more intrigued to see a wide variety of ephemera documenting performances by both Euro-American and Japanese entertainers. In the decade that followed Commodore Perry’s expedition in 1853-54, relations between the United States and Japan remained tense, but popular entertainment provided one avenue for cross-cultural exchange and understanding. Indeed, some of Perry’s sailors famously performed a minstrel show at a banquet held when the Kanagawa Treaty was concluded, and the Japanese reciprocated with exhibitions of sumo wrestling, plate-spinning, and acrobatics. 

MIT Visualizing Cultures

By the early 1860s, Yokohama was a “boomtown,” and performances by both visting Euro-American and Japanese entertainers were patronized by the mixed lot of officials, merchants, and military who congregated around Tokyo Bay. In March 1864, the noted American performer Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874), popularly known as “Professor Risley,” arrived in Yokohama with a circus from Shanghai. Risley had ascended to trans-Atlantic fame and fortune in the 1840s with a foot-juggling act that involved spinning and launching limber young assistants high into the air. By the early 1860s, he was touring the Pacific with a small circus comprised of a dozen or so equestrians and acrobats. John R. Black (himself a traveling entertainer that settled in Japan) observed that:

Risley was a man who never did himself justice. He was for some years a resident in Yokohama; but at one time of his life, his name was well known in all the great capitals of Europe and America. I remember him with his sons at the Strand Theatre in London in 1848, when his fame and success seemed carrying everything before him. Apart from his great strength and agility, and the wonderful pluck and cleverness of his boys, which enabled him to present an entertainment as attractive as it was at that time unique, he was peculiarly cut out for the kind of Bohemian life he had chosen. He was a wonderful rifle shot; a good billiard player; up to everything that lithe and active men most rejoice in. He knew thoroughly well the usages of good society, and could hold his own with high or low. His fund of anecdote was marvellous ; and he could keep a roomful of people holding their sides with laughter, without the least appearance of effort, or the faintest shade of coarseness (Young Japan, 1880, 401-402).

Risley’s peripatetic history and his eventual management of a troupe of Japanese acrobats who traveled across the United States and to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris have been ably chronicled in an excellent study by Frederik L. Schodt so I will not dwell on that here. What is interesting was how Pruyn perceived Risley’s presence in Japan, and the role of popular entertainment in US-Japanese relations more generally. Again, things were particular tense in March 1864, and Pruyn confessed in a letter that he still regarded it as debatable whether “liberality or exclusiveness” would prevail in Japan. In this context, he saw the arrival of the circus as auspicious, continuing: “American diplomacy first opened this Country partially to foreigners & now that this attempt has been made to thrust us out when once in & slam the door in our faces – why should not an American Circus come to the rescue?” While it is of course arguable just how important Risley’s activities were within the evolving relationship between the two nations, it seems significant to see that the American minister regarded the circus as so relevant. In a follow-up post, I’ll develop this point further by looking at how Pruyn’s perceptions of the Japanese were shaped by his experiences with their sundry forms of popular entertainment.

*** The Robert Pruyn Papers are held at the Albany Institute of History and Art library and a special thanks is owed to Erika Sanger there for bringing these materials to my attention.

Making the Circus American in Albany

Albany Institute of History & Art
Albany Institute of History & Art

Last week I went up to Albany to deliver a lecture on the circus for the “Making It American” series at the Albany Institute of History & Art. My talk explored how various geographic, economic, and demographic factors in the United States transformed this rather quiescent European cultural import into a dynamic commercial industry. My take-home points centered on the way that mobility, diversity, and gigantism defined the American circus. But I don’t want to get into all that here. Rather, I want to write a quick post about the handbill above, which was brought to my attention when the Albany Institute used it to advertise the talk. It is very interesting example of evolution of traveling shows in the United States amidst the ongoing Market Revolution. Although it is headlined as a “Menagerie,” the fact that the advertised benefit is for Mr. Sherman, a “Ring Master,” suggests that the show was something more than just a traveling zoo. Until the 1830s, the circus was a primarily equestrian entertainment with acrobats, clowns, and the like, but it gradually absorbed the related business of itinerant animal exhibitions. This 1834 handbill is for the “Grand Mammoth Zoological Exhibition” run by Eisenhart Purdy and Rufus Welch, and it was one of the last and largest traveling menageries prior to their absorption by the circus industry. The show traveld on twenty wagons from town to town and advertised seventy-five animals that were displayed in three separate tents. The one elephant was Caroline, the so-called “ship-wrecked elephant,” who was known by that moniker after surviving an accident on the Delaware River in late 1831. Caroline performed an act in the ring with her keeper, the Mr. Sherman above, and the other ring attraction involved two pony-riding monkeys, Jim Crow and Dandy Jack. Purdy and Welch also engaged the Washington Military Band for the season, which included some dozen musicians, and seems to have been the first professional brass band to tour with a show. This evolving mix of circus (ring acts), menagerie (exotic animals), and ancillary attractions (brass band) would cohere into what we would now regard as the classic American circus in the decade that followed.

The handbill itself is an interesting artifact. It was printed by Hoffman and White in Albany, but the fine lion engraving was originally made by Abel Bowen, a noted Boston printer. His signature can be seen between the animal’s legs  and the “sc.” abbreviation after simply indicates it was “scuplted,” i.e. carved or engraved by Bowen. It was in a likelihood a stereotyped block that either the Albany printers had in their inventory or that the show itself lent to local printers to produce their publicity. There’s a nice mix of contemporary fancy types on the bill, and the “Benefit” line letters in particular have some exquisite detail. The benefit advertised here was a standard event where the profits for a particular performance were set aside for a specific performer or charity. It provided good publicity for the show and also gave the proprietors a chance to reward popular acts. As the ringmaster, Sherman was the public face of the show, but despite his “untiring efforts to please,” he does not seem to have had a long career in show business. After the “Grand Mammoth Zoological Exhibition” left Albany, it continued touring through Connecticut and New Jersey before wintering in Philadelphia. The handbill is a fine example of contemporary ephemera that also gives us a glimpse into the gradual merging of the circus and menagerie business in the United States.

For more, see Stuart Thayer’s Annals of American Circus. I’ve also written more about the evolution of circuses, menageries, and printing in this era here and here.

Ringling Bros. Circus in Brooklyn, 1909

As the ‘Big Show‘ is back in Brooklyn today for the first time since the late 1930s, I wanted to throw up a quick post about the Ringling Bros. first visit to the borough. In late 1907, the Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and they ran the two circuses separately until 1919, when the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was formed. During the early twentieth century the winter quarters for the Ringling show were in Baraboo Wisconsin, and the circus typically opened in Chicago each season before heading out on tour. The Barnum & Bailey Circus on the other hand was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and would open its season at Madison Square Garden. In 1909, supposedly because Al had always dreamed of the Ringling circus conquering the Big Apple, they decided to switch things up and the Barnum & Bailey Circus was sent to Chicago, and the Ringling show made the 1100 mile trip to makes its New York City debut. They opened on March 25, and despite positive reviews, business was a bit slow during their month-long stand at the Garden. On Sunday, April 25, the circus moved to a lot at Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn to prepare for the first show of the season under canvas, i.e., in a tent. Traffic and subway construction in Manhattan meant that circuses were no longer able to parade there. This was unfortunate because the 1909 Ringling parade is remembered by circus historians as perhaps the best that the brothers ever put together. On Monday morning at 9am, a procession that included 44 tableaux and cage wagons, a huge steam calliope, chariots drawn by horses, zebras and elephants, mounted riders, and a herd of twenty-two elephants, began its grand march through the streets of Brooklyn. A map of the route:

Rand, McNally & Co.'s Brooklyn, 1903.
Rand, McNally & Co.’s Brooklyn, 1903.
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

When I was canvasing for materials for the Circus and the City exhibition, I stumbled across a box of photographic dry plates at the Somers Historical Society. The set of twelve plates depicted a circus parade and were produced by the Obrig Camera Co. of New York. Although labeled as “Barnum & Bailey,” when I looked at them on a lightbox it was plainly evident that they were actually Ringling Bros. wagons. After scanning the plates, the detective work began. Given the box was from Obrig, it seemed likely that the photographs were taken somewhere in New York City. And of course the only year that the Ringling show mounted a parade here was 1909. The seemingly characteristic Brooklyn brownstones in the background offered another clue, and I headed out to the Brooklyn Public Library to figure out the parade route, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle duly provided.  Luckily, the plate that featured Ringling’s famous Swan Bandwagon and its twenty-four-horse hitch gave a long view of the block, which included a rather distinctive cupola.

Somers Historical Society

With the route and photographs in hand, I was hoping to be able to determine for certain when and where they were taken. Starting off from the old circus lot (where the Old Stone House now sits), I made my way through Park Slope and up to Flatbush Ave. via Sterling Place where, much to my delight, a promising cupola came into view. Walking a bit further east on Sterling Place made it clear that this was the right block. The plates were made by a photographer standing on the south side of Sterling Place looking west to the intersection with Flatbush Ave. on the morning of April 25, 1909 (see the red arrow on the map above). A few more slides from the series:

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Here’s a picture I took from the approximate position of the original photographer. The block is obviously a lot greener today, but the north side of the street looks almost exactly like it did over a hundred years ago. Sterling Place

Although Brooklynites turned out to enjoy the parade and the headline verdict in the Eagle the next day was “Ringling Bros. Show Best Ever,” this was the only time that the Ringlings visited Brooklyn prior to the debut of the combined show. And while the parade has long gone by the wayside, it’s nice to see the Big Show back in Brooklyn again.