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).


Engraving John Bill Ricketts

One of the most important and yet mysterious figures in the annals of the American circus is John Bill Ricketts. Although Ricketts was not the first equestrian performer to grace American shores, he has rightfully received the lion’s share of the credit as a founding father of the circus for the scope and duration of his entertainment-related efforts. Much is known about his activities during the eight years he spent in the United States and Canada, from his arrival in Philadelphia in 1792 to his final departure from the country with a small company of performers in the spring of 1800. This is largely due to the diligent research of James Moy, whose dissertation remains the best source on his career. What is less clear was what Ricketts did before and after his time in the United States. Presently the first record of him performing are newspaper advertisements from 1786 for performances at Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheatre in London, but he also spent a significant part of his early career in Edinburgh. The end of his life is even more of a mystery, as his small company was waylaid by pirates near Guadeloupe, but recovered to perform around the Caribbean in 1800-1801. His contemporary and fellow performer John Durang reported that he subsequently “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.” I have yet to find an independent confirmation of how Ricketts’ met his end.

While much about Ricketts remains unknown, one thing I was able track down was the source of an oft-reproduced but poorly sourced image of the man and his famous horse Cornplanter. As far as I can tell this image was published for the first time in John and Alice Durant’s Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957). Durant-Ricketts, pg.23On page 23 there is a small and poorly reproduced image of a mounted Ricketts jumping over another horse held by a groom under a banner reading “We ne’er shall look upon his like again” (an allusion to Hamlet).The Durants credited it to the New York Public Library, but I did not find anything at either the main library’s Print Room or in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Google turned up another version of the image on John Bill Ricketts’ Circopedia page, there credited to the Museum of the City of New York. What I found on a visit there was pretty clearly just a modern copy. Where was the original?

It was clearly a metal plate engraving, which was confirmed by this entry in David McNeely Stauffer’s checklist of American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel (1907):Stauffer, pg. 464

Frustratingly, no source was given. Some further work in Google Books turned up a note about its inclusion in an exhibition at the Boston bibliophile “Club of Odd Volumes” in 1914. It was listed as part of the collection of Robert Gould Shaw and described as an “Extremely Rare Print.” While the disposition of this particular print was not discovered, I was able to find a second allusion to the Scoles engraving. This was from a catalogue of rare books purchased by New York book dealer George D. Smith from the collection of the noted American playwright and stage director Augustin Daly (1838-1899). It details a rare extra-illustrated edition of William Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre (1832), which included among its rarities something described only as “Mr. Ricketts by Scoles.”

Smith-Dunlap Description

Knowing that much of Augustin Daly’s library was in the Harvard Theatre Collection (and indeed this had seemingly been one of the foundational purchases of that collection), I went right to their library catalog, which confirmed that Harvard had Daly’s copy of Dunlap but little else. So it remained for me to take make the trip up there and examine the volumes in person. They are an invaluable treasury of American entertainment history, and a little over 100 pages into volume two, I found the engraving of Ricketts. Although I knew the supposed dimensions, it was something of surprise to see how small the original sepia-toned engraving was. John Scoles was a talented engraver and sometime book seller in New York City from 1793 to 1844 so this was among his earliest works. Ricketts first regularly performed the feat of jumping Cornplanter over another horse “fourteen-hands-high” in 1796 so the engraving likely dates to that year. It is a well-cut and dramatic scene and I was just thrilled to finally find the original. I ordered a scan and it will certainly figure in the upcoming Circus and the City exhibition!

Update: After my request, Harvard put the high-resolution image online here. And it is of course featured in the Circus and the City catalogue, which you can buy here.