The Circus

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

The Circus


Emergence of a Tradition. In 1792 the Englishman John Bill Ricketts produced the first real circus in the United States: a public display that combined trick horse riding, tumbling, juggling, ropedancing, trained animal performances, and the antics of clowns. Rickettss circus was a great success and attracted many important visitors, including President George Washington. As the United States expanded, the circus moved westward with the expanding population. American showmen soon departed from the traditional European methods of circus presentation, where they were staged in large permanent buildings. American circus owners developed the travelling show to reach a predominantly rural population. For years the circus was an important form of amusement to most Americans, especially in nonurban areas, and it had a rough-and-tumble character in which the quantity of performers and of animals was emphasized.

Barnuns Dominance. After the Civil War the number of circuses in the country grew, as did their size. However, no one dominated the circus world more during this time than Phineas T. Barnum. A correspondent for the London Times described him as a showman on a grandiose scale, worthy to be professed by a man of genius. . . . To live on, by, and before the public was his ideal. Before he entered the circus business, he was a storekeeper and journalist noted for his collection of curiosities at the American Museum, New York. In 1871 Barnum and two associates pooled their resources to form a circus. Barnums knack for showmanship made the resulting company a great success. The circus had a three-acre canvas tent and two rings. The attractions included six hundred horses, mechanical figures, a giraffe, and oddities, such as Esau, the Bearded Boy, and Anna Leake, the armless woman. A specially designed circus train not only allowed the circus to tour the country in a more efficient manner but helped to attract larger crowds.

Bailey. By the late 1870s Barnums circus was the largest show touring the United States. However, serious competition emerged in the form of the Great London, Cooper & Baileys Allied Show, owned by a group of showmen led by James Anthony Bailey. Their show had elephants and used electricity rather than gas to illuminate the rings. When Barnum tried to buy a baby elephant from the Allied Show, Bailey had his telegram blown up to poster size and displayed in various towns. The headline read: What Barnum Thinks of the Baby Elephant. Barnum was not in the least bit dismayed, responding that he had at last found a foe worthy of my steel. He offered to merge the two circuses, and the combined shows were organized in 1881. On 18 March the new circus opened to an audience of nine thousand in Madison Square Garden, New York City. In an unprecendented move three rings were used. The show had 338 horses, 14 camels, 20 elephants, 370 costumed performers, 4 brass bands, and the midget couple, Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia, who came out of retirement to help launch the new enterprise.

A Team Effort. Bailey, who had traveled with circuses since he was a boy, hated personal publicity and became the perfect partner for the self-glorifying Barnum. While Bailey managed the show and kept the circus train running, his partner attracted the crowds with extravagant claims. (Barnum reportedly coined the phrase Theres a sucker born every minute.) In 1882 the circus bought Jumbo, the largest elephant in the world, from the London Zoo. Jumbo became a star attraction before dying in a train accident in 1885. Two years later Barnum and Bailey had a falling out over how the circus should be managed, and Barnum toured temporarily with Adam Forepaughs circus. However, the two showmen reconciled their differences, and in October 1887 Barnum agreed to give Bailey control of the show and to add his name for the first time to the title of the circus. Beginning in 1888 it was officially called Barnum & Baileys Greatest Show on Earth. When Barnum died in April 1891, Barnum & ?ailey had sixty-five railroad cars, making it the largest show in the nation traveling by rail. Bailey continued to tour following his partners demise, but he had to contend with the five Ringling brothersAlbert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John who had formed a circus in 1884. Bailey took his circus on a five-year tour of Europe in 1897. When Bailey died in 1906, his widow sold the show to Ringling Brothers Circus.


Charles Sherwood Stratton was a midger born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1838 (his parents were of normal height). Until he was in his teens, he was only two feet, one inch tall and weighed about fifteen pounds; at maturity he was three feet, four inches tall and weighed about seventy pounds. He joined P.T. Barnums muswum at the age of five. Barnum quickly advetrtised him as General Tom Thumb the smallest human being ever born. (Barnum observed that Americans had a fancy for European exotics and so named Stratton after Sir Thomas, one of King Arthurs Knights.) In 1844 the showman took him to Europe where he entertained royalty and caused a sensation. Stratton toured the United States (1847-1852) and then went into semiretirement. He married Mercy Lavinia Warren Bumpus, another midget, in 1863; their one child, a daughter, died young. By the time of his death in 1883, he had squandered the fortune he had made. In addition to Jumbo the elephant, Stratton was one of Barnums two most famous attractions.

Source: Marian Murray, Circus: From Rome to Ringling (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1956).


John Culhane, The American Circus: An Illustrated History (New York: Holt, 1990);

LaVahn G. Hoh and William H. Rough, Step Right Up!: The Adventure of Circus in America (White Hall, Va.: Betterway, 1990).