the circus in america -- 7/10/20

Today's selection -- from Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. The history of the circus in America, with the very first attended by George Washington himself:

"'Following the White Tops' was the phrase describing people who were with the circus. The first equestrian display dubbed a 'circus' in the United States was held in 1793 in Philadelphia, and one of the impressed patrons was President George Washington. By the 1860s, there were as many as two dozen or more large companies crisscrossing the United States and the western territories. Most of them set off in the spring, worked their way north and west through the summer, retreated south in the fall, and spent the winter resting up and preparing for the next season. The circus was also known as a 'wagon show' because the nomadic troupes traveled in wooden wagons, and some of them were transformed into stages featuring performers who did not require much space. With the so-called freak shows, for example, the 'acts' simply had to sit or stand on a platform and be ogled by amused or horrified patrons.

"In 1871, there were twenty-six such traveling shows active in America. They included John Robinson's Circus, Menagerie, and Museum; Frederic H. Bailey's Circus and Menagerie; P. T. Barnum's Circus, Menagerie, and Museum; Mrs. Agnes Lake's Hippo-Olympiad and Mammoth Circus; and Adam Forepaugh's Circus and Menagerie. Many of the owners and managers and performers had worked for or with one another in previous circus incarnations. While inevitably there were rivalries and competitive conflicts, circus people were something of a society unto themselves.

"Gil Robinson, a third-generation circus proprietor, remarked in his memoir Old Wagon Show Days that 'circus people fairly earned the association of roughness which has always clung to them. But they were not a rude lot; under the skin they were, and have always remained, gentle and tender-hearted.' One example he pointed to was that when a traveling show came to a town 'where a circus man of any prominence is buried, memorial services are held at his grave between the matinee and the night show. Every trouper with the show attends, as well as a large number of the citizens of the town, who are attracted by the rather [strong] display of sentiment.'

"Many of the circuses were alike in having riding exhibitions, trampoline and trapeze acrobats, lion and tiger tamers, freak shows, elephants and hippos, fire-eaters, and of course clowns. The most prominent clown of the nineteenth century was Dan Rice. He joined the Robinson family's show in 1840 and traveled with its extended branches for fifty-three years. At the peak of his career, he earned one thousand dollars a week and thus was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the country.

"The occupation the Robinsons, the Lakes, and vigorous entrepreneurs like Barnum and Bailey chose was often not a comfortable one, especially for the everyday performers who often doubled as the road crew. They did not eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels. They made camp on the outskirts of towns, ate what was cooked over open fires, and slept in or under their wagons. Only the worst weather stopped them, because if there was no show, there was no income. Treacherous and just plain poor traveling conditions had to be overcome. In the South, for example, for years after the Civil War, Gil Robinson recalled, 'it was necessary to send out a brigade of workmen with pickaxes and shovels to repair the highways before it was possible for the show to move.' Where bridges had been destroyed and not replaced, the traveling shows had to figure out ways to ford streams and rivers, which could involve 'the use of block and tackle.'

"The expansion of the railroads west meant fewer long wagon trains and new opportunities. As settlements grew, so, too, did the potential audiences, especially in areas that had few if any forms of entertainment other than singing and dancing girls in saloons, places not frequented by women and children. The wagon shows working their way west could cover thousands of miles in long, circuitous routes in a single season. They usually found grateful audiences. According to Linda A. Fisher and Carrie Bowers, in their biography of [famed circus performer and owner] Agnes Lake, 'The performances, however brief, gave isolated communities a break from the monotony of pioneer life and fueled the imaginations of individuals far from America's bustling cities.'"



Tom Clavin


Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2019 by Tom Clavin


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