There is a long, brutal history behind the circus. One look at the hideous, powdery artificial visage of a circus clown and you know that deep down in your nightmare heart. The classic circus that we know today has its roots in English horse riding exhibitions – people doing fancy tricks on horses. It could be said that the circus as we know it today was built on the backs of animals. It could be said that it was Philip Astley who laid the first brick.

Phillip Astley

Astley established the first circus, which was located just outside of London in 1768. He had been an accomplished cavalryman in the British Army and later established a riding academy where he would stage equestrian shows. The shows quickly grew in popularity.  He began to hold them in a large wooden structure. The shows became more elaborate. The riding exhibition started to include trick riding, acrobatics, a strongman display and of course, the most hideous thing of all – a clown.

dreadedclown

All the action would take place around a single equestrian ring. He had unknowingly put together all the basic elements of the circus, though Astley himself never called it a circus. The word circus just means, circle or ring and has little or nothing to do with the Roman circuses of antiquity, which were primarily used for chariot racing.

The first circus to call itself such was the Royal Circus in 1782, founded by a former equestrian rider who worked for Astley. The circus didn’t come to the United States until the 1790s, but a major component of it was already here and thriving – the traveling menagerie. In the United States, they’d been bringing wild exotic animals over to be exploited since before the nation’s birth.

astleys_ampitheater_in_london

There were many equestrian exhibits along the East Coast at the time. They decided to display a lion at one of them way back in 1716. Then they started bringing over camels and polar bears. But the public’s thirst for blood and spectacle is never quenched. There just had to be something else, something like an elephant.

Old Bet

A farmer from Somers, New York, called Hackaliah Bailey bought a female African elephant from his brother, who was a sea captain. His brother had bought the elephant at an auction in London. Bailey called the elephant Old Bet and exhibited her for a fee. When other farmers started to see Bailey making a profit, they began to collect their own exotic animals for their own traveling exhibitions. A terrible traveling menagerie craze had begun in earnest.

An advertisement for Old Bet

Old Bet was pointlessly shot to death while being exhibited in Maine in 1816. Some said it was because the shooter had heard elephants were bullet proof and wanted to see if that were true. Some said it was because Bailey didn’t want to keep the cost of maintaining the elephant. After all, it would be cheaper to have her killed and exhibit her stuffed carcass, so that’s just what he did. He had Old Bet stuffed and preserved. This would go on to be a common thing with dead elephants throughout the century and into the next one.

First true circus

Then the circus came to town. An English equestrian rider called John Bill Rickets brought the circus to America on April 3rd 1793. He added some poor acrobats and tight rope walkers to the ring, in there with the dreaded nightmare clowns. Rickets was lost at sea in 1800 after suffering a shipwreck on his way to England. This was probably because he got too close to the clowns, who must surely have shown them the essence of true evil and was subsequently drowned. They all float down there.

Despite his short life, his horrifically tragic circus had proven popular around the East Coast urban centers. Despite its awfulness, or perhaps because of it, the American circus had been born. For over twenty years after the death of John Rickets, going to the circus meant going to see a small traveling troupe of acrobats and other performers and equestrians with a lone clown, going from hamlet to hamlet in wagons that would get stuck in the mud. The clown would lead the procession and head out into town earlier than the rest to stir up some hype and generally freak everyone out. Everyone was filthy all the time. Everyone was diseased. Still, they came out and watched this thing.

At this time, the touring entertainment was either a traveling menagerie or a troupe of circus-type performers like acrobats, jugglers, riders and clowns. Then a third type began to emerge when the menagerie joined the circus in the 1830s and the world got noisy.

A deep history of cruelty

In 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh, an animal handler from New York, dressed up like a Roman gladiator and stepped into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a panther and a leopard. This is widely accepted as the first big cat animal act. Van Amburgh was a terrible human being and would go on to set the standard for the animal trainers of his day. His whole act was about displaying his domination over the animals by beating them with a crowbar and thrusting his arm into their mouths.

vanamb

Even audiences of the time were shocked by the display of such blatant cruelty. He would defend his own atrociousness by claiming the Bible justified what he did and would even try to act out scenes from it, making lions lay down with lambs, even going so far as to get children from the audience in the ring with that whole mess.

He would bait the animals in order get them as angry and ferocious as possible and then beat them into submission, making lions lick his boots. He would starve the big cats and whip them furiously due to their extreme hunger when performance time came. Unfortunately, Van Amburgh was never killed by the big cats. His Menagerie would go on to tour for forty years and he would die peacefully in bed, because everything just kind of sucks sometimes and perhaps there is no such thing as karmic justice after all.

P.T. Barnum

The lines between equestrian circus and menagerie blurred and merged into one after a while. As the itinerary of these traveling shows spread, popularity grew. Instead of having the shows in a special hall, massive tents would be posted up on the outskirts of town for them to be held in, under the “big top.”

These new shows were more centered on acrobatics, juggling, and animal displays rather than the equestrian stunts. But the clown would remain, the clown of course being the universal symbol of all evil in the universe. The clown must stay. The clown will always stay. Soon, the biggest clown of them all would arrive on the scene and the circus would never be the same again.

P.T. Barnum was a huckster who came to New York City in the 1830s to display a woman whom he claimed was 161 years old. When he was later found out to be completely full of shit, he shrugged it off. He knew he was full of shit and soon found that people were willing to believe just about anything. They’re mostly all full of shit themselves, you know.

ibarnum001p1

PT Barnum

He opened Barnum’s American Museum in the fall of 1841, but it was no museum. It was an arcade of exploitation –  a mish-mash of assorted trashiness and all-around depressing bullshit. Remember, this is 1841, people are bored and they need something to do, anything.  Anything to get their mind off of burying their baby who just died of cholera in the middle of the night.

This stupid museum had everything – jugglers, snake charmers, glass blowers, full scale models of Paris, trained chickens, an orangutan, fake mermaids – just a bunch of junk. He went on to launch P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair in 1872. Six tents worth of red hot bullshit, inflated under the lazy sun. An uptight, dumb crowd, haunched over in amazement in the face of the cheapest of grand illusions. An orgy of noise. It was a monster that covered five acres with a freak show, a menagerie and even a hippodrome. It was the first circus to add a second ring, it was the first show to travel by rail, creating the model for the railroad circus which would go on to become a hallmark of the industry.

Believe it or not, back in the olden days people really did run away to join the circus. A guy called James A. McGinnis did just that at the age of 13. He went on to change his name to James A. Bailey and founded his own circus in 1873. Bailey’s circus became wildly successful, rivaling Barnum’s monstrosity. In a classic case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he merged with Barnum in 1881. In 1882, a third ring was added and the show was given the name, Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. 

That name has gone on to carry a lot of weight through the years and means many different things to many different people. Throughout those years, the success of the circus would come to rely more and more on a concept that was wholly new at the time – the animal celebrity. In the next piece, I will examine the lives of two such animal celebrities, as well as their equally tragic fates. Sometimes I find history to be like visiting another dimension, especially when dealing with this kind of thing. I forces me to sit in bewildered astonishment at the vast absurdity of the human condition. What funny little things we are. What a circus we create.

References:

Eckley, Wilton. The American Circus. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Print.

http://www.history-magazine.com/circuses.html

http://www.circusinamerica.org/public/timelines?date1=1801&date2=1824

http://www.circopedia.org/SHORT_HISTORY_OF_THE_CIRCUS

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About Ryan Fabian

Writer and personal trainer from New England, currently based out of Los Angeles.

Latest Posts By Ryan Fabian

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animal rights, circus, History, History of the Circus, Ryan Fabian, Terrifying World

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