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Circus Day

On June 11, 1999, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus crept into Austin, Texas, at dusk. Arriving at a downtown rail yard on that still, sultry evening, the circus quietly conveyed its animal stock to the nearby show site without any announcement to the public, in order to avoid traffic, insurance hassles, and most important, confrontations with animal rights activists. The circus had been advertised in the local newspaper and on television, but the media paid little attention to its actual presence during its two-day stint. The Austin American-Statesman contained only one blurb about the circus, sandwiched next to a notice about a local traffic death: "Elephant dung for the taking: Bring your own shovel and a bucket today if you want to scoop up manure from the elephants owned by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus." The circus performed four times at the Erwin Center, an expansive, air-conditioned indoor arena at the University of Texas. In the blinding heat and sunshine, parents with small children streamed to the show from adjacent parking lots, grateful to enter the climate-controlled cool surrounding the circus. Meanwhile, the hustle and bustle of community life and commerce continued outside uninterrupted.

Yet a hundred years earlier, a large railroad circus shut a town down. Months before, people knew that it was coming: scores of "advance men" and billposters had already plastered all over dull barns, storefronts, and saloons thousands of vivid lithographs of wild animals and scantily clad performers emblazoned in splashes of peacock blue, orange, molten red, yellow, grass green, plum, and gold to advertise the upcoming show. In 1892 Adam Forepaugh's circus, for one, announced its impending presence in Philadelphia by mummifying an eight-story building with 4,938 lithographs, in addition to pasting thousands of other posters around the city. In detail, local newspapers eagerly chronicled the circus's movement, along with complete information about its arrival time.

On "Circus Day" (as it was called in newspapers, memoirs, and show programs across the nation), shops closed their doors, schools canceled classes, and factories shut down. In 1907 the Board of Education in Bridgeport, Connecticut, voted to close the schools on Circus Day, and children in Paterson, New Jersey, successfully lobbied school authorities to dismiss classes. When the Adam Forepaugh circus arrived in South Bend, Indiana, that same year, the Studebaker Wagon Works locked its doors so that its seven thousand employees could see the program. Special trains offering discounted "excursion" fares transported rural circus-goers living within a fifty-mile radius of the show grounds. Roads became thick with people, horses, and wagons. A resident of Clifton, Arizona, remembered that when Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to town in 1913, some local farmers sold part of their hay and grain supply in order to take their entire families to the show. Farmers traveled by horse and wagon twenty to forty miles and spent scant cash on novelty items like popcorn, cotton candy, and pink lemonade. Known as "rubber necks" to circus workers, rural residents craned constantly to take it all in. Sherwood Anderson was mesmerized by Circus Day as a boy in Clyde, Ohio: "When a circus came to the town where Tar [Anderson] lived he got up early and went down to the grounds and saw everything, right from the start, saw the tent go up, the animals fed, everything." In 1904 a newspaper in the mill town of Ashland, Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Superior, noted the circus's impact: "All the roads brought in large train loads of people who came here to attend the circus and many people arrived last evening. All the mills on this side of the bay stopped work today noon and almost all business is at a standstill and everyone is taking the circus."

The railroad circus overwhelmed large cities as well. When Barnum & Bailey opened its annual season in New York City in 1905, the route book reported that both the matinee and evening programs on March 24 at Madison Square Garden (where the self-styled "Greatest Show on Earth" traditionally opened each year) were "big," "packed." Many others were turned away. The next day, there was an "immense crush" at the doors when huge crowds were refused entry at the already overflowing arena. The Ringling Bros. circus virtually shut down New Orleans in 1898. According to the Daily Picayune, "Last night the Ringling Bros.' Circus came near depopulating the city. It looked as if everybody had gone to the big show. If you wanted to see anybody you had only to look through the crowd, for they were all there."

On Circus Day, thousands of spectators spilled into the streets to watch the free parade. Barnum & Bailey's New York City parade in 1891 had 400 horses, 16 elephants, 1,000 circus performers, and copious animals from the menagerie. This living sensory mass of color, sound, and odor proceeded slowly down Fifth Avenue, weaving through congested Manhattan until it reached Madison Square Garden. The scene was equally grand in provincial towns. In 1904 a filmmaker captured brief, grainy images of Barnum & Bailey's parade in Waterloo, Iowa, on celluloid: thick crowds, jiggling dromedaries, zebra herds, a forty-horse hitch, a military band, intricate, gilded "cage" wagons, each housing panting feline predators, smiling, waving women dressed in gauzy, kimonolike gowns atop the elephants, and a calliope at the rear of this moving expanse. Knowing that throngs of people watched the parade from second- and third-story windows, the John Robinson circus built fancy tin roofs on its wagons (called "cottage cages") with brightly painted designs that could be viewed from above.

Long, winding lines at the ticket wagon greeted audience members who had not purchased their tickets in advance. Warren S. Patrick, treasurer of the Walter L. Main circus, remarked that selling 8,000 to 9,000 tickets in forty minutes (approximately 1,000 others had been sold in advance) was tough on his hands. "My mental calculation is invariably right; but now and then my fingers, after a severe strain, may drop one or two [quarters], too many or too little." Inside the show grounds, crowds wandered around gawking at the enormous tented city that could stretch across ten acres. Along the noisy midway, candy "butchers" (vendors) sold lemonade, palm frond fans, sausages, and roasted peanuts. Remembering Circus Day in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, Carl Sandburg vividly recalled the midway men who beckoned audiences with "oily tongue" to play games of chance for cheap prizes: "Only ten cents for a ring and the cane you ring is the cane you get." An hour before each big-top production, masses of people gathered at the sideshow tent lined with colorful banners depicting the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the Dog-Faced Boy, and the others inside. A velvety-voiced spieler (or talker) lured patrons to part with a dime and come inside during the "blow off," a tantalizing outdoor display of seminude women flexing their muscles, a "living picture gallery" tattoo artist, or perhaps a rousing rendition of skin snapping by the Elastic Skin Man. During the "blow off," some spielers even quietly intimated that audiences might see nude women at the adjacent "Gentlemen Only" "cooch" show.

Once inside the menagerie tent attached to the big top, spectators saw big cats and bears lounge, eat chunks of meat, and pace in their cages, while llamas, giraffes, educated pigs, horses, chimpanzees, and peacocks fidgeted nearby. The lively strains of the brass circus band—including operatic selections, marches, and plantation melodies—told the milling audience members that it was time to head inside the big top for the main program. Candy butchers shouted and scurried around the cavernous big top, a massive canvas space propped aloft by huge poles and ropes that could hold over 10,000 people. A grand, paradelike entry processional of animals and performers marked the start of the main program. Approximately twenty to twenty-five other acts followed. An international constellation of players worked simultaneously on three rings and two stages. At a typical Ringling Bros. show, performers heralded from twenty-two countries, including Persia, Japan, and Italy; fifty clowns cavorted around the serious acts in vignettes of intentional chaos. The athletic prowess of these sleek, muscular bodies was startling. As a boy in rural Iowa, the writer Hamlin Garland observed that "the stark majesty of the acrobats subdued us into silent worship." Mark Twain's Huck Finn echoed this sentiment as he solemnly watched big-top feats in a small Arkansas community: "It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely ... the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight ... and every lady's rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol." The big-top program ended with a series of rousing horse races on the arena's outer hippodrome track.

The mammoth circus audience was also part of the spectacle, as thousands of "strangers" from around a county streamed into town. Big cities overflowed. Provincial communities became temporary cities, complete with anonymous, pushing crowds. Fred Roys of New York compared the religious revivals of his youth to Circus Day. "Them religious revivals they used to have ... they was great doin's. When I was a kid we used to look forward to 'em like we did the circus. Sometimes they was as good as a circus." Newspapers focused on the crowd as a defining element of Circus Day. In 1890 one journalist described the "show" of nearly ten thousand people from around a county filing into Barnum & Bailey's big top: "It was the biggest crowd of people ever in one tent in the city. A great sea of faces stretched out in every direction, representing all of the country thirty miles around. To see so many people was the best part of the 'performance.'" Newspapers provided detailed lists of trains bringing specific numbers of people from outlying communities to the circus.

Yet the sheer physical presence of a circus and its swirling masses was often bewildering. When Ringling Bros. played at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on a steamy summer day in 1894, the huge throng became confused: "Pandemonium reigned and it seemed as if everybody was panic stricken. Families were parted, children screamingly hunted for parents, and parents distractedly hunted for children. Almost everyone was drenched to the skin and many a toilet was hopelessly ruined. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage to the property little or nothing."

Furthermore, the thousands of patrons tightly packed under the canvas tents were vulnerable in bad weather. The "blow down," or severe storm, was common. At Adam Forepaugh's 1893 date in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, audience members were trapped under the heavy big top after a gale force wind collapsed the tent. That same summer, in River Falls, Wisconsin, seven people were killed after lighting struck one of the center poles at the Ringling Bros. circus. When a windstorm "swayed and rocked" the big top at the Ringling Bros.' stint in Sherman, Texas, in 1900, spectators were so jittery that many of the more than 10,000 there "made a wild rush to get out." Tornadoes, hail, wind storms, torrential rain, and knee-deep mud were some of the weather hazards that could abruptly end the program. But these attendant weather-related dangers were also part of the jarring excitement on Circus Day.

This diverse, elephantine community disruption otherwise known as Circus Day reached its peak at a turbulent historical moment. In 1903 ninety-eight circuses and menageries — the highest number in U.S. history — traveled the nation. At least thirty-eight of these rumbled by rail, and several journeyed coast to coast in a single season.

The railroad circus represented a "human menagerie" (a term popularized by P. T. Barnum) of racial diversity, gender difference, bodily variety, animalized human beings, and humanized animals that audiences were unlikely to see anywhere else. Little wagon circuses traveled regionally, primarily in rural areas, while the biggest railroad outfits (possessing over fifty railroad cars) such as Barnum & Bailey, the Ringling Bros., and Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers bridged rural and urban, roaring across the entire nation in a single season. These railroad circuses frequently employed over 1,000 people and hundreds of animals. Railroad Wild West shows as part of the circus because both amusements took place in an arena surrounded by an audience, were financed by the same investors (James A. Bailey, for one), had a similar division of labor, and overlapped considerably in their content at the turn of the century: some Wild West shows had a sideshow, and many circuses featured Wild West acts with "cowboys" and Native Americans. In addition, Wild West shows had trick riding acts that strongly resembled circus stunts, and contained an international conglomeration of talent, including acrobats.

But there were important differences between the circus and Wild West shows. Unlike the circus, Wild West shows generally took place in an open air arena (usually a baseball field, a racetrack, or a driving park) because an errant spray of lead from the shooting acts could shred a circus big top. Only the grandstand was covered by canvas. And, as the historian Joy Kasson contends, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was always obsessed with realism in his efforts to create an "authentic" popular portrait of the nation's frontier past and present, even though he did so through myth and melodrama. Circus impresarios, on the other hand, aimed to amuse, tantalize, educate, and perplex their audiences with a jarring mix of the real—"genuine" exotic human and animal acts—and the pointedly unnatural—educated dogs, boxing elephants, or human "iron jaw" acts in which performers dangled from the heights by their teeth.

No other amusement saturated consumers like the circus at the turn of the century. Neither vaudeville, movies, amusement parks, nor dance halls equaled the circus's immediate physical presence—that is to say, towns did not shut down in their midst. These popular forms were integrated into local economies and local systems of surveillance, while the railroad circus was an ephemeral community ritual invading from without. Contemporary international expositions capitalized on the public's fascination with distant cultures through ethnological village displays along the midway, but one had to travel to a large city such as Chicago, Atlanta, Omaha, Buffalo, or St. Louis in order to experience a world's fair. The traveling circus, in contrast, came to one's doorstep. Disconnected from daily life, the nomadic circus had a distance from community ties that enhanced its ability to serve as a national and even international popular form, because American railroad shows traveled overseas. Adeline Blakeley, an ex-slave, identified the railroad circus as a national popular form while telling her life story to an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project: "I remember once Barnum & Bailey were coming to Fort Smith [Arkansas]. We were going down ... but Bud [her employer's child] got sick and we couldn't go. When Helen [her employer at the turn of the century] and I went to California, we all saw the same circus together ... There we were ... seeing the show we had planned to see way back in Arkansas."

Janet M. Davis. The Circus Age. Culture and Society under the American Big Top. Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters

On July 6, 1944, the Big Top suddenly caught fire at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut. This inferno killed 169 people, mostly women and children, and injured more than 550 others.Henry S. Cohn and David Bollier tell the story of this catastrophic circus fire and its remarkable legal aftermath.




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