Friday, August 28, 2009

Barnum's Circus Visits Middleborough, 1871

On June 7, 1871, Middleborough witnessed what was undoubtedly one of the largest and most unusual spectacles ever seen in the community – the arrival and performance of P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome in town.

The appearance of such a circus in a town like Middleborough created an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation little experienced today.
The advent of a circus or menagerie into a country town creates the greatest excitement among the citizens, and the day becomes a gala one, like unto the fourth of July or other national holidays. Business is suspended during the hours of exhibition, and the inhabitants give themselves up to recreation. People residing in the suburbs pour into the town in vehicles of every shape, while many perform the journey on foot. Unless the village schools grant their pupils a holiday the attendance is very light, as the boys will see the circus even if they play truant and crawl under the canvas so to do. [New York Clipper, "Circuses. The Tenting Season of '71", April 8, 1871].

The cause of such excitement was born in 1871, at Delavan, Wisconsin, when P. T. Barnum with William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello formed “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”. Barnum’s was the largest circus yet seen in America, a deliberate objective of the famous showman who wanted the operation to be on an enormous size. "We ought to have a big show. The public expects it, and will appreciate it," Barnum rightfully believed. While in its first year of operation (and when it came to Middleborough), the Barnum circus traveled by wagon, but the following year it would become the first circus to travel by train. Based upon its immediate success and incomparable size, within a few years the Barnum circus was billing itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, ultimately merging with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson’s circus in 1881.

The 1871 Barnum circus in Middleborough was highly advertised locally, including in the pages of the Plymouth Old Colony Memorial, seemingly the sole advertisement from the event which has survived:

Coming. P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome. – This Is the title of a Mammoth Show, which only the prince of showmen, P. T. Barnum, Esq., can organize and effectually keep on its legs. Having been out of the menagerie arena for so long a time, Mr. Barnum has had ample time to select the very best of everything, and his name alone ought to be sufficient guarantee that the exhibition he manages is first-class. In the course of a few days the “advance guard” of this monster exhibition, will arrive in town, to make arrangements for performing here. This grand traveling Museum and Circus combined, consists of seventy-five wagons; two hundred horses; one hundred and seventy-five people. Three mammoth tents, each larger than those used by any circus company, are required o accommodate this monster show. All to be seen for ONE price of admission. With all the energy and unlimited means possessed by Mr. Barnum, it required three years to organize this monster show – which will exhibit during the Spring and Summer throughout the Eastern and Middle States.
At Middleboro’, June 7th. At Plymouth, June 8th.
[Old Colony Memorial, "Coming. P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome", May 18, 1871, p.2]

The atmosphere of feverish activity among the circus folk and intense anticipation on that of Middleborough and Lakeville residents was almost as entertaining as the show itself as residents gathered to watch the carefully orchestrated preparations carried out by the circus crew. It’s not recorded where the Barnum circus established its temporary home in Middleborough. While the site of a large field near Depot Grove at Everett Square was used by later circuses, Barnum’s may have, in fact, such up operations in the large fields on the south side of South Main Street near present-day Mayflower Avenue. Wherever the grounds were, the circus was no doubt met with enormous crowds as its wagon train paraded through town, and numerous spectators gathered to watch the raising of the three enormous tents with their towering poles, bewildering network of guy wires and acres of canvas. The entire arrival and set-up process was well characterized in an article published at the time in the New York Clipper:

When the day of exhibition arrives, for all the work above named has been accomplished some ten days or more in advance, the show starts at an early hour in the morning, in a procession, with the wagons arranged in the proper order; those that are first required, leading the van. The most rigorous discipline is here maintained, as every wagon must come upon the ground in precise order, place and time, so that there may be no confusion or delay. On arriving at the outskirts of the village, a halt is made, the wagons containing the tent, poles and other necessary apparatus proceed to the lot where the exhibition is to take place, and the remaining wagons are prepared for the grand procession or street parade; the glittering costumes are donned, the banners unfurled, the musicians are ready with their instruments in the chariot, and when all is prepared the procession moves through the principal streets to the place of exhibition and is there disbanded. The tent is so quickly raised that it almost seems like magic, but it is simply the result of perfect discipline. Under the direction of the boss canvas man, every man takes his assigned position; he has but little to do, but that must be perfectly done and at the proper moment. After the grounds are prepared for the coming exhibition, all hands partake of the noontide meal. Then comes the afternoon performance, at the close of which supper follows and an hour or two of rest. Then the evening exhibition takes place, and the moment it is over work again commences. The tents are struck, and every thing loaded into its proper wagon. The performers and workmen then partake of what is called breakfast, and the entire show starts upon its journey to the next town, traveling all night, a journey sometimes of thirty or forty miles, while, on the next and succeeding days, the same routine is gone through for a period of about twenty-eight weeks. Sunday is a day of rest, the route being generally so arranged that no travel is necessary until near midnight of that day. Upon the arrival in each town an attache, called the "layer out," assigns the rooms in the hotels to the various performers and employees. The treasurer, besides selling tickets and counting his receipts, pays the orders upon the treasury, which the agents in advance have left in payment of bills. [New York Clipper, op cit.]

The 1871 circus was highly anticipated, and given the scope of Barnum’s, the event was eagerly greeted by curious residents waiting to see the marvels on display. The name of Barnum’s circus, though long-winded, was indicative of exactly what visitors could be expected to see. The “museum” occupied one tent and was the fore-runner of the modern side show with physical curiosities such as little people, and the bearded lady. The “menagerie” featured a long list of animals, both strange and wonderful, while the “hippodrome” housed the main circus acts such as bareback riders and trapeze acts. Not missing a turn, Barnum also billed the “caravan” as part of the act as it assuredly was, the long line of wagon trains passing throughout the countryside a spectacle in and of itself.
What Middleborough residents enjoyed that day is fairly well documented as the Barnum circus was described in advance of its Middleborough visit in detail in the pages of the New York Clipper on April 8, 1871:

This immense combination, its first appearance on the road, is fully described in all its departments, as follows: Officers - P. T. Barnum, Proprietor; W. C. Coup, Manager; Ed. Buckley, Assistant; Dan Castello, Director of Hippodrome; J. J. Justice, Contracting Agent; W. C. Crum, Editor of Publications; J. N. Genin, Treasurer; J. L. Hutchinson, Barnum's Book Agent; W. B. Harrison, Expositor of Living Curiosities and Superintendent of Museum Department; W. L. Jukes, Automaton Mechanician and Superintendent of Statuary; D. K. Black, Assistant; Mons. Trepalier, Taxidermist; Prof. Allenshaw, Leader of Band; Dr. A. C. Berry, Veterinary Surgeon; Albemarie Wellington, Master of Horse; Joseph Baker, Master of Museum Pavilion; Geo. McDonald, Master of Menagerie; Thomas Marshall, Master of Hippodrome; Prof. Chas. White, Dominant Hero of Wild Beasts, assisted by Abdul Zid, Keri Shishak and Lial Zaldad, from the Zoological Gardens of King Theodorus of Abyssinia (the last three named, descendants from Ishael, assisted in the capture, and superintended the shipment of the great cargo of living wild animals recently imported from Asia and South Africa, and will themselves constitute no inconsiderable feature of the Great Exhibiton. The bareback riders and Equestrienne, embracing many well known in the profession, and many who will make their American debut with this show are: Pauline Hindley, Mrs. Dan Castello, Caroltta La Vinci, Maria Celeste Garnier, the Marion Sister, William Dutton, Master Dan Castello, Geo. North, Alexander Bliss and Chas. Simpson. Gynmasts, Leapers, Tumblers and Acrobats. Messrs. Burnell Runnells and two sons, Hawley and Miacco, English, Smith, Cook, Hastings, Cavendish, Fitzgerald, Don Biovanni, Pennington, Shuleberger, Horace and Vincent - all first class English, French, German and Italian artists, secured by special contract expressly for this establishment by Mr. Barnum's agents in Europe. Clowns. Messrs. Dan Castello, W. Wallett and Julien Forester. Trick Horses.
"Senator." Ponies. "Tom Thumb," "Commodore Nutt," and "Admiral Dot." Trick Mules. "Artemus" and "Timothy." Number of men employed, 250; number of horses 245; number of wagons, carriages, cages, chariots and dens, 95; cages in Menagerie, Museum, &c., 35. Animals. Elephants, Rhinoceros, Eland, Gnu, Impfooo, Nylghau, White Camels, ten Arabian Camels and Dromedaries, two Asiatic Yaks, Horned Horse, Royal Abyssinian Lions, from the Zoological Gardens of King Theodorus - the largest and most magnificent specimens ever seen in captivity - Bengal Tigers, Gold Spotted Leopard. Among the collection is a beautiful black Leopard, the second ever seen in the United States, and the first one for more than twenty years - Panthers, Pumas, Cougars, Jaguars, pair of Zebras (trained to harness), two Giant Kangaroos, one of them eight feet high; two Black Varks or Abyssinian Wart Hogs, first and only ones ever imported; Egyptian Crocodiles and Alligators, Sea Lions, Walrus, White Polar Bears, Borean Sun Bears, Rocky Mountain Sheep. Anacondas and Boa Constrictors, twenty feet long. Apes, Monkeys, Baboons, and a long list of minor animals, besides endless numbers of birds of the rarest plumage from all parts of the earth, among which are Ostrich and Cassowary of gigantic proportions. In addition to this list of animals, &c., another cargo of rare animals is expected early in May with Malayan Tapirs, Hippopotami, Giraffes, White Elephants, a White Rhinoceros, and many other marvelous animals. This Mammoth Exhibition is composed of three separate and distinct departments, viz.: Museum, Menagerie and Hippodrome; all absolute, legitimate and complete in their several appointments, requiring three colossal tents, and three sets of men, so admirably arranged that a single ticket will secure admission to the three great shows. In the Museum Department, among the numerous curiosities, may be found the following - Admiral Dot, the renowned California dwarf; the French Giant, 8 feet 2 inches high; Miss Annie Leak, the young lady born without arms; the Infant Esau, or Bearded Child, a little girl five years old, and literally covered with hair several inches long; the life sized figures representing the Eucharist or Last Supper; the Automation Trumpeter, a marvel of mechanical skill; . . . automaton life size figures of the Sleeping Beauty, Dying Zouave, Drummer, etc.; Museum of Natural History; Curiosities from the Red Sea and the Holy Land; Monkey Violinist; Siamese Twins and Automaton Musicians; Automaton Lady Bell Ringers; a section of bark from the big tree in California; Japanese, Chinese, Esquimaux and Feejee curiosities; the Happy Family and Egyptian Mummy, 3,000 years old; Mechanical Singing Birds; . . . life sized figures of King William, Von Moltke, Bismark, Prince Charles, Napoleon III and Charles Dickens; "Tinseled Eden of the Fairies" and "Garden of Hesperides;" prize articles of patch-work and darning from Old Brewery Mission; Magic Looking Glasses; jaw bones and teeth of an Arctic whale, etc.; Digger Indians from the Yosemite Valley, California, besides many other curiosities not mentioned above. The wagons, carriages, cages, chariots and dens, which have been made on this side of the Atlantic, are all new, of the most exquisite workmanship and finish, no two being of the same color or design, while the massive and gorgeously decorated telescopic golden chariots, forty feet high, made in the city of London, Eng., will also appear in the street pageant. There will also be presented, for the first time, to public gaze on this continent, six royal chariots, mounted by golden Elephants, Lions and Tigers, with transparent crystal dens, in which will be seen monstrous reptile 20 feet long, handled and performed during the procession by the great snake charmer from South Africa. Abdul Zanid, presenting one of the most startling and sensational street exhibitions ever witnessed. This triune exhibition opens in Brooklyn for one week, April 10th, remains in the vicinity of New York three weeks, thence eastward the star of empire takes its way. Proprietor of Side Show - George W. Coup, who has engaged John H. and Mary J. Powers, whose combined weight amounts to 1,267 pounds.
[New York Clipper, op cit.]

Admission to the show was fifty cents. There is no record regarding the attendance that day, though it was likely enormous. Later in the month when the circus performed at Boston, demand for admittance was so high that a morning show had to be added. “We are authoritatively informed that the attendance at the first day's exhibition was never less than 5,000, while at the other performances people were turned from the doors, daily and nightly.” [New York Clipper, "Circuses", June 24, 1871, p. 95.]

The event attracted reputable people from many surrounding communities, as well as apparently a less savory element of pickpockets and petty thieves. The Old Colony Memorial reported on June 22, 1871, that “at Barnum’s menagerie at Middleboro’, last week, Seth Miller, Esq., of Wareham, hasd his pocket relieved by light fingers. They obtained thirteen cents. Squire Miller is too old a lawyer to be caught in that trap.” [Old Colony Memorial, "Middleboro'.", June 22, 1871,p. 2].

While other circuses would later perform in Middleborough, none would ever match the size or appeal of the original Barnum circus in 1871.

Barnum & Bailey circus poster, no date.
While the Barnum & Bailey merger occurred ten years following the Barnum circus' appearance in Middleborough, the "Greatest Show on Earth" title was just a few years off. The size and scope of Barnum's Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome warranted the descriptor which it has since retained. The menacing Bengal tiger on the poster reflects the inclusion of the menagerie in Barnum's early circus, and those seen in Middleborough in 1871 were possibly the first of these animals to be seen by local residents.

Barnum & Bailey poster, late 19th century.
The poster depicts an aging B. T. Barnum and his later partner, James A. Bailey.
Harper's Weekly, "The Circus Coming Into Town", October 4, 1873, hand-colored engraving.
The cover depicts the crowds and excitement which attended the arrival of the circus in small towns like Middleborough, as well as the outlandish costumes and decorated caravans of the circus itself.
P. T. Barnum, photograph, c. 1870s
Barnum about the time of his formation of the Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome.
Trapeze Artists, hand-colored engraving, late 19th century.
The engraving depicts typical trapeze acts as performed by circus acts in the late 19th century.
Admiral Dot, carte de visite, E. and H. T. Anthony, New York, c. 1872.
Dot (1858-1918) was born Lewis Kahn in San Francisco, California. Discovered by Barnum and renamed Admiral Dot, Kahn became a prominent attraction in Barnum's circus, and was billed as a rival (in height at least) of General Tom Thumb,

Sources and Further Reading:

Barnum, P. T. Art of Money Getting, or, Golden Rules for Making Money. Originally published 1880. Reprint ed., Bedford, MA: Applewood, 1999.

Barnum, P. T. Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Originally published 1869. Reprint ed., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003.

Barnum, P. T. The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader: Nothing Else Like It in the Universe. James W. Cook, editor. Champaign, IL: Univeristy of Illinois Press, 2005.

Barnum, P. T. The Life of P.T. Barnum: Written By Himself. Originally published 1855. Reprint ed., Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., et al. P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

New York Clipper, "Circuses. The Tenting Season of '71", April 8, 1871; "Circuses", June 24, 1871, p. 95.

Old Colony Memorial, "Coming. P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome", May 18, 1871, p. 2; "Middleboro'.", June 22, 1871, p. 2.


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