10 May 2021

Birth of the American Circus

Until recently, the arrival of the circus meant Spring was upon us. Unfortunately, the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus has ceased to exist as of May 21, 2017. After 146 years, The Greatest Show on Earth folded owing to poor ticket sales and pressure from animal rights groups.  Let’s go back and learn how the origin of the American circus is linked to this area, to the towns of Somers and Southeast in particular.

The first circus came to America in April of 1793. John Bill Rickets, an equestrian from England formed a loosely organized group of riders, acrobats, and clowns for his show, but he didn’t have animals.  The origin of the circus as we know it is vague. What we do know is, Hachaliah Bailey a farmer from Somers, New York, bought an elephant sometime between 1804 and 1808 in New York City. What we don’t know is if it was an African or Indian elephant. However, Bailey, who became known as the “Father” of the American circus, loaded his elephant “Old Bet” onto a sloop on the Hudson River and sailed for the port of Ossining.  From there, they travelled to his hometown of Somers, by night and exhibited this strange beast during the day for a fee.  Bailey’s success encouraged other area farmers to invest in more exotic and wild animals and take them on tour. Soon, big cats, bears, monkeys and zebras joined the cast. These traveling menageries eventually began using clowns and equestrians to present shows in open air circus rings.  The first circuses performed in cloth enclosures surrounding the ring to prevent a free show. John Purdy Brown, also of Somers, put up the first circus tent in 1825. Now, with a roof the show could go on if it rained.  It also kept the hot sun off spectators and performers.  The next year, Nathan Howes, a very successful circus owner from Southeast, New York pitched a 90- foot tent over his ring. This became the first “ Big Top”.  Howes owned an estate called “Stonehenge” near Brewster, New York where he kept his animals during the winter. “Clem” the bear lived there and Tom Thumb was a frequent visitor. The area called Monkeytown” had huge barns that housed his monkeys.

The 1850s rang in the golden age of the circus.  By 1852 there were more than 30 circuses touring the country. Phineas T. Barnum a native of Bethel, Connecticut introduced the freak show to the circus.  P.T. Barnum was a famous entrepreneur and successful showman. He would establish “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, & Hippodrome. It was a traveling circus and museum of “freaks.”  In 1881 when he merged with James A. Bailey, (distant cousin of Hachaliah) he changed the name to Barnum & Bailey Circus.  In 1907 the Ringling brothers of Wisconsin, owners of 30 circuses, purchased the circus from James A. Bailey’s widow.  P.T. Barnum had died some years prior.  In 1919 they merged to create, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus continued on for many decades until the final night in May of 2017.

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