The Haunted Circus - History of the Circus
(Intro) Welcome to this, our first episode of a four episode mini-series on the Haunted Circus. HGB has never done anything like this before. We've never even produced a two-part episode. We have gathered so much research and audio to share with you that if we didn't go with a mini-series, we would find ourselves the Dan Carlin of haunted history. For those who don't know, Carlin produces the Hardcore History Podcast and many of those episodes run four and five hours long. Even if you don't love the circus, we think you will enjoy these episodes and they have some great haunts to go with the history we are going to share. The circus holds a special place for me. I went to the circus for my birthday every year starting when I was seven. And I joined my young niece several times as an adult. I love the circus and that is why we are doing this mini-series. This is dedicated to all the circus performers and sideshow freaks that have ever lived and who will live in the future. Thank you for your special gift to the world!
You are going to hear various voices throughout this mini-series. Debbie Fahrenbruck is a listener and she contacted us in January of 2020 with a suggestion. She thought we should look into the Al Ringling Mansion in Baraboo, Wisconsin. As her email continued with revelations that she had worked with the circus and that she had connections and that we should check out Sarasota as well, this mini-series began to take shape. As we met and interviewed people and got to tour the Ringling estate and Circus Museum here in Florida, we started to wonder how to go about organizing the mini-series, keeping in mind that we don't cover places that don't have a legend or haunt connected to them. We think what we have come up with will satisfy all of the listeners.
Nearly everyone has a memory that features the circus. Perhaps it was the first time you tried cotton candy. Or maybe the circus was the first time you saw a clown. The circus was loud and colorful, but most of all, it was magical. The animals were not in cages and they were performing tricks. Human beings could fly through the air with the greatest of ease or clamber across a thin wire. During times of turmoil, the circus was an escape and in the past when the circus came through a small town, it was like a dream. People would get to see animals in person that they may have only ever read about. Giant elephants and wild cats would parade down their main streets, heading to giant tents on the edge of town. Bright and colorful posters would decorate the town square. The circus was for everyone, regardless of class or race, whether it was as a performer, worker or guest. The circus was a beautiful show, full of energy, and some of that energy continues on in the afterlife. Join us on this first episode in the Haunted Circus Mini-series as we cover an overview of the history of the circus and discuss one of the biggest tragedies in circus history, the Hartford Circus Fire, and share the haunts connected to that event.
The circus, or some kind of performance done in a circle or ring, featuring acrobatics, amazing feats of strength, races and animals, has been around for centuries. Acrobatic performances more than likely date back to the dawn of human history. The first technical circuses would probably be the Roman Circus dating back to 500 BC and the Greek Hippodrome in 203 AD. These were nothing like the circuses to come and featured chariot races, gladiator combats and horse races. Chinese acrobats showed up around 2,000 years ago and many people in Asia would practice things like juggling, hand balancing and acrobatics for fun during the long winter months when they couldn't farm. These would all lead up to the beginning of the circus as we know it today. The person who would create the Modern Circus and be known as the "Father of the Modern Circus" was Philip Astley.
Philip Astley was born in England and he grew to love horses. He left home at the age of seventeen and joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoons where he learned to become an excellent horse rider and he started trying out tricks. He began performing shows in open fields featuring his acrobatic riding skills in 1768. The following year he opened his riding school and he popularized riding around in a circle ring that would become the standard of the circus. He didn't create this, but he did make it popular. Debbie shares about Astley. (Deb Astley) Astley also didn't use the term circus for his equestrian acts. His rival, Charles Dibdin, came up with that when he opened the Royal Circus in 1782. Astley's Amphitheater featured a platform, seats and a roof inside a wooden building and would eventually close in 1893 and be demolished. This set-up would become the standard for circuses for many years. Astley definitely seems to be the Father of the Circus.
In 1782, Astley got some competition from equestrian Charles Hughes. Hughes had worked with Astley and formed a partnership with Charles Dibdin and they opened the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. The term circus would start being used after this to refer to this new form of entertainment. The circus would spread to America with one of Hughes' students, John Bill Ricketts. (Deb Ricketts) Rickett's circus was in a wooden arena that had no roof and featured a ring that was filled with dirt and sawdust. Eight hundred people could watch the equestrian performances. After his season in Philadelphia, Ricketts moved on to New York City near the Battery. He would also start the first Canadian circus in Montréal in 1797. Ricketts spent most of his time in Philly, but he brought his circus to places throughout New England and down into Baltimore. In 1799, Ricketts' circus would come to end for the same reason as many to follow: fire. He eventually sold off his horses and was lost at sea as he sailed for England in 1802. Another British man would start a circus in America and this was equestrian Philip Lailson. In 1802, he would introduce Mexico to the circus. Up until this point, the only animals in the circus were the horses. In 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant to America and he began displaying it.
Back across the pond, the circus was being introduced to Russia in 1816 by French equestrian Jacques Tourniaire. His sons continued the circus after his death and eventually took it into China and India and eventually America. Another French equestrian Louis Soullier brought the circus to China for the first time. He would also find many Chinese acrobats to bring back to Europe to introduce new acts like plate-spinning, diabolo-juggling, hoop-diving and perch-pole
The circus that came to Brooklyn, New York on April 10, 1871, featured a big top tent with 60 performers and could seat 5,000 people. This was P.T. Barnum's Circus Museum and Menagerie, which he had started with the help of William Cameron
Coup. The museum part was an exhibition of oddities, both human and animal and would come to be known as the Sideshow. The tented circus was not how it all started for Phineas T. Barnum though. He grew up from humble beginnings and his father died when Barnum was a teenager, leaving the family destitute. Barnum was not one for manual labor, so he schemed anyway he could to make money from selling lottery tickets to being a shop clerk to selling Bibles. Now P.T. Barnum would grow to become many things and some of this is controversial today. Putting people on exhibit is not something we would do today, but for the time, Barnum was giving people who would have been tossed aside by society, a chance to be famous and make money. And many of his people would become very famous and wealthy. Barnum was a politician, writer, lecturer, intellectual, philanthropist, an entrepreneur, but most of all, a showman. In the 19th century, he was the most famous man in America.
His first venture into creating a show was buying the rights to exhibit Joice Heth, an elderly African American slave in 1835. Barnum claimed that she had been President Washington's nurse maid and that made her something like 161 years old. She was both blind and paralyzed, but this didn't stop her from making herself into an engaging "attraction." She died on February 19, 1836 and an autopsy revealed she was more likely in her eighties. This was his first attraction and would not be the first time he would use trickery to make a buck off a curious public. Barnum would redeem himself for this and the purchase of three other slaves by becoming an avowed abolitionist and he would support women's rights and People of Color's rights.
In 1841, Barnum bought Scudder's American Museum, which was located in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points. This is present day Chinatown. The name was changed to Barnum's American Museum and featured natural history collections, wax figures, a zoo, theater, museum exhibits, oddities, curiosities and a freak show. This place had everything from a Beluga Whale in an aquarium to Grizzly Adam's trained bears to the Feejee Mermaid, which is where he got his start when it came to exhibiting oddities. As we all know, it turns out that the mermaid was actually a mummified monkey's torso attached to a large fish's tail. This museum would get 15,000 visitors a day and more people visited it between 1841 and 1868 than the population of America at the time. This museum would launch the freak show, so now would be a good time to talk about its origins.
To be clear, Barnum didn't create the exhibition of oddities. Traveling fairs had exhibited sideshow attractions for hundreds of years. Barnum knew that the most popular attractions would prove to be animal and human oddities and what he did that brings him much of the credit for sideshows is made it a real show. It was all about the marketing. And obviously what we are referring to as oddities, we all know today are medical conditions. The most famous and first would be the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. They were born in Siam in 1811 and arrived in America in 1829 with a manager who took them on tour. Eventually they would leave the manager and tour on their own. They did work with Barnum and appeared at his American Museum, but he never was their manager.
The next famous sideshow act would be General Tom Thumb, who was really named Charles Stratton. He was a little person whom Barnum convinced to join his cast of sideshow freaks when he was just eleven-years-old. The two men would become lifelong friends and were actually distant cousins and Tom Thumb would begin his career in 1843, gaining so much fame that he visited with Queen Victoria three times and his wedding in 1863 became the event of the year in New York City. Thumb died at the age of 45 in 1883 and never grew taller than 2 feet, eleven inches. General Tom Thumb would just be the first of many little people to gain fame as sideshow freaks. There would be Major Mite, Harold Pyott and Anita the Living Doll. They would all come to call themselves Lilliputians and some would take on specialties like the world's smallest strong man or smallest daredevil. On the other extreme were the giants. We've talked about Robert Wadlow from Alton, Illinois on a couple of episodes. He was the world's tallest man. Famous tall sideshow acts were Patrick O’Brien the Irish Giant and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant.
There were also the bearded ladies and dog-faced boys. These people had a condition called hypertrichosis and would grow hair in excess all over the body, particularly on the face. Some of these famous ladies were Alice Bounds the Bear Lady, Annie Jones and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady. On the male side, there was Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy. There were other extremes as well with very skinny people and morbidly obese people. And if people don't think that's entertaining, why does "My 600 Pound Life" do so well on television? The freak show continues today whether we want to admit it or not. There was even one woman who took great pride in being dubbed "The Ugliest Woman in the World." Her name was Mary Ann Bevan and she developed Acromegaly in her early thirties which caused her to have facial deformities. After her husband died, sideshows became a way for her to support her family.
Tom Norman was the English counterpart to Barnum and he wrote, "You could indeed exhibit anything in those days.
Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a
bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the
tale that you told." Norman would be the final exhibitor of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. So this gives a little overview of the sideshow and as we all know, other performers would join creating acts like fire-eating, sword-swallowing and snake charming. The freak shows were clearly an essential part of the early modern circus.
So Barnum had all these sideshow acts in his museum, along with everything else and all of this would come to an abrupt end. The museum building was five stories high and would burn completely on March 3, 1868. The building a total loss and Barnum was devastated. Most people thought he would quietly retire, but two men, William C. Coup and Dan Costello, asked Barnum to join them in financing and promoting their circus. They needed his name and Barnum was happy to give it to them and jump into the traveling circus. And this is what opened in Brooklyn in 1871 as we mentioned early. After this, that circus traveled for six months throughout the Northeast and used 245 horses to pull 100 wagons.
The American Traveling Circus began in the early nineteenth century. The first man to use a full canvas tent was Joshuah Purdy Brown and he did this in 1825. A cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey was getting his start about this same time. He had an African elephant that he was touring around and he started adding other exotic animals to it, so that he had a traveling menagerie. Both Brown and Bailey were from Somers, New York and this area would launch many of the same ventures that eventually joined forces and formed the Zoological Institute, a trust that controlled thirteen menageries and three affiliated circuses. This is how many of the American circuses started. They were run by businessmen with traveling zoos. The European circuses were mainly performing families. Eventually, the American circus would be this too with circus performing running for generations in families and you'll hear more about that in future episodes.
Wild West Shows were another version of the circus in that they were traveling vaudeville performances. The first show started in 1870 with the most famous ones being hosted by Buffalo Bill Cody. These shows would continue until 1920. Performers ranged from trick riders to outlaws to shooting stars like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane to Native Americans to wild animals. Buffalo Bill's shows would tour Europe eight times as well. Other wild west shows were Texas Jack's Wild West, Bee Ho Gray's Wild West, Pawnee Bill's Wild West, Jones Bros.' Buffalo Ranch Wild West, "Buckskin Joe" Hoyt and the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which we covered in Episode 101.
Adam Forepaugh was an American entrepreneur and he was about to burst upon the circus scene in 1865. He would become a major rival to Barnum and Coup's Circus. Forepaugh started his life in poverty just like Barnum. He grew up in Philadelphia, but ran away to Ohio and got started in the livestock business. He made his fortune selling horses to the government during the Civil War and was considered an expert judge of horses. It would be a bad debt that would get Forepaugh into the circus. He sold a bunch of horses to a circus owner who did not pay the bill, so Forepaugh made a deal in which he got part ownership of the circus. (And may I just say, this Forepaugh guy had some amazing munton chops!) Forepaugh added a lot to the circus by incorporating Wild West Shows into his circus and he was the first to separate the menagerie into its own separate circus tent, so churchgoers wouldn't have to be scandalized by performances. He also was the first to hire a black elephant trainer.
Forepaugh and his partner, Pogey O'Brien, would invest in another circus and they would combine and split the circus assets up into two circuses: The Dan Rice Circus and The Great National Circus. That didn't last long and eventually Forepaugh split off taking just the Dan Rice Circus. The circus that Forepaugh ran would be the biggest rival to Barnum, but he lacked the showmanship of Barnum. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the two men would sign truces that divided up the nation between them, so that they wouldn't be trying to perform in the same places. They would combine their efforts and have their circuses perform together; however, twice. Once in Philly and once at Madison Square Gardens. By 1889, Forpaugh was done and sold the bulk of his circus to James Bailey and his railroad cars to the Ringlings.
And speaking of railroad cars, let's flip back to the 1870s again. The use of horse-drawn wagons was becoming a real issue and so William Coup talked to Barnum about using trains to move the circus. So in 1872, the circus train became a thing. Circuses up to this point had also just been one ring events and Coup added a second ring. This meant that the canvas tent was going to need to grow. So the tents grew and then more rings would be added until some circuses featured seven rings. In 1874, Coup and Barnum built the Hippodrome in New York, which would become Madison Square Garden. By 1875, Coup was done with the circus. So we just mentioned a Hachaliah Bailey who started one of the earliest American circuses with an elephant. His nephew was Frederick Bailey and James Bailey would take his surname from Frederick after the man took him under his wings when he was a teenager and made him his assistant with circus advertising. Bailey was just twenty-two in 1869 when he joined forces with James Cooper and started the Cooper and Bailey Circus. This circus would travel throughout Polynesia and down into Australia. Bailey would be the first circus showman to have electric lights on the circus grounds. He sold tickets for a tour of the generator that powered the lights and it was a main point in his advertising.
In 1881, James Bailey and P.T. Barnum became partners and started the Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth." This would be America's first three-ring circus. The show added Jumbo the Elephant in 1882 and he would be a big time attraction until he was killed when he was hit by the circus train. Barnum died of a stroke in 1891, leaving behind his second wife and two of his four daughters who were still alive. Bailey took the circus over to Europe after that and taught them how to have a traveling circus. This helped the tented circus to become a thing at the turn of the twentieth century. He returned to America in 1902 and discovered some new competition from the Ringling Brothers. They were five brothers who founded their circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1884 and they were immensely successful. They had already purchased shares of the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus at this point. Two of our episodes will be dedicated to the Ringlings, so we will discuss their personal histories later and more about their formation of their circus. Bailey died young at the age of 58 in 1906 and his widow sold the circus to The Ringlings in 1907. The Ringling Circus and the Barnum and Bailey Circus would remain separate until 1919 when they were combined to what we know today. European circuses would reach their peak between the two World Wars.
Now might be a good time to share how the circus traveled by train and
the best way to do this is to share our experience at the Circus Museum
down here in Sarasota. Virginia Harshman walked us through this immense model of
The Howard Bros. Circus, which is a ¾-inch-to-the-foot scale replica of
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus circa the 1920s. (Virginia Circus Model)
The Golden Age of the circus would belong to the Ringling Brothers. When the last Ringling Brother, John, died in 1936, his nephew John Ringling North became the director of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. Under his direction, the tented circus would come to an end in 1956 and the circus would move to venues like coliseums and stadiums that were air-conditioned. North ran the circus until 1967 and then he sold it to Israel and Irvin Feld. In 1982, Kenneth Feld took over for his father and the circus has been under his direction since then, up until its closure in May 2017. The Ringling Circus was closed after 146 years. But the circus was not done. It continues on in other forms, particularly in Europe. The Big Apple Circus started in 1977 and Guy Laliberte started Cirque du Soleil in Quebec in 1984. And...well...The Ringlings Circus is coming back too!
Hartford Circus Fire
One of the greatest tragedies of the circus occurred in 1944. This was the Hartford Circus Fire and the tragic event has left behind a residue that has fed some haunts. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had set-up their tents on the Barbour Street fairgrounds of Hartford, Connecticut. There was a keen excitement in the air, as there always was when the circus was in town. Seven hundred employees of the circus had set up the massive big top as well as all the other tents and concessions. The canvas tent could accommodate 12,000 people and was 450 feet long and 200 feet wide There were six poles supporting the tent that weighed 19 tons. Now, there were nearly eight thousand people filing into the big top to watch the performances on that hot July 6th day. There were folding chairs for reserved seats and bleachers for open sitting.
During the earlier part of the 1944 season, the circus had experienced three minor fires, which had caused no damage, nor hurt anyone. There was no reason to think that today would be a day that would bring one of the most devastating fires in American history. It really was amazing that something like this fire had not happened sooner. The big top was not fireproofed and the way that it was waterproofed made it dangerous. Sixty barrels of yellow paraffin wax were boiled and thinned with 6,000 gallons of Texaco white gasoline. This mixture was then poured from watering cans and brushed onto the surface of the top of the tent. The circus would have been able to get fireproof canvas if they had agreed to perform in military bases. The material was a war priority and so the circus could not get it without making the deal, which they did not. John Ringling North was okay with it, but his cousins were not.
To facilitate the entrance of the animals to the tent, a waist-high steel runway was used, which blocked or obstructed the exits. The first act that day was Alfred Court's lion performance and that was followed by the Great Wallendas doing their highwire act. The hobo clown, Emmett Kelly, was delighting children in the crowd. It was during the Wallendas' performance that the bandleader, Merle Evans spotted flames. He immediately started the band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, which was a signal to circus employees that there was an emergency. Several buckets of water were thrown at the flames, but they did nothing to put out the fire. The flames moved slowly at first, but a gust of wind blew them up the side of the tent and across the top. The power failed as the ringmaster, Fred Bradna, tried to tell the audience not to panic. When people started seeing flames, they panicked and rushed the exits that were blocked by animal cages and the runway. The Wallendas quickly climbed down to the ground to get to safety.
Employees grabbed knifes and sliced open the tent and started pulling children and people out and terrified parents handed their children over barriers to save them. Folding chairs upended, making it harder for people to get out. Maureen Krekian was 11 years old when she went to the circus in Hartford. She had gone all by herself and she said of the incident, "I remember somebody yelling and seeing a big ball of fire near the top of the tent. And this ball of fire just got bigger and bigger and bigger. By that time, everybody was panicking. The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. And there was a man taking kids and flinging them up and over that cage to get them out. I was sitting up in the bleachers and jumped down — I was three-quarters of the way up. You jump down and it was all straw underneath. There was a young man, a kid, and he had a pocketknife. And he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out."
Bits of burning canvas and paraffin rained down on the crowd. The scene was mass chaos. Within eight minutes of seeing the first flame, the big top collapsed, trapping anyone still inside. Hot paraffin wax burned people, while others either asphyxiated or were trampled to death. Ten minutes from the first flame and the tragedy was basically over. The fire department arrived in time to do basically nothing. The only animals in the tent were the lions and they got out with minor burns. Over 700 people suffered injuries and were taken to three different hospitals. One hundred sixty-eight people died between the fire and later that week, with half of them being children. Officials tried their best to sort out the bodies and they were carried to a nearby armory for families to identify. The work was done quickly and most bodies were removed within an hour and a half. One third of the victims had to be identified with dental charts. Flags were lowered to half-staff at the state capitol.
The circus was supposed to go to New York for its next performance, but instead went back to its winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida. Several circus personnel were brought in for questioning as officials tried to figure out what happened. In the end, they found that a discarded cigarette on some dry grass near the tent, started the flames. Citations were issued against the circus for many deficiencies, which included: location of the animal chutes, insufficiency of personnel, failure to maintain an organization to fight the fire, failure to flameproof, the location of supply wagons, lack of firefighting equipment and failure to distribute firefighting equipment. Nine circus employees would be arrested and charged with manslaughter. Seven would be found guilty and given one- year prison sentences. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey ended up paying out $4 million in claims.
Something this tragic has unsurprisingly lead to ghost stories and legends. Apparitions were reported soon after the fire at the fairgrounds. A housing project was built nearby after the fire and many residents claimed that the fairgrounds were haunted. They would hear disembodied weeping and screaming. The most terrifying images would be of flaming spirits running around. A man had recently relocated to Hartford and one night he claimed to see a boy that looked like he was burning, running past his apartment. A trail of smoke followed the boy and the man took off after him thinking that he needed help. The boy ran around a corner and when the man got there, he could find the boy nowhere. This man had not heard of the fire because he was so new to Hartford. A memorial plaque near the site also plays host to ghosts who hang around it. A school eventually replaced the apartment building and children and teachers claimed to have weird experiences that they attributed to victims of the fire.
We found another haunting connected to a circus. The Gandini Circus began in the early 1900s and had a run that ended in the mid-1930s. The circus would winter in Edmond, Oklahoma and then spend the rest of the year touring nearby states. The circus was bought by the Clyde Bros. Circus and then the Hagen Bros. Circus and then left abandoned in an empty wooded lot in Edmond, Oklahoma. It's been featured by Atlas Obscura and is already pretty creepy looking with rusted out cages, broken popcorn machines and a disintegrating bus. Locals claim that the abandoned grounds are haunted. There are tales of spirit animals in the cages and of ghost clowns wandering the grounds.
And I don't know if this really counts, but Circus Circus in Las Vegas is reportedly haunted by several ghosts, most of whom were murdered. None of the performers have died that I'm aware of, so none of these spirits are directly related to the circus.
The circus brings great joy, but the Hartford Circus Fire brought great tragedy. Do spirits linger after this fire? Are the abandoned grounds of the Gandini Circus haunted? That is for you to decide!