Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Hengler's Circus - John and George Sanger - Managerial Anachronisms and Incongruities - James Hernandez - Eaton and Stone - Horses at Drury Lane - James Newsome - Howes and Cushing's Circus - George Sanger and the Fighting Lions - Crockett and the Lions at Astley's - The Lions at large - Hilton's Circus - Lion-queens - Miss Chapman - Macomo and the Fighting Tigers.
THE haze which envelopes the movements of travelling circuses prior to the time when they began to be recorded weekly in the Era cannot always be penetrated, even after the most diligent research. Circus proprietors are, as a rule, disposed to reticence upon the subject; and the bills of tenting establishments are seldom preserved, and would afford no information if they were, being printed without the names of the towns and the dates of the performances. I have been unable, therefore, to trace Hengler's and Sanger's circuses to their beginnings; but, having seen the former pitched many years ago in the fair-field, Croydon, I know that it was tenting long before its proprietor adopted the system of locating his establishment for some months together in a permanent building. Both Hengler's and Sanger's must have been travelling nearly a quarter of a century, and the career of both has been prosperous.
Indeed, the most successful men in the profession have been those who have lived from their infancy in the odour of the stables and the sawdust. Such a man was Ducrow, and such also are the Cookes, the Powells, the Newsomes, the Henglers, the Sangers, and, I believe, almost every man of note in the profession. They are not, as a rule, possessed of much education, which may account for the incongruities so frequently exhibited in the 'getting up' of equestrian spectacles, and the perplexities which so often meet the eye when the proprietor of a tenting circus parades in type the quadrupedal resources of his establishment.
I remember seeing a zebra in the Cossack camp in Mazeppa, and that, too, at Astley's; for neither Ducrow nor Batty, cared much for correctness of local colouring, if they could produce an effect by disregarding it. Lewis, when reminded of the incongruity of the introduction of a negro in a Northumbrian castle, in the supposed era of the Castle Spectre, replied that he did it for effect; and if an effect could have been produced by making his heroine blue, blue she should have been. The effect, however, is sometimes perplexity, rather than excitement, so far at least as the educated portion of the community is concerned.
I saw at Kingston, some years ago, immense placards announcing the coming of Sanger's circus, and informing the public that the stud included some Brazilian zebras, and the only specimen ever brought to Europe of the 'vedo, or Peruvian god-horse.' Every one who has read any work on natural history knows that the zebra is confined to Africa, and that the equine genus was unknown in America until the horses were introduced there by the Spaniards. Not having seen the animal, I am not in a position to say what the 'vedo' really is or was; but it is certain that the only beasts of burden possessed by the Peruvians before horses were introduced by their Spanish conquerors were the llama and the alpaca, which are more nearly allied to the sheep than to any animal of the pachydermatous class, to which the horse belongs.
Leaving these wandering circuses for a time, we must turn our attention for a little while to the permanent temples of equestrianism in the metropolis. James Hernandez made his appearance at Astley's during the season of 1849, in company with John Powell, John Bridges, and Hengler, the rope-dancer. Bridges exhibited a wonderful leaping act, and Powell's acts were also much admired; but the palm was awarded by public acclamation to Hernandez, whose backward jumps and feats on one leg elicited a furore of applause at every appearance. His success, and consequent gains, enabled him, on leaving Astley's, and in conjunction with two partners, Eaton and Stone, to form a stud, with which they opened on the classic boards of Drury Lane.
Among the company was an equestrian who appeared as Mdlle Ella, and whose graceful acts of equitation elicited almost as much applause as those of Hernandez, while the young artiste's charms of face and form were a never-ending theme of conversation and meditation for the thousands of admirers who nightly followed them round the ring with enraptured eyes. It was the same wherever Ella appeared, and great was the surprise and mortification of the young equestrian's admirers when it became known, several years afterwards, that the beautiful, the graceful, the accomplished Ella was not a woman, but a man! Ella is now a husband and a father.
James Newsome was also a member of the very talented company which Hernandez and his partners had brought together under the roof of Drury Lane. After completing his engagement with Batty, and entering into matrimonial obligations with Pauline Hinne, he had proceeded to Paris, where he applied himself earnestly to the art of which he soon became a leading master, namely, the breaking of horses in what is termed the haute ecole, then almost unknown in this country. The fame which he acquired in Paris procured him an engagement in Brussels, where he taught riding to the Guides, by whose officers he was presented, on leaving the Belgian capital, with a service of plate. From Brussels he proceeded to Berlin, of which city Madame Newsome is a native. There the famous English riding master added to his laurels by breaking a vicious horse named Mirza, belonging to Prince Frederick William (now heir to the imperial crown of Germany), who presented him with the animal, in recognition of his skill. It may here be added, that he had the honour, some years afterwards, of exhibiting his system of horse-breaking before the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, by whom it was highly commended.
On the termination of their season at Drury Lane, Hernandez and his partners associated Newsome with themselves in the firm, and made a successful tour of the provinces. In the following season, however, Newsome separated from his partners, and started a well-appointed circus of his own. The distinctive features of his establishment are, that he breaks his horses himself - other circus proprietors, not having the advantage of himself, Batty, and Ducrow, of being trained in the profession, being compelled to hire horse-breakers; and that the performances are not given under a tent, set up for a couple of days only, and then removed to the next town, as in the case of most other circuses, but in buildings erected for the purpose in most of the large towns of the north of England, and permanently maintained.
The great Anglo-American circus of Howes and Cushing was added to the number of the circuses travelling in England and Scotland about this time. The strength of the company and stud, and the resources of the proprietors, threatening to render it a formidable rival to the English circuses, the Sangers were prompted by the spirit of competition to take a leaf from Batty's book, and introduce performing lions. The lions were obtained, and the appointment of 'lion king' was offered to a musician in the band, named Crockett, chiefly on account of his imposing appearance, he being a tall, handsome man, with a full beard. He had had no previous experience with wild beasts, but he was suffering from a pulmonary disease, which performing on a wind instrument aggravated, and the salary was tempting. So he accepted the appointment, and followed the profession literally till the day of his death. It is worthy of remark, as bearing on the causes of accidents with lions and tigers, that Crockett was a strictly sober man; and so also was the equally celebrated African lion-tamer, Macomo, who never drank any beverage stronger than coffee. Many anecdotes are current in circuses and menageries of the rare courage and coolness of both men.
One of Sanger's lions was so tame that it used to be taken from the cage to personate the British lion, lying at the feet of Mrs George Sanger, in the character of Britannia, in the cavalcades customary with tenting circuses when they enter a town, and which are professionally termed parades. One morning, when the circus had been pitched near Weymouth, the keepers, on going to the cage to take out this docile specimen of the leonine tribe, found the five lions fighting furiously with each other, their manes up, their talons out, their eyes flashing, and their shoulders and flanks bloody. Crockett and the keepers were afraid to enter. But George Sanger, taking a whip, entered the cage, beat the lions on one side, and the lioness, who was the object of their contention, on the other, and made a barrier between them of the boards which were quickly passed in to him for the purpose. This exciting affair did not prevent the lions from being taken into the ring on the conclusion of the equestrian performance, and put through their regular feats.
If Crockett temporarily lost his nerve on this occasion, it must be acknowledged that he exhibited it in a wonderful degree at the time when the lions got loose at Astley's. The beasts had arrived the night before from Edmonton, where Sanger's circus was at that time located. How they got loose is unknown, but it has been whispered, as a conjecture which was supposed not to be devoid of foundation, that one of the grooms liberated them in resentment of the fines by which he and his fellows were mulcted by Batty, and in the malicious hope that they would destroy the horses. Loose they were, however, and before Crockett, to whose lodging a messenger was sent in hot haste, could reach the theatre, one of the grooms was killed, and the lions were roaming about the auditorium. Crockett went amongst them alone, with only a switch in his hand, and in a few minutes he had safely caged the animals, without receiving a scratch.
These lions were afterwards sold by the Sangers to Howes and Cushing, when the latter were about to return to America, and Crockett accompanied them at a salary of L20 a week. He had been two years in the United States, when one day, while the circus was at Chicago, he fell down while passing from the dressing-room to the ring, and died on the spot. The Sangers possess lions at the present day, and one of them is so tame that, as I am informed, it is allowed to roam at large in their house, like a domestic tabby. This is probably the animal which, on the occasion of the Queen's thanksgiving visit to St Paul's, reclined at the feet of Mrs George Sanger, on a triumphal car, in the 'parade' with which the day was celebrated by the Sangers and their troupe.
While Crockett was still travelling with the Sangers, and to counterbalance the attractiveness of' his exhibitions, it was suggested to Joseph Hilton by James Lee, brother of the late Nelson Lee, that, the former's daughter should be 'brought out' in his circus as a 'lion queen.' The young lady was familiar with lions, another of the family being the proprietor of a menagerie, and she did not shrink from the distinction. She made her first public appearance with the lions at the fair, since suppressed, which used to be held annually on Stepney Green. The attractiveness of the spectacle was tempting to the proprietors of circuses and menageries, and the example was contagious. Edmunds, the proprietor of one of the three menageries into which Wombwell's famous collection was divided on the death of the original proprietor in 1850, formed a fine group of lions, tigers, and leopards, and Miss Chapman - now Mrs George Sanger - volunteered to perform with them as a rival to Miss Hilton.
Miss Chapman, who had the honour of appearing before the royal family at Windsor, had not long been before the public when a third 'lion-queen' appeared at another of the three menageries just referred to in the person of Helen Blight, the daughter of a musician in the band. The career of this young lady was a brief one, and its termination most shocking. She was performing with the animals at Greenwich fair one day, when a tiger exhibited some sullenness or waywardness, for which she very imprudently struck it with a riding whip which she carried. The infuriated beast immediately sprang upon her, with a hoarse roar, seized her by the throat and killed her before she could be rescued. This melancholy affair led to the prohibition of such performances by women; but the leading menageries have continued to have 'lion-kings' attached to them to this day.
Twenty years ago the lion-tamer of George Hilton's menagerie was Newsome, brother of the circus proprietor of that name; and on this performer throwing up his engagement at an hour's notice, owing to some dispute with the proprietor, a man named Strand, who travelled about to fairs with a gingerbread stall, volunteered to take his place. His qualifications for the profession were not equal to his own estimate of them, however, and James Lee, who was Hilton's manager, looked about him for his successor. One day, when the menagerie was at Greenwich fair, a powerful-looking negro accosted one of the musicians, saying that he was a sailor, just returned from a voyage, and would like to get employment about the beasts. The musician informed Manders, into whose hands the menagerie had just passed, and the negro was invited into the show. Manders liked the man's appearance, and at once agreed to give him an opportunity of displaying his qualifications for the leonine regality to which he aspired. The negro entered the lions' cage, and displayed so much courage and address in putting the animals through their performances that he was engaged forthwith; and the 'gingerbread king,’ as Strand was called by the showmen, lost his crown, receiving a week's notice of dismissal on the spot.
This black sailor was the performer who afterwards became famous far and wide by the name of Macomo. The daring displayed by him, and which has often caused the spectators to tremble for his safety, was without a parallel. 'Macomo,' says the ex-lion king, in the account before quoted, ‘was the most daring man among lions and tigers I ever saw.' Many stories of his exploits are told by showmen. One of the finest tigers ever imported into this country, and said to be the identical beast that escaped from Jamrach's possession, and killed a boy before it was recaptured, was purchased by Manders, and placed in a cage with another tiger. The two beasts soon began to fight, and were engaged in a furious conflict, when Macomo entered the cage, armed only with a whip, and attempted to separate them. Both the tigers immediately turned their fury upon him, and severely lacerated him with their sharp claws; but, covered with blood as he was, he continued to belabour them with the whip until they cowered before him, and knew him for their master. Then, with the assistance of the keepers, he succeeded in getting one of the tigers into another cage, and proceeded to bind up his wounds. This was not the only occasion on which Macomo received injuries, the scars of which he bore to his grave. Every one who witnessed his performances predicted for him a violent death. But, like Van Amburgh, like Crockett, he seemed to bear a charmed life; and he died a natural death towards the close of 1870.
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Last modified November 2005.