|Chapter I. The Modern Circus||Chapter X. The Circus Detective|
I have always regarded the two men who sell tickets with a feeling of profound awe and solemn wonder. There is something almost uncanny about their daily exhibition. Their flying hands put to shame the clutching display of the octopus. No quicker-brained, more resolute or more peculiarly gifted men are with the show. They face, undaunted and calm, twice a day, a scene of confusion, disorder and clamoring demand which would put to his heels one not fitted perfectly by nature and experience for the part. To see them working their hands with lightning rapidity, directing, advising and correcting, is to me as interesting a study as the whole passing show affords.
When the crowd begins to gather about the ticket wagon ready with the price of admission, it would make infinitely easier the work of the men inside if the sale began then. But business astuteness bids delay. The throng grows fast, fills the enclosure and swarms over the grounds. The side-show orator, meanwhile, directs his seductive eloquence at the perspiring mass and reaps a harvest. This is an advantage gained by no undue haste in distributing tickets.
While this preliminary maneuvring is very gratifying in its results to the management, the burden it accumulates upon the two anxious men in the ticket wagon grows every minute. When finally the signal to begin operations is given, they face a sea of upturned, distorted, perspiring faces, and aloft the air is peppered with hands brandishing admission money. Everybody is irrational, unreasonable and excited. Children cry, women are on the verge of collapse, and men push and strain and mutter strange oaths. Uniformed employees strive in vain to maintain order. The wheels of the red wagon have been buried to the hubs, or it would be swept away in the rush. The mad, violent struggle continues for an hour, and thousands force their path or are carried bodily to the window and labor away with the cherished strips of printed pasteboard. A mountain of bills and coin grows and is toppled into baskets at their side. Soon these are filled and money litters the floor. There is no chance to assort or collect it now. With eyes fixed steadily before them, fingers and hands never lingering or sluggish, but intercepting a counterfeit offering like a flash, they work as if human automatons. Not until solitary arrivals denote the end of the rush do they relax. Thousands of dollars have changed hands in the brief period, yet the scene will be duplicated a few hours hence and the day will record a balance as correct in detail as the most exacting banking institution's.
There is a popular misapprehension about the moral purposes of the men in the ticket wagon. The impression seems to prevail among many sensible persons that they are modern highwaymen, lurking there for prey. An intimate knowledge of their character and conduct makes a definite denial only fair to them. In the swift shuffle of money, there is no intention on their part to take advantage of the circus's patron. It is the fixed design of the management to inspire a feeling of security and confidence, and the selection of ticket-sellers has this end in view. Dismissal and possible criminal prosecution would be the penalty of detected "short change" or other swindling methods.
There is only one legitimate source of outside profit, and that is furnished by the "walkaway," circus vernacular for the person who unconsciously leaves his change behind. He is legion, strangely enough, and more remarkable still, it seldom seems to occur to him to return for his own. When he does it is promptly given him. Ticket-sellers insist vehemently that the "walkaway's" contribution is not more than enough to reimburse them for mistakes in count which are unavoidable in the tumult, and more frequently than not to the benefit of the purchaser. Whether their comrades accept this assertion without reservation is not a subject to be discussed here.
Rates of admission are conspicuous everywhere. Children under two and a half years of age are admitted free; from that age to ten a half-ticket is required, and older persons must pay full charge. Wonderful and varied are the devices resorted to in the effort to evade legitimate payment. Children who at home are in their teens have dwarfed to babyhood at the circus entrance. Parents glibly insist that robust offsprings are under nine years, and panting fathers and mothers present themselves, in the palpable attempt to deceive, with an armful of boy or girl who has reached the full-rate limit. Watchful and inexorable doorkeepers receive them, demand and finally are handed the correct sum, and composedly hear themselves styled "a pack of villains and swindlers." Ill-grace characterizes those who would cheat the circus.
To the main entrance come the hundreds of written orders for tickets, issued by the advance agents who have covered the district with bills and posters. As a precautionary measure against imposition, two sets of keen-eyed employees have subsequently prowled over the routes and made note when storekeeper or householder has not kept faith. If the flaring advertisement has been removed, disfigured, or hidden under that of a rival show, a memorandum is made. Thus a list of those who are and who are not entitled to recognition is in the hands of the management when the doors open. Each claim presented to the ticket taker has a corresponding number on the large sheet of paper which the general manager holds, and whether or not the holder enters free depends on its report. Very crestfallen and embarrassed, generally, is the man who thought he could profit without rendering service in return. He had not calculated on the thorough business system with which he was in contact. If the applicant has kept his promise he is welcomed to the show, given what his order calls for in the way of seats and number of admissions, and passes inside.
Each one of the men at the main entrance understands his manifold duties perfectly and there is no confusion. Annoying problems enough present themselves, but the quick-witted, ready circus man solves them without hesitation. Complaints innumerable flow to the main entrance, but everybody receives a fair hearing and just treatment in so far as human effort can bring it about. Faultfinding women are the bane. There is almost no extreme of compromise to which the showman will not go to rid himself of the presence of a member of the other sex when she is wrought up over a conviction that she has been imposed upon. She blocks the passage way, gesticulating madly, protesting volubly and threatening all manner of things. She is generally tall and angular, wears spectacles, carries a cotton umbrella, has a crying child by the hand and is famous in the town as a virago. Dutch and Curley cower before her outburst, and the general manager promises her all she demands if she will only pass on. With a parting volley of abuse she flaunts into the menagerie tent and a feeling of great relief pervades all. Her reappearance, with a lament about the unsatisfactory locality of her seat, may be confidently expected later.
Vigilant canvasmen picket the stretches of cloth, alert lest the small boy or his older relative crawl under the fabric and gain free admission. The duty is one demanding keen eye and active body, for once the canvas folds after the invader he is generally secure from capture; a scamper under the low rows of seats or into the crowd eludes successful pursuit and recognition. So watchful, however, are these patrolmen and so obdurate against pleading juvenile persuasion that surreptitious entrance is effectually barred. The circus-fascinated but impecunious youngster must needs vicariously satisfy his longing by turning handsprings outside the barrier. The stirring band music carried to his ears conjures immeasurable pleasures in his mind and is madly irritating.
The press agent receives his newspaper guests at the main entrance. They have been provided with tickets bearing his name. To the reporter assigned to write up the circus and to the responsible heads of the newspaper he gives slips of paper passing them into an enclosure from which is afforded an undisturbed survey of all that is transpiring, and brings to closer view the excelling features of the performance. Later he joins them there, explains the show's superiority over all competitors and is generally entertaining. He presses peanuts and lemonade upon them and sends them away in friendly mood.
That manly young fellow who appeared from the inner recesses of the festive tent for a whispered conversation at the main entrance with the general manager is Fred Ledgett, equestrian. He is one of the principals in the season's romance of the circus. Dallie Julian, eighteen years old, who turns back somersaults from the broad, rosined haunch of her horse Gypsy, is the other party to the charming affair. What they dared and suffered before they could win the countenance and support of management and relative and carry out their matrimonial longing, only those who know intimately the prosaic circus institute can appreciate. If there is one thing frowned upon more than all others in tented life, it is adventures of the heart. But Fred and Dallie emerged triumphant and conquering, and the seed of love sown in April came to golden harvest in Iowa, many miles transplanted, where an earnest, curious company of show people witnessed the wedding ceremony and participated in the celebration.
My mind reverts to the early spring when little Dallie, done up in a heavy coat and sitting on one of the tubs which served as a seat for a trick elephant, was holding an informal reception in Maidison Square Garden. Preparations for the opening of the circus were in full swing - literally in some instances - for the acrobats, practising for the first time in a new place, were suspended by "mecaniques" - the leather belts with rope attachments that made living pendulums of them when they missed their try. Even one of the bareback riders, forming a pyramid on her husband's shoulders, while he went around the ring on three horses, had the life-saving apparatus around her waist. For she was new at the business and her husband was not letting her take any more chances than he could help. And while father and mother were doing their great aerial act on horseback, both of them looking as though only boy and girl, their two-year-old baby cooed down at the ringside, brought over from Boston to spend three weeks with them. She thought it was fine when her mother jumped and balanced, but her mother thought of nothing except not to fall off and not to hang her husband with the rope that was her safeguard. They were in the middle ring and beside it, swathed in top coats and wrappings of all kinds, were performers waiting for their turns to go in. From beneath their street clothes came glimpses of pink and white fleshings with slippers to match, and over the slippers were clogs, wooden-soled shoes, with leather tops, to prevent their feet from being injured while walking in the ring.
The circus was getting ready to open and everybody was practising to start in a blaze of glory. In one of the end rings a woman was riding bareback, "the best hurdle jumper in the business" said one of the men. It looks easy to run and jump on a horse, but it requires work and practice. Not being a dress rehearsal, every one was in working togs, and the women were wearing bloomer suits, with waists of red, pink and blue, and with that innate sense of decoration that is part of the true artist in the ring, each wore a rosette in her hair that matched the suit.
Dallie's interest was centred on the ring where her aunt, who is also her foster mother, was breaking in a new horse.
"Many of the people use the company's horses, but my aunt has her own and so have I," she explained. "She always breaks them herself and this one is new to the business; that is why there is a rope on him and the ringmaster hangs to it. You see the horse might get frightened and bolt over the side or try to go through the doorway," pointing to a niche that served as an entrance; "there is a man standing at the door to prevent the horse from going out."
The horse was perfectly well aware of the fact and not altogether reconciled, although he was fast approaching that state. Ropes swinging from all sorts of corners where trapezes and "looping-the-loop" contrivances were being put up disconcerted him, but the rope and whip were arguments that appealed in inducing him to stay.
"He will be all right before the performance," Dallie went on with the air of a connoisseur. "There will be two more rehearsals to-day and some chance to practise to-morrow. I am riding the same horse I ride always," she went on, tucking her small feet out of the way of dirt and draught, "and it is lucky for me because I have only been practising two weeks this season. You see I was in the hospital last winter, and all I got of the circus was hearing the band play as I lay in bed while all the others were getting ready for this season. But I practised a lot this year and now I do better than I did last year."
In the upper ring the Rough Riders were putting their horses through their acts and the horses were not altogether pleased. The thing they hated most was being made to lie down when they did not feel the least bit tired, and many of them were inclined to argue the matter until the whip convinced them that really they preferred to do what was wanted. The whip as a convincer in a circus is a great ethical force. At one end of the course were the acrobats doing a complete double shoulder twist. They were swinging by ropes attached to their belts when they missed a leap.
"You see," said Dallie, shedding the great white light of information, " they have never done their turn here before and they are used to a smaller place, so they are practising to get distances. If one of them should miss and fall it would hurt, for they haven't any net under, but the 'mecanique' will keep them swinging clear from the ground. You ought to see the 'mecanique' in the rings of the winter quarters. They are put on people just learning to go bareback. Sometimes they miss a horse and the persons go swinging round and round the ring until they land on their horses again. It is awfully funny. Some of the people are scared this season because they are new and there are a lot of new horses and so they are nervous. My aunt told me the other day she could not sleep nights for worrying about me and how I would get through, but I told her she was silly. I will get through all right and there is no use any way in worrying, even if anything does happen."
"And isn't it remarkable that some persons do not get hurt?" she went on. "Now, here are all of us and there hasn't a thing gone wrong to hurt any one. Why, yesterday one of the walking tight wires broke when there were five people on it. There was not one of them hurt; but a little boy that was on the end had every one fall on him and it scared him pretty bad and bruised him a little, but he is practising to-day as usual."
Her aunt's horse by dint of much persuasion was taking some baby hurdles while the aunt hung on behind clinging to a strap, for the horse did not seem to care about having a person perched on his haunches, but he accepted it for the same reason that he had all the rest. But at last he was led from the ring and some one called "Dallie!" She jumped down from her tub, dropped off her long skirt, danced into the ring and up to a big white horse. She wore a short skirt over her dark bloomers and in her hand was a very weather-beaten little whip.
"I have tried a lot of others," she said, as she bent it, "but I cannot turn somersaults with any other. I am so used to this and the way it feels in my hand that I cannot get along with any other. I have lost this several times but some of the men always find it and bring it back to me."
Her horse, with its tightly checked head, waited for her and she felt the head strap with the air of an old professional.
Dallie stood up like a bit of thistle-down and, poised lightly on her horse, went riding around. First one of her feet and then the other went forward to balance, and then suddenly both went tight together and she took several preliminary leaps in the air to get herself limber. Having stretched her muscles, she gave a little cry. Three men, lined up together to catch her if she fell, got ready, and up and over in the air she went like a little human ball. The first time she did not land on the horse but in the ring. But after that she did her turn all right and was driven out to make room for others needing practice.
Cupid had picked the little horsewoman out for his mark in these early days of the circus, but so closely guarded was the secret that it was days before we knew that her heart had taken up its lodging in young Ledgett's breast, and his breast had become the cabinet of her affections. Shy glances and low and tender voices in secluded spots finally told a revealing tale and we watched the progress of the devotion with intense interest and some concern. We knew the stern traditional circus antipathy toward affairs of the kind and wondered whether the fixed opposition of the aunt could be overcome. No comrade was so disloyal and unchivalrous as to carry the story to those in authority, but soon the love-making conveyed itself to their very eyes. Then began a systematic effort to end it abruptly, and the memory of the courage and faith and hope which forced surrender to Hymen's cause will linger with us long.
The burden of obstructions was directed at the girl - he was too strong and self-reliant; and when her aunt was not advising against her conjugal plans, the ringmaster engaged himself in telling that marriage would jeopardize her future. So it was that between the prodigious shakings of the head and the love that absorbed her, Dallie grew thin and pale and unsteady in her work. Her judge of distance, so necessary in her dangerous aerial revolutions, became bad, and often she alighted on wooden ringbark or horse's head or tail when her feet should have been fixed to Gypsy's moving back. She became a bruised and humble maiden, but with purpose unwavering. Her aunt's vigilance was unrelaxing and unrelenting; she vowed that the two should not have each other's company.
To the casual circus goer, this determined disapproval of innocent attachment may seem brutal and unreasonable, but there are reasons underlying which those directly involved feel justify their course. It is the history of circus love affairs which progress during the active season that they impair performances. Once the yearning enters show persons, indolence and indifference characterize them in the ring. It is not a desire to oppress, but a warning instinct of professional deterioration, that causes sardonic smiles and harsh flings. To the relative who has acted as mother for years, the prospect of premature separation is naturally obnoxious.
It was not until summer was on the wane that we saw signs of approaching capitulation. Dallie had risen supreme over her temporary weakness and was again the skilful mistress of the ring. Fred, patient and artful, had won first an enduring place in the aunt's esteem and then her permission and encouragement. The management yielded before their combined eloquence.
So it was that one Sunday afternoon, Dallie, swaying under a great breadth of silk, and her sweetheart, awkward in encumbering black, but looking very proud and joyful, started hand in hand down the long road of life. A very glorious supper was served that evening in honor of the event. The owner gracefully proposed the health of the bride, and the tent resounded with the enthusiasm of the response. Fred expressed his thanks in well-put words, and Mrs. Fred blushed prettily in her happiness. And best of all, about the corners of the aunt's lip there rested a smile of pleasure, of approval and of contentment.
Into the menagerie tent, with its great variety of animals caged and unconfined, streams the open-mouthed human parade, stopping to comment and observe on its way to the "big top." The lions and tigers pace up and down their cages with hungry eyes that gleam in green and gold. They stare steadily through the iron bars but take no heed of the pigmy humans who stare back. There is something in those shining eyes that tells of thoughts far from the circus, perhaps of a jungle in far-off Asia. The insatiable elephant swings his greedy trunk tirelessly, and the black leopard sulks in the darkest corner of his den. Watching closely the scene in all its aspects is a jovial, deep-voiced man who urges the immediate necessity of securing advantageous seats under the adjoining canvas. He controls the peanut and lemonade privilege. Long experience has taught him all the arts and devices of his business. He appreciates that his sales will not begin in any volume until the audience is comfortably settled inside. Then he displays his commercial craftiness by overwhelming the big area with peanut and popcorn vendors. No lemonade is in evidence. Thirst comes on apace. Throats become dry and salty, and there is clamor for liquid. When its assuaging presence is finally seen in the hands of dozens of hawkers, the sale is invariably tremendous. If sudden rain comes on during the performance, he varies his sales with the disposal of umbrellas. He is ready for any meteorological condition.
He has been associated with red wagons and white canvas for many years, and there is no department of circus life in which he has not at some time excelled. As a clown his fame covered all parts of the country. He was, an old-time programme before me tells, "a grotesque, whimsical satirist. A wit brimful of ridiculously extravagant, fanciful mirth and eccentric humor, comic attitudes, funny songs, derisive sayings, quaint arguments and pleasant drolleries; entirely devoid of low jests and vulgar tricks and postures."
The monkey cage is the most popular institution in our menagerie tent. We have outgrown the "variety cage" of old days, which was a collection in one den of monkeys, pigs, cats, dogs and rabbits. It was an interesting collection, I suppose, to country people, but an insufferable nuisance to the showman. Circus monkeys die in droves. The show which starts the season with one hundred and fifty of the animals and returns to winter quarters with twenty-five is fortunate. The climatic changes act with quick fatality upon the sensitive creatures. Tuberculosis, animal doctors call the killing disease. There is always a bully in the cage and always an inmate ready to give battle for the honor. The privileges of the bully are alluring. He takes for himself the choicest morsels of food, chooses the most comfortable perch or corner, gives orders and demands instant obedience, and cuffs and bites and annoys his fellows until one, rendered desperate, turns and administers a thrashing and succeeds to the position. The monkey cage at nightfall is a sure register of the degree of generosity of a community. In some towns they are gorged with food; the audience has fed them lavishly. Again, they give pleading indication of hunger; the place has probably a reputation for penuriousness. Those who believe in the Darwinian theory assert that the resemblance between the human race and the monkey is most marked in sick monkeys. Several scientists who watched our sick chimpanzee noticed many peculiarities of a child. It coughed like a child and made wry faces like one when asked to take medicine. Doctors felt its pulse and it received all the care and attention of a child of the rich.
Natural history is one of the most interesting and absorbing of all studies, and the visitor to our menagerie finds much zoological gratification. The hippopotamus, sleeping or floundering in his tank, and raising his head at intervals above the surface of the water for the purpose of respiration, is never without a wondering audience. His is a harmless disposition and he is a pet with the animal keepers. His den is too small for the water to cover him completely and frequently he is scrubbed with soap. He enjoys the operation immensely unless the soapsuds enter his cavernous mouth, which surely is annoying enough to provoke the most mild-mannered being. His skin is of a dark reddish-brown color, full of cracks, chaps and cross-etchings, with dapplings of irregular dark spots, and is probably two inches thick. He is more than ten feet long and nearly six feet high. When he gives voice, the lions are humiliated and the tigers acknowledge defeat. It is a deafening kind of interrupted roar, between that of a bull and the braying of an elephant. His daily diet is bushels of potatoes, apples, carrots, oats, bran, hay and salt. Keepers say that the only hippopotami born in captivity are in the zoo of one of the big cities. Ignorance permitted the first one which saw the light to die. Keepers feared to put it in the water, thinking it would drown, and tried to nurse it with a bottle. It was dead in ten days. Then it was decided not to interfere when the mother brought forth its next young. The result was the discovery that it nursed under water. The first genuine hippopotamus ever seen in America was exhibited by Barnum in his New York museum in August, 1861. He advertised the animal extensively and ingeniously as the "great behemoth of the Scriptures," and thousands, including many biblical students, flocked to see it.
Circus people will travel miles into the presence of a giraffe. They want the animal with the elongated neck to rub their hand with its tongue. They say that good luck is sure to follow the operation. The privilege is one rarely accorded, for giraffes are very costly and delicate, and, though popular menagerie inmates, are infrequently seen nowadays. The first one born in captivity in America saw the light of day in Cincinnati on October 20, 1889. It was five feet high. Daisy, measuring eighteen feet from the ground to the tips of her ears, and the last giraffe then on exhibition with any travelling show, was killed during a voyage to Europe - a lurch of the ship broke her neck.
Circus owners are vainly searching the jungles of India and the wilds of Africa for rhinoceroses. There are none in the open markets and the world's visible supply is limited to twelve specimens. The market value of the beast ranged from $4,000 to $5,000 until the present shortage set in. Now a large circus would willingly pay many times that sum. The rhinoceros has always been a problem to animal keepers, for captivity generally results in early death. He is a beast so essentially of the wilds that all efforts at breeding in captivity have failed. Old showmen remember the attempt to take performing liberties with one of the spike-nosed monsters in a small town in Illinois in 1872. He killed two men, upset four dens of animals, tore down a museum tent, stampeded people for blocks and finally brought up in a vacant house, the door of which stood open. No fixed desire to exhibit a rhinoceros has ever since been displayed.
To many persons who go to a circus there is probably nothing that causes more wonder than to see the keepers of the lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and other wild beasts sitting in the cages among them, patting them on their ugly heads, slapping them on their saliva-dripping jowls, or fearlessly lashing them with their whips if necessary. Mastery expresses better than training what the keepers have accomplished with the beasts.
"There is a tremendous amount of work to be done in winter quarters, of which the public knows nothing," explained our keeper, as he surveyed the scene in the menagerie tent early one August evening. "We are getting new wild animals all the time, and as they come to us there is not a man living who would dare go into the cages with them. During the winter we have to break those beasts so that we can handle them on the road. When they come to us they have thick leather collars around their necks, with heavy chains attached. The beasts are then more savage than they were before capture, that having served only to bring out all that is ugly in them. They will spit and growl at anybody who comes near their cage, and jump at the bars until they exhaust themselves. We begin to teach them manners the very day we get them, and they take a lesson in etiquette every day after that until the show starts out. My men catch the end of the chain fastened to the collar and secure it in such a manner to the bars that the beast can move only a short distance. Then I take a stout rawhide whip and strong club and enter the cage. I take a chair and sit down in a corner. The instant I get in, the beast will give a roar and spring for me. I would be torn to shreds if I were within reach; but the chain holds and instead of getting at me, the lion, tiger, panther or leopard is brought up with a shock that sends him in a heap to the floor and I give him a lash with the rawhide.
"The beast is at me again in an instant; again he goes down and again I lash him. I always keep the club handy, but never use it unless it is absolutely necessary. I keep drawing my chair a little closer to the animal as this goes on until I get so close he can touch me with his nose but cannot bite me. Then I just sit there and talk to him and you would be surprised at the power the human voice will finally be made to exercise over wild beasts. They seem to understand much that is said to them.
"While I am talking just out of reach of their teeth," he went on, "if they get ugly and attempt to spring at me I give them the rawhide. I keep this up, and after a dozen or fifteen lessons they get so they only snarl and growl at my entrance to the cage. As soon as I think it is safe I try the beasts without a chain. It is a little ticklish business at first but I have plenty of help ready for the first effort. If it is a success the first time, you generally have your beast mastered, although once in a while a brute that has been tractable enough will break out and go for his keeper. We had such a case once when an experienced lion tamer was clawed by a lioness and nearly killed. We usually cut the claws of the cat species, however. Lions will not stay in the same cage with tigers. We tried this once, putting a lioness in with a Bengal tiger. There was a fierce fight and the lioness nearly killed the Bengal."
Our keeper takes very little stock in the theory of the power of the human eye over wild beasts. The organ plays an insignificant part, he thinks; it is the power of the man behind the eye and the qualifications he possesses that are efficacious.
"It is a pretty thing to say, and that is all," he said. "The man who wants to subdue a wild beast has to be fearless and go about his task in a courageous way, and of course the eye plays its part. The man who attempted to handle a wild beast that was not chained, with nothing else than a fearless eye would be in a pretty bad hole, though. What the man must have is a good heart, plenty of pluck and lots of sand. The secret of successfully handling wild beasts is to become imbued with a confidence that all wild beasts are really cowardly, especially if they belong to the cat family. If you are not afraid and you know how to do it, it is easy enough."
"A circus man once determined to put the question whether the human eye has power over wild animals to the test. Approaching a large ostrich he gazed fixedly at it, and to his delight the mesmeric glance seemed to meet with instant success. The bird crouched and flapped its wings nervously. Some hours later, however, the man's body was found with the ostrich alternately sitting and jumping upon it. The negro guide of a circus expedition, it is told, was more successful, although there is some doubt as to whether it was the power of the eye that gave him victory. He surprised two lion cubs at play and began to play with them. They liked it so much that when he would take his departure they refused to let him go. Their cries of enjoyment finally brought the mother lioness. The negro was paralyzed with fear, and kept his eyes glued to those of the lioness. Man and beast kept steadily watching each other. The lioness moved around the negro several times but he never shifted his gaze. Several times the lioness crouched as if to spring, but finally after what seemed an age to the negro she called her cubs to her side and disappeared in the forest. This is the story brought home from Africa.
"A man once experimented with a wildcat in our circus, and only the bars of the cage prevented him from being badly scratched for his pains. As soon as he looked into the eyes of the wildcat the animal sprang fiercely at him.
"Some interesting experiments were made at our winter quarters in Bridgeport one year with the object of ascertaining the exact influence of music on animals. That animals like to hear a violin played seems to be clearly proved. A zoologist played in the menagerie many times, and found that the music pleased them. A puma, at the sound of the violin, stretched himself at full length in his cage and listened quietly as long as the music was soft and low, but the moment it became loud and fast he sprang to his feet, lashed his sides with his tail and began to pace nervously up and down his cage. A jaguar at the sound of lively music showed great uneasiness, but became quiet when soft music was played. He thrust his paws through the bars of the cage to detain the violinist. On leopards the music made hardly any impression. A lioness and three cubs seemed somewhat disturbed, but as soon as the player started to go to the next cage they came forward and lay down. He then played soft music which seemed to please them. He followed it with a lively dance, at the first sound of which the cubs sprang up and gambolled wildly about the cage. On the other hand, two striped hyenas, when they heard the music, drew back to the other end of their cage and tried to get out through the bars.
"I remember well the year 1889," he continued, "because then the question of electrocuting, instead of hanging, prisoners condemned to die came up. A party of scientists came on to our winter quarters and conducted a series of electrical experiments upon the animals. Mr. Bailey placed the entire menagerie at the service of the scientists, and twenty of us keepers assisted in the work. The instruments employed were a powerful battery of forty-two Leclanche cells and a resistance box of one hundred thousand ohms. The experiments began at eleven o'clock in the morning and continued until nightfall.
"The first animal experimented with was a savage baboon, which fought furiously before he was tied. He bit one keeper severely and tore the clothing off another. A sponge, that was used as the end of one wire, was forced into his mouth. A second sponge was fastened on one of his paws. A current of two cells was then passed through the simian and was promptly resented by a fierce attempt to break his bonds and escape. The baboon's irritation increased with the current until twenty-eight cells had been used. When forty cells had been used, the animal became lethargic and almost comatose, looking for all the world like a man overcome by strong drink. The highest point of resistance was eight thousand ohms, a surprisingly large figure. When finally released, the baboon became wild with rage and attacked the nearest keeper, inflicting a dozen scratches on him. A tame seal was next operated on. It allowed the experts to fasten one roll of copper wire around its neck and a second around its tail flippers. The moment the current was applied it snapped viciously in every direction. The savants sprang right and left, upsetting chairs and writing materials in their haste to get out of reach. When the current was increased the seal gnawed at the wires and succeeded in disengaging itself from both. The resistance could not be ascertained on account of its wet coat acting as a conductor to the electric fluid.
"The gnu or horned horse, did not take kindly to science. When one of the savants entered its cage it attacked him so savagely that three keepers were obliged to go to his assistance. The animal showed a resistance of eleven thousand ohms and seemed paralyzed the moment the current was turned on. The small monkeys behaved very much like little children. The moment they felt the current they screamed and seemed to be undergoing agony. When the wires were removed, they appeared puzzled and three of them took up the electrodes as if to study them. A large blue monkey was so interested that when released he seized the large sponge and began to tear it apart as if to see what it contained that hurt him so. The monkeys offered a resistance of from five thousand to seven thousand ohms. The hippopotamus and sea lion took the full force of the current without wincing; but a dog, after having a moderate current passed through his brain, showed signs of hydrophobia and had to be killed. The wild carnivora showed much sensitiveness to the electric current, manifesting every symptom of rage and distress when only a single cell was employed. A wolf to which a mild current was applied, stood upon its haunches and cried piteously.
"But the elephants proved the star attractions. They actually enjoyed the sensation in every instance, except when a strong current was passed through the trunk. When only a few cells were employed, the huge beasts did not seem to observe the fact, but when the full battery was employed, they rubbed their legs together, caressed savant and keeper alike and squealed their pleasure. No odder sight was ever seen than an elephant with mouth wide open, with one scientist holding a sponge to the huge tongue and a second another to the root of his tail, and manifesting every sign of glee.
"The manner in which animals endure pain always awakens our sympathies. Horses in battle are a striking example of power of endurance and unyielding courage. After the first stinging pain of the wound, they make no sound, but bear their agony with mute, wondering endurance. Elephants also suffer agonies without flinching. When they are shot in a vital spot they sink down on the ground with a low cry, and silently pass away. A dog will go for days with a broken leg without complaint, and a wounded cat will crawl to some quiet place and brood silently over agonies which humans could not endure. A stricken deer will go to some thick wood and there in pitiful submission await the end. Lions, tigers and other beasts will do the same. Seldom do they give utterance to cries of pain. Cattle will meet the thrust of the butcher's knife without a sound, and a wild dove, with shot from a hunter's gun burning in its tender flesh, will fly to some high bough or lie on the ground to die, and no sound will be heard save the dripping of its life blood upon the leaves. The eagle, stricken high in air, will struggle to the last, but there will be no sound of pain, and the proud defiant look will not leave the eyes until the lids close over them and shut out the sunlight they love so well."
Sunday is fast-day in the menagerie tent, and every occupant, caged or uncaged, knows when the day arrives. When the week-day feeding hour - five o'clock in the afternoon - approaches, not one of the animals betrays the feeling of eager desire on Sunday which characterizes them all the other six days. They understand instinctively that there will be no meal. Then on Monday the "cat" animals begin to pace their cages nervously and peer through the bars awaiting the coming of the keepers. They are well aware that liver, which they relish keenly and which keeps them in good physical condition, will be the food. The Sunday abstinence is deemed by the trainers an aid to good health, as copying to some extent the habit of beasts in their native haunts, where food is not obtainable every day. There is little sickness in the menagerie. The animals are studied closely and given assiduous attention if the slightest indisposition is manifested.
The art of seating the audience in the big tent plays a prominent part in the receipts of the day. "Fill the highest rows first," is the instruction forced upon each usher, and censure or dismissal is the penalty of disobedience. By skilful and systematic arrangement of the crowds, it is possible to utilize every inch of seating space in the vast enclosure. Indifferent or careless performance of the duty leaves the tent, to the casual observer, packed to completion, but in reality here and there are spots not occupied. Hence all ingenuity must be brought to bear to prevent this condition and its consequent financial loss, for the sale of tickets stops when no more seats are available. Sometimes a prosperous day has not been confidently expected and the management orders a four- instead of the usual five-centre-pole tent raised. The difference in seating capacity is several hundred. Then, but not often, for circus foresight is keen, people flock to the lot in thousands and there is no room for their accommodation. The owner is shame and mortification personified.
On the hippodrome track one of the clowns, clad in sober black and looking to be all he represents, waits with imitation camera and tripod for victims. He is an experienced master of human nature. With exaggerated politeness and scrupulous care of detail he poses unsuspecting newcomers, to the boisterous amusement of those already seated. Sweethearts stand in affectionate attitude, mightily pleased and unsuspecting, while he pretends to impress their likeness upon photographic plates. Sometimes he turns their faces from him, tells them not to move until instructed, and then moves quietly away. Very infrequently they take the joke seriously. When anger and retaliation are manifested, he is agile enough to escape punishment.
A boy sings on the topmost seats. His voice is powerful, but pure and sweet, and the tent is filled with the sounds of approval when he finishes. The musical director discovered him in Rochester, N. Y., and has great hopes for his professional future.
The military band is discoursing popular selections, and the equestrian director makes a last critical survey of the network of suspended bars, trapezes, rings, perches and wires. Finishing touches are being added to the "loop-the-loop" apparatus. A score of men have been putting it together since early morning. Now the band is at the dressing-room exit and the cornet sounds a melodious call. The inaugural tournament is on, comprising, the press agent is telling his guests, "spectacular pageantry, zoologic, equestric, hippodromatic and aerial elements, indicative of the limitless resources of this colossal consolidation of circus chieftains, collection of celebrities and congress of champions; a comprehensive, kaleidoscopic and illustrative review upon the ellipse of the hippodrome, upon the two stages and in the three rings."
Then the clowns' carol, the herds of trained elephants and the circus performance that is familiar to the young and old. The ringmaster's whip cracks merrily; ponies and dogs show the results of patient teaching; slack wire equilibrists, head balancers and daring horizontal bar heroes are innumerable; there are graceful nights upon flying trapeze and swinging rings; living classic statuary pleases the eye; hurdle riding, a hazardous form of equestrianism, gives the audience a thrill; prancing thoroughbreds engage in a cakewalk, and the clowns burlesque it; a crowd of acrobats and jugglers fill the rings simultaneously, while a septette of men and women engage in fancy and trick bicycle riding, and the most intrepid wheelman rides down a ladder which stretches to the dome of the canvas; a performing bear shows almost human intelligence, and some one dressed like a monster rooster evokes general mirth; a young man, standing on the pedals of a single wheel with no support save his nerve, makes his perilous journey up and down a spiral arrangement, which has a curious effect upon the snare drum; an eighteen-year-old girl turns somersaults upon a moving white horse's back, and the onlookers read that she is the only one of her sex accomplishing the feat.
So the show progresses to the rushing hippodrome races, contests between women on fiery thoroughbreds, double standing Roman bareback races, tandem hurdle races, jockey races, pony races with monkey jockeys, clowns in comical competition, and the breath-taking chariot race. It is now that the country crowd perhaps gets a thrill that is denied the New York city audience. In Madison Square Garden the hippodrome track is dry and firm and smooth and true. The country course offers none of these conditions. No time is granted to make it perfect. And so it is that sometimes there is a wild cry from rider or driver, a confused heap of hoofs, legs, wheels and dust, breathless silence from the thousands of onlookers and then, generally, a loud burst of applause as horse and human struggle to their feet, not seriously damaged. The danger of disaster is especially great when the four fleet horses are dashing with the heavy, low Roman chariots. Great skill is required to prevent collision or collapse on the abrupt course; and rough, uneven grounds make serious strain upon the vehicle. The accidents seldom have disastrous endings. I remember vividly when an axle broke in a Pennsylvania town. The woman driver jumped and escaped with a sprained wrist. The band instantly stopped its thumping. The horses, racing madly and unguided to the finish post came to an abrupt standstill. The audience, on a verge of a panic, resumed their seats, marvelling. They did not understand, that as a precautionary measure against just such accidents, the fiery animals are trained to run with the music. They have been taught not to move rapidly until the band begins and to stop whenever its melody ceases.
It will be observed that the women who rush around the hippodrome track in the jockey races ride in an opposite direction from that of the other sex, and the reason is not apparent to the lay visitor. The explanation is that thus their feet swing on the horse's side not exposed to the supporting quarter-pole, as would be the case did they follow the course of the men. Disregard of this precautionary measure has resulted in serious injury in many circuses, for the circus woman makes light of danger in many forms which would appall her unprofessional sister. The natural route is the men's, and she would take it every time did the equestrian director permit.
Of course, most skilled performers " stall." That is, in the execution of a particularly dangerous or difficult feat, they pretend to barely escape a serious fall or make an unsuccessful attempt at accomplishment. It gives the audience an exaggerated idea of the extreme peril or difficulty of the undertaking, and ensures an outburst of applause when finally triumphantly done. It is a sidelight on the mild vanity of the circus man, but incidentally serves a commercial purpose, for he knows that public approval carries with it renewal of engagement at no smaller salary.
Nearly all on the list of circus performances have inherited their strength and skill. They have been literally born to the arena. Some of them represent the third and fourth generations of famous circus families. The boys and girls of our circus, comprising two tiny concert dancers, a smart young bicycle rider, several acrobats and gymnasts and two Japanese boys, are a modest, healthy, honest party of playmates whose parents find time each day to hear lessons and give advice in manners and morals. They are "chums" in all the word implies, and an occasional clash with words or fists always ends without the call for parental adjustment and serves to cement the juvenile friendship. Of young men and women, those who have not yet reached their majorities, we have half a dozen, all of whom have conspicuous parts in the show. One of the girls, a skilled acrobat, took up riding recently and bids fair to achieve fame, the veterans say. The act does not interfere with her other performance and she is in receipt of a handsome income. The most finished tumbler among the lads is a boy who also participates in a wire-walking act. In this performance he is disguised as a girl, for the feminine sex always lends interest to any feat. The deception is perfect, but it was very annoying to the management and embarrassing to the youth when his blonde wig dropped off one afternoon and he stood revealed in his masculinity. So it is with a "family" who do a graceful and dangerous aerial act. The youngest member of the troupe is a boy, although appearance indicates the other sex. They are both eagerly biding the time when age will do away with the disguise.
The training of these children begins almost at birth. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases there is the powerful effect of heredity, which exercises an influence upon the child and helps it to overcome obstacles to others well-nigh impossible. The chief effort is to create courage and daring, to develop those qualities where they already exist. The lungs are expanded and broadened by hearty exercise, and the muscles are hardened and developed by athletic work. At the same time it has been found by the modern gymnast that the body, to perform this extraordinary work, must be well nourished. The necessity for a clear head, a steady eye and unflinching hand requires that the brain shall likewise be well nourished; so the education of the little pupils is not neglected; indeed, many a gymnast has mental abilities often lacking in the ordinary man. He has to understand some geometry and mathematics, else how can he calculate the exact distance of a jump, a fall, a somersault? He very often is the inventor of his own apparatus and this has to be exact in shape, size and strength. The suppleness of the limbs and joints comes from long practice, not, as is usually thought, from straining the soft joints of a child. The result of such straining would be weakness, not strength. Only those whose business it is know or understand what can be done with those joints, how much strain they will bear and which will endure the greatest strain. When to hold on and when to let go are important items, too, in an acrobat's training. These can be learned only when young. It is natural for a child to "catch at something" when it thinks it is falling. It must be taught to do the catching only at precisely the right moment, and to turn at the instant when required.
In these days, the net is an element of safety in all mid-air feats. But so fearless and confident do gymnasts become that they hardly know and certainly do not notice whether it is in place. There is a piece of apparatus largely used among circus riders when training or learning new feats called the "mecanique." It consists of a belt, which goes around the waist of the performer, to which is attached a strong, elastic rope, which is again fastened to a wooden, gibbet-like arm. The tyro knows that he cannot possibly fall beyond the length of the rope and that, therefore, no matter how many times he fails, he cannot by any possibility come to physical grief. The use of this machine is deprecated by some performers as reducing the nerve training to a minimum. It is, however, in great favor with all whose nerves are already steadied by experience and who are trying new tricks. In the case of women and children the "mecanique" is very frequently employed.
There is no phase of work that requires more patient and faithful study, more steadiness of nerve or a greater command of the muscles than feats of balancing on trapeze, rings and slack wire. To balance well, one must be systematically developed, and each muscle must be ready to act instantly and do its work with certainty. The legs must be strong and firm to sustain the body in its various poses. The back must be sinewy, so that the recovery may be made quickly and the upright maintained without a chance of failure, and the arms and hands must be hard and strong; for when a man, falling from a trapeze, grasps at the bar, he must catch it and hold to it if he desires to emerge unhurt. Balancing on the slack wire is essentially different from trapeze balancing. On the slack wire the balance must be kept by working the body from the waist down, and is mainly done with the legs. It is the reverse on the trapeze, where the legs must be kept rigid and the balance worked from the leg up. The slack wire is harder to learn at first than the trapeze, as it is radically different from a person's natural balance, which is kept more with the arms and body and less with the legs.
The triple somersault has slain its scores, yet as long as men tumble over elephants in the circus, and as long as springboards are made, the acrobats will be trying to accomplish this most difficult of feats. There have been acrobats who have done it. They are dead now. They were carried out of the ring to a hospital immediately thereafter, and lived for the various periods of from one to three days. There have been men who have asserted that they can turn the triple. They are generally the acrobats who have left the circus ring forever and are devoting the last years of their lives to the sale of cigars or some other stirring occupation. The men who have followed the circus all their lives say that no man has ever turned the triple from a springboard and lived to boast of his triumph. The triple somersault is done from a flying trapeze, but it is simply a series of revolutions in the air as the performer drops. Even then it should be called two and a half revolutions, for the acrobat falls on his back in a net and depends upon the rebound to hurl him to his feet. He can make these two revolutions and a half from a spring-board, sometimes, with the difference that nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand he alights on his head or on the back of his neck which brings instant death. A man who even falls that way in a net is a subject for the coroner.
It is circus tradition that in 1842, when even the double somersault was deemed a difficult and dangerous feat, a performer tried the triple turn. It happened in Mobile, Alabama, and the rash acrobat broke his neck. W. J. Hobbes, a tumbler, was killed attempting the trick in London four years later. John Amor, a Pennsylvania circus leaper, who was a famous double somersault revolver, paid with his life for his ambition in 1859. He was travelling with an English circus, essayed the death-dealing act, struck on his forehead and died.
The somersault, whether it be single or double, is a feat which requires the most assiduous practice and the most accurate calculation. The first thing which the tumbler learns is to jump from a springboard. The sensation of springing through the air is an uncanny one. Next is the "stock" somersault, which consists of merely springing up in the air and slowly, and with practically no muscular exertion, turning over. The motion is so slow that the spectators hardly realize that the man has revolved. Then begins the drill for the real somersault. The acrobat learns the "tuck," which consists of grasping both legs tightly half way between the knee and ankle and pressing them closely together. At the same time the acrobat puts the muscles of his shoulders and back into play. This muscular force acts like the balance weight of the wheel. It aids him to complete the revolution. The taking of the "tuck" requires the nicest calculation. The acrobat must wait until he has sprung as far in the air as the force of the springboard or his legs will carry him. If he "tucks" too soon he will fall like a coffee sack. If he waits until too late he finds himself cast, a human wheel at a dead centre. He is likely to have broken bones in either case in spite of carpet or mattress. The double somersault requires more muscular force. The trained acrobat knows exactly where he is at every point in the revolution. He has a strange sense which makes him feel it. It is when he summons his almost exhausted energies for a third turn that he feels like a ship without a rudder. Harry Costello, Wm. Kinkead, John Armstrong, Arthur Mohring, and "Little Bob" Hanlon, well-known circus performers, have broken their necks and died in executing the double somersault within a score of years.
The dressing-rooms - the "green room" of the circus - are as convenient to the centre of the tent as the topography of the lot will permit. Passing through the canvas connection, the women of the show enter quarters to the left and the men's accommodations are on the other side. Between, stand the horses and wagons and other "property" which for various reasons cannot be stored near the rings. Very cosy and comfortable are the two canvas compartments, although room is at a premium. Trunks replace chairs, and mirrors are of a dimension to discourage vanity. The process of "making up" is a laborious and tedious undertaking, but accepted as one of the conditions which are unavoidable. Of cold water there is a plenty, and soap and towels abound. Naphtha lights furnish illumination. Electric experiments have never been successful.
The music of the band furnishes the circus man's cue. He knows by its brazen notes when to leave the dressing-room for the ring. If the musical director changes an air, the dressing-room inmates must be thoroughly informed to avoid delay and confusion. No performer is permitted to leave until the entire show is over. The danger of accident in the ring is never absent, and as many do several "turns" others must be ready if one becomes incapacitated. When the nights grow cold in the early and late season, the chill air which penetrates the canvas would drive any but the hardy circus folk to a sick-bed. Their trained systems are equal to all demands the elements put forward, however, and a cough or a cold are almost unknown. A miserable enough place it is when the rain falls freely. Scant as is the dressing-room protection, the journey to and from the rings is infinitely worse. Performers return to their trunks wet in the feet and generally bestrewed with drops from the head down. Pretty costumes are spotted and the effect is very depressing. There is peril to life and limb, too, when bars and trapezes and rings and other apparatus becomes drenched. Hands may slip, feet may not hold, a horse may stumble, and there are numberless other chances of misfortune. The equestrian director decides whether or not the possibility of disaster is too great for the act. If he deems the risk not too venturesome, the performer accepts cheerfully, no matter what is his own conviction. Sometimes he enters upon the duty with grim forebodings as to the outcome, for he appreciates that perhaps the director, in his desire not to disappoint the audience, has imposed a critical undertaking. The circus concert offers opportunity for a display of talents other than those presented in the ring. Many performers with nimble foot or tuneful voice add to their incomes by this extra work.
Circus performers are persons of large and unwearied charity and compassion. No comrade is deserted in affliction or distress. Contributions of money and sympathy flow in upon him, and none fails to subscribe. If the situation requires more money than one circus is able to provide, word of the need is sent to friends with other similar organizations and there is always prompt and ready response. I know of a dozen invalids who are to-day being supported solely by the liberal benevolence of comrades.
Two benevolent societies are with the Barnum & Bailey circus, the B.O.S.S. and the Tigers. Each makes a weekly collection from the members and pays $15.00 weekly to the sick or disabled. Last year $9,000 was collected and $8,000 disbursed. The balances remained in the treasurers' hands for this year.
Many of the people of the circus accumulate competences after a few years' work, and there is no reason why all who live prudently should not soon be financially independent. Their expenses of travel, board and bed are all borne by the management, and other requirements of a circus campaign are few and small. It is a common practice with some to draw only a small share of their salaries each week. The accumulated balance awaits them in the money wagon at the close of the season. Then, there is the "mother" of the circus with whom many of the unmarried men and the boys deposit a weekly stipend. No plea, however piteous, will force her to disgorge, they know, until the last stand has been played. Then the amassed wealth is handed to them with a parting kindly injunction to be moderate through the winter and return next year with as much unspent as consistent. This interest in his welfare has started many a circus man on the road to prosperity and fortune.
The "mother" is one of the most interesting characters of the circus. Her life is devoted particularly to the welfare of the woman performers under tents. Her official duty is as matron of the women's dressing-room. She it is who supervises their wardrobe, mends sudden breaches in the tarlatan and bespangled skirts and cares for her charges in case of illness or accident. Should an equestrienne fall from her horse, it is the "circus mother" who brings the cup of black coffee, which is the only stimulant ever given to gymnasts and acrobats in such an emergency.
At night, after the performance, she presides over the performers' luncheon of sandwiches and tea, which the circus women enjoy in the sleeping car. In short, she is a general chaperon, hospital nurse, friend and counsellor in one. Our "mother's" long experience in circus life has made her familiar with every detail of the business and she knows what to do, without any prompting, whenever any emergency arises. Men and women alike come to her with the petty troubles that are bound to occur in the uncertain and strenuous existence they lead. She is cheery, sympathetic or admonitory as the occasion may require, and no one leaves her presence without being the better for having come into contact with the motherly matron. It is an axiom among circus people that the good-will of the "mother" is equivalent to lasting favor with the management, and that to incur her ill-will is to stand an imminent risk of losing an engagement.
A large part of her duty is the care of the circus wardrobe, and during the winter she devotes her entire time to it. With her deft fingers and the judicious use of naphtha she makes old circus costumes look like new. Trappings which are worn by the animals in the grand entry are all made by the "mother" and her assistants during the idle winter season. She is as expert at cutting a pattern for the costumes of the animals as a Fifth avenue modiste is at cutting those for her smart clientele. She is, in short, the Worth of circusland. Although nearly sixty years old, she is as lively as a woman half her age.
The domestic instinct is very strong among the circus women for the reason that they are deprived of home life, a great part of every year. It finds an outlet in many little ways, one of which is an appeal to the chef in charge of the dining car to be allowed to bake a cake. If he is in a mood to give them permission they are pleased as children, and begin a hunt for eggs and milk. The train may be standing just outside of some village, and they run out and buy the things and come back and cook as though it were, the greatest fun in the world. When their cake or pie is done, it is passed through the car, and no matter how small it may be, there is always a bit for everyone. Sometimes the cook is ill-tempered and won't let them fuss around, but that doesn't always stop them. It isn't at all unusual for them to go to one of the houses along near the track and ask the woman who lives there to let them use her kitchen. Almost always they get permission and afterwards pay for it.
They sew, too, and many do exceedingly pretty fancy work. They don't have to keep their circus clothes in order. The "circus mother" does that, but they do all the mending of personal garments, and besides keep some sort of pickup work on hand. There isn't a home of a circus woman that is not furnished with the covers of some sort she has made during the season. One seldom sees a circus woman in a city after the season is over. She flees from it. She detests the noise and bustle, and, almost without exception, they all live in little country towns, where they practise during the winter, go early to bed and are in fine condition when the season opens.
I know that it is a common thing to believe that a circus woman has no modesty, but the impression is a mistaken one. She can dress as she does and perform, and still be a perfectly good, pure woman. That is because no town has any identity to her, nor any person any individuality. It makes no difference to her whether the show is in New York City or Kalamazoo. There is simply a performance to be given, and she is not playing to any one person. There is no "he" in the audience who may be attracted to take her out to supper afterwards. He wouldn't have the chance to speak to her, if he wanted to, and if she seems to him an earth-born fairy, she never knows it. No women could live more protected lives. The performance isn't over until eleven o'clock, and all must be in the cars of the circus train by midnight, when the cars are usually locked for the night; and when one remembers that a circus woman is almost invariably married, and that her husband is with her, it can be appreciated that the moral standard of the profession is high. Most of the circus women support families, and their leisure between performances is spent in sewing - perhaps garments for younger children at home, or, as a matter of economy, for themselves; for they save every possible penny, finding incentive and practical aid in the fact that they need not consider the expense of living in the necessary outlay.
After the night performance, they return to their private cars, which are by that time prepared to start for another town as soon as the tents and other paraphernalia are aboard. Week after week of this routine, as regularly carried out as the work of a factory, requires physical stamina as well as the actual gymnastic or acrobatic circus faculty, for which a clear brain is the most requisite. These things are not maintained except by regular living. The motto of the circus acrobat, therefore, might be "plain living and high jumping." Beneath the white canvas, as under the brick and iron of city office buildings, there is no room for those who complain. “Headaches" and similar excuses for a non-appearance must for disciplinary reasons be frowned upon by the equestrian director - the stage manager of the circus. It is the " circus mother" who pleads with him to excuse the women who are not able to appear. She it is to whom they go with griefs and complaints and upon whose sympathy in their concern they may rely.
Frivolity, even in the innocuous guise of a waiting maid, is discouraged in circus life, and no woman performer, be she ever so celebrated, is allowed to carry a handmaiden to aid in dressing her. "No room for 'em," is the terse but eloquent excuse of the management.
Circuses of the better class look after the welfare of their woman performers with a surprising regard to detail. They are provided with a special car in which they live while on the road, except when the show plays a three-night or week's stand; in that case they are quartered in a hotel. How very comfortable their travelling quarters may be they are nevertheless pleased when an opportunity is had to spend a few days in a room which affords sufficient space to allow of unpacking and repacking trunks, for in one-night stands the trunk containing personal belongings is never moved except from car to lot. Woman riders frequently own their own horses. It is indeed considered a breach of circus etiquette, or more particularly speaking a lowering of one's "caste" to be content to ride an animal owned by some one else. The sharp little vibrant "clucks," with which the equestrienne commands her horse in the ring, are "cues" which he understands as well as he does the swaying of the ringmaster's whip from left to right, or the pressure of his rider's satin slipper. Each of these is a suggestion to his memory that brings instant response in some change of movement.
The disadvantage under which a circus woman "makes up" would drive an actress to despair. She sits upon a small stool before the stationary mirror in the upraised lid of the trunk, and "makes up" as best she can in the big dressing tent. There are perhaps thirty other women in the tent, and a wardrobe mistress in charge, prepared to mend suddenly acquired rents in emergencies. The use of alcohol for spirit lamps is not allowed unless with a special permit from the "mother." Many of the woman acrobats, gymnasts and jugglers are foreign. They have homes abroad, perhaps, and work industriously in leisure hours to beautify them. One woman who travelled last season with us completed during the tour an entire bed set of renaissance lace, cover and pillow shams. This same woman who is one of a troupe of acrobats, when twitted for her "stinginess," was wont to reply: "Well, it is another brick in my house - every dollar I save." She was buying a home for her mother and sister.
Any one who witnesses the performance of these professional female athletes must marvel at the strength, skill and endurance that a woman is capable of. There are on both sides of the Atlantic more than two thousand women who earn their living in this way, and of these nearly one half are found in America. They like the West best; for they tell you the Westerner is the most ardent admirer of muscle and nerve as displayed by the gentler sex. The women like their business. They have no special dietary. They eat when they feel like it; eat heartily, too, and of anything they crave. Their remuneration varies from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars a week. The best of them and, of course, the few, command the latter sum.
A woman performer with whom I talked one afternoon gave it as her opinion that women are more proficient as animal trainers than men. She said: "One need not seek far for a reason for this. In the first place, women are more patient, and it is quite a mistaken idea to suppose that rough methods are necessary in training animals. One sees many more woman animal trainers abroad than in this country, but a number of them have been celebrated in the United States. I think it is the mother instinct in women which enables them to command the obedience of animals. It is a well-known fact among circus people that monkeys are particularly fond of women. Horses, too, are readily trained by women.
"Some years ago I trained successfully a number of sheep, supposedly the stupidest of animals. I cannot say that I found them overweaningly intelligent, but with much patience, the virtue which I insist makes a woman capable as an animal trainer, I succeeded in teaching them a series of tricks both original and clever, such as are usually performed by a dog circus. Dogs and horses have the best memories, though some trainers contend that the elephant has. A dog or horse will respond to a nod or the slightest swaying motion of a whip from side to side. Elephants, being more ponderous of body, naturally require more time to train."
Few people distinguish between the gymnasts and acrobats of a circus, yet there is a distinction with a decided difference. The acrobat is he who tumbles and turns somersaults, and usually "starts the show" by running from a springboard and jumping over the wide backs of elephants in line. The gymnast is an aerial artist, and his work has little in common with that of the other performer. Some people, according to an authority on circus matters, are born with a balance. Presence of mind has not only to be a habit but an exact science, as it were, with the man or woman performer who would master the art of the flying ring. This is one of the reasons for the abstemiousness of the circus fraternity. No drugs or alcohol are permitted inside the circus tent. This is a law the violation of which means inevitable dismissal for any performer. Perhaps the very obvious necessity for its enforcement is at the same time the reason why it is so seldom broken. Performers must needs be springy of step, clear of head, keen of eye and sound of liver.
Perhaps few in a circus audience who have many times admired the graceful gesticulations of the tight rope and slack rope walkers realize the utility of the small Japanese umbrella which they wield with apparently careless grace. As a matter of fact, the umbrella and other paraphernalia thrown to them by the attendants and which they manipulate for no apparent reason save that of adding effectiveness to the act, are in reality used for balancing purposes. Many a wire walker has been saved from perhaps fatal accident by a dexterous swerving of the light parasol from right to left, readjusting the balance just in the nick of time.
Most of the circuses abroad are enclosed indoor affairs, and as the buildings in which such attractions are seen are of much greater height than anything we have in this country, the opportunity for daring gymnastic acts is far greater than here. At the Crystal Palace, the Olympia and the Royal Aquarium and also at the Alhambra, many feats are performed which it would be impossible to duplicate here. Children are oftener seen as acrobats and gymnasts in the old country than in America. They begin to train as early as three years of age and many tots of six and seven are wonderfully accomplished circus performers, in lands where the Children's Society holds not sway. These children are in many instances apprenticed out to old performers who train them, and are repaid in return by their services for a certain number of years.
Few of the members of the so-called acrobatic families bear any individual relationship to one another, and the name taken by the troupe is usually that of the trainer or leading acrobat.
Of late years costumes for acrobats have changed considerably. It used to be the fashion to wear tights and blouses which would be as little impedimental as possible to the free swing of the body. Now, however, the latest acrobatic actors imported from Europe are affecting evening dress, the women in decollete gowns, full-skirted, and the men in the black and white habiliments prescribed by convention for dress occasions. Needless to say it is much more difficult for both men and women to perform acrobatic feats thus attired, but the fashions of the circus world like those of society are inexorable.
Nothing could be more incongruous than the devotion existing between our French animal trainer and his performing grizzly bear. The animal is the largest of the bear species and the most powerful and formidable, yet this owner has taught his specimen gentleness and good manners. He is its constant companion and attendant. Its long and shaggy brown coat is brushed and combed at frequent intervals, and food is proffered in bare outstretched hands. It obeys commands with all the sagacity of a well-trained dog and gives an exhibition of wrestling, pugilism and other difficult displays which interest and amuse. Its enormous paws and long sharp claws are a menace against which pads and gloves sometimes avail nothing and the foreigner is ever a sorely wounded person. Bruin has been elevated to a state of intelligence which seems to give him keen enjoyment of bear humor. Thus it is that the circus folks declare that whenever the beast slaps or hugs its human friend with unusual violence, great glee is depicted in every characteristic. No matter how the resentful trainer exerts himself, he cannot retaliate with any effect. The sight of the Frenchman chattering angrily at the unconcerned furry humorist after their performance is a weekly source of merriment in the menagerie tent.
The "rooster man" is one of the novelties of the show and of the dressing-room. He is an Englishman who costumes himself like a monstrous fighting cock, gaffed and ready for the fray, and astonishes the audience with an exhibition in which an audacious little natural game cock participates. It concludes with a battle between the pseudo and the genuine bird in which the one engages eagerly and is impressed with an exultant, strutting conviction of victory when its huge antagonist flops fluttering to the ground. The diversion is as entertaining as any in the sawdust precincts and to the show persons the most remarkable for patience in training and endurance in execution. How little the onlookers imagine that after the act the human rooster frequently drops in a state of collapse and exhaustion! The feathers which envelop him are of necessity fastened to stiff and smothering supports, and their encumbering weight on a hot day is tremendous. This is one of the secrets of the arena which probably no one who has witnessed the unique performance ever divined.
For intrepid bravery and wild exploits I doubt if the equal of the trick bicyclist can be found. In the parade, the chances of injury he gleefully assumes fill the sightseer with horror and dread. Under the canvas the greater the risk the more enjoyment it accords him. He rides, in one exhibition, down an ordinary ladder which stretches to the dome of the tent. Down the smooth rungs he dashes, like a spectral flash, and his comrades wonder what the final end will be. Nothing can prevent the feat. When wet weather makes other performers hesitate or they are directed not to try their acts, he mounts merrily to his perch and trusts to luck and skill. Water drips from the apparatus and his mad flight seems impossible of safe accomplishment. He emerges unscathed. He is, too, the dare-devil of the "cyclewhirl," a cup-shaped apparatus made of wooden slats. He has four companions, but the neck-breaking scorching is delegated to him. Around the inclined track he rushes, with hands spread out and arms upraised, the contrivance shivering and rattling. Faster and yet faster he whizzes until he no longer looks like a man on a bicycle; he is a blurred line drawn around the track. Within an inch of the rim and disaster, down the drop to the very edge of the floor he rumbles with no power of guidance over his machine save his wonderful balance, and spectators catch their breath. Then a wild jump and he is bowing and smiling in the centre of the cup.
The invention of new acts engages the attention of acrobats and gymnasts most of the winter. Many of them rehearse in the gymnasiums of large cities, although aerial performers have difficulty in finding sufficiently ample quarters. They tell, in dressing-room conversation, of many queer experiences with the flabby-muscled, hollow-chested men who seek their aid and advice to attain better physical condition, and find much amusement in relating their observation of methods employed in this effort. A very rich weakling who patronizes one of the New York city gymnasiums is a never-ending source of hilarious reminiscence. He is ridiculous in all his bodybuilding plans, but firm in his belief in their efficacy. One of his practices is to run for hours with a bag of shot tied to his head. He has persuaded himself that it will develop and strengthen his chest!
It is in the knees that the evidences of age first manifest themselves in the acrobats. The strain on this part of the body is always intense. Suddenly the veteran finds accustomed life and spring have left them. Then he knows the end of his active career has come. Many of these men, barred physically from somersaults and the like, become "understanders," that is, they are the members of troupes who catch and support their twisting comrades who alight on shoulder or ground. Their strength is still in shoulder and arm, but agility is a wistful memory.
Circus rehearsals are delayed until two or three days before the formal opening, which affords ample time for guaranteeing a smooth performance. The reason that no more preliminary time is required is due to the fact that each performer appears for the season's work perfect in his individual act. There remains only the necessity for blending into a harmonious whole. Minor details are speedily adjusted by the equestrian director. The celerity with which intelligent order is evolved from chaos is amazing to the inexperienced observer.
The pretty and pleasant and picturesque part of daily life under canvas comes after the substantial meal at five o'clock, when for two hours there is rest for all save the hard worked side-show establishment. The woman performers, busy with fancy work and sewing; the men talking over the gossip of the ring; the children playing among themselves, and with the pet ponies, form a charming picture on the greensward back of the tents. Down from the southern hills steals the softly descending darkness, swift shadows move through the lingering twilight across the big tent and hang about the lot, and color comes into the white moon above. A breeze, long desired and grateful, sweeps through the place. Naphtha torches flare as the wind blows them about. Inside the "big top," the long stretches of seats barren of spectators, the equestrian director is disciplining an obstinate "cake walking" horse; the cycle sextet perfect a new pose; the clown is acting as ringmaster, while his wife rehearses her riding act, and ten gymnasts in the high white dome of the canvas plan more breath-taking aerial flights. Suddenly the shrill shriek of a whistle, a scampering to dressing-rooms, ushers in place and the evening audience pours into the seats.
Active preparations for the departure from town begin with the setting of the sun. When the naphtha torches spread their fluttering glow and when the men in the ticket wagon lift up its end and are ready for the evening sale, then canvasman, driver and porter swarm from the comfort of hay couch or from idling group, and are ready for the night's work. Team horses feel again the weight of harness, and the march to the railroad yards is on. Horse, cook, wardrobe, blacksmith, barber and the other tents spread over the lot drop to earth, are quickly rolled up and packed away. The sound of loading stakes, chains, ropes and poles resounds through the premises. Heavy wagons are soon rumbling through the streets and left convenient to the man at the cars. Then the teamster, returning leisurely to the lot, finds his second vehicle awaiting final transfer.
Ten minutes after the performance has begun, there is a scattering of the executive force at the main tent entrance and the canvasmen take possession. The ropes and stakes holding in position the marquee and menagerie tent are loosened, and the doorkeeper moves to the open fly in the big tent, called the back door. The evening exhibition programme is arranged with the view to finishing with the trained animals as soon as possible that they may be placed safely away for the night. So it is that the elephants, camels, zebra, ponies and other led animals are off with measured tread for the cars before the show is well under way. Then cages are closed, horses hitched, side walls lowered and the caravan passes out into the night. The order "lower away!" rings sharply, and the menagerie tent drops with a heavy puff and sigh. The denuded centre poles follow it to the ground and, where a few hours before was a white encampment is now a dark, bare area, rutted with wheels, trodden by many feet and littered with peanut shells and sawdust. Only the noisy "big top," glowing like a mammoth mushroom, and the side-show canvas, where the band thumps and the "barkers" roar with tireless energy, remain to mark the spot. The work of stripping the larger tent continues throughout the performance. As fast as a performer finishes his act his appliance is deftly conveyed to a waiting wagon. The entire arena has been divested of its maze and mass of apparatus before the audience have reached the open. They stare in amazement at the changed scene, as revealed in the lights and shadows of the torches. So expeditious and so smooth has been the work of the circus men that no knowledge of the magnitude of the accomplishment was conveyed to the crowd inside. The sideshow orators receive the outgoing throng with renewed clamorings. To take this last advantage and let no chance for profit escape, the tent has been kept open. The inmates yawn with the weariness and monotony of it all and eagerly await their last call to the front. Then begins a dash for the freedom and privacy which has been denied them since morning.
In the "big top" the concert band is fiddling valiantly and a woman in skirts tries to raise her voice above the noise of falling wood and stentorian command. Workmen are lugging the seats away, and tugging at ropes and stakes. The side-walls peel off as the last spectator emerges and performers hurry from their dressing-room. Then the thin white cloth roof comes tumbling from above like a monster bird; the encampment is no more. Through dark, deserted, silent streets the last man and wagon make their way. Nothing is left behind in the hurried leave taking. Everything large and small must be individually accounted for by its custodian.
At the railroad yards the blazing torches show a picturesque, animated spectacle. Here again orderly precision prevails. The wagons are drawn on to the cars by horses and a block and tackle, while a man guides the course of the vehicle by its pole as it is passed to the far end of the car. There is a " skid " or inclined plane at the end of the first car, and an iron plate bridges the space between the other cars, making a continuous platform. Each wagon has its number and allotted place again, and is placed to the best advantage for convenience of unloading and for utilizing space. A wrongly-packed vehicle would cause endless confusion and delay. It is seldom later than one o'clock when the three sections are on the move. Rain and mud annoy and retard, sometimes, but extra efforts nullify, in a great measure, the effect of their presence. Working-man and beast are slumbering deeply when the engines couple for the journey, and only the watchmen, patrolling the long stretches of cars, give sign of life and wakefulness. At one end of the line of Pullman sleepers, where are placed the performers and members of the business staff, is the most ornate piece of rolling stock, the Thelma, named for the general manager's daughter, a tot who is eagerly awaiting her father's winter cessation from toil. Here is a queer little lunch room where gather each evening, for a bite, after the show, the men and boys of the circus. An hour or two passes with much laughter and jollity and with many innocent jokes, intermingled with serious discussion. Ice-cream is the popular dish, and plateful after plateful vanishes down dusty throats. The frozen mixture is a nightly requisite of the body-weary circus colony. It is to them what the night cap of liquor represents to the toper. No headache or clouded brain or dulled body is its concomitant, only health-giving properties. Strong drink is tabooed in the Thelma, as is its fate elsewhere with the circus, and no demand for its presence has ever been manifested. The scene is one the most approved moralist would endorse.
Hassan Ali, the giant of the side-show, is the most unwelcome visitor. Room is at a premium, and he occupies about double space. Somebody is always stepping on his protruding feet, to his intense disgust, but to the ill-concealed amusement of the others. There is a general feeling of impending disaster when Hassan is seen stooping into the room. If his huge bulk doesn't shatter a chair, his awkward movements seldom fail to break a dish, crush a by-stander or scatter food indiscriminately. Colonel Seely, the privilege man, grumbles vigorously, and none of us are at ease until the giant has retired to bed and the nightly ordeal is over. Through it all Hassan never loses his temper or composure. His good nature knows no bounds.
A veteran of the ring tells of railroad accidents and other circus disasters and reverts to the days of P. T. Barnum. "That man certainly had his troubles," he observes. "His pecuniary catastrophes and fiery ordeals would have utterly discouraged a man less stout-hearted than he. Three times his museums were burned to the ground. The number thirteen he always considered ominous, for the first of his buildings was consumed on that day of the month, while the thirteenth day of November saw the opening of the second establishment, which was likewise subsequently destroyed by fire. On July 13, 1865, while he was speaking in the Connecticut legislature at Hartford, the American Museum was consumed. Nothing remained but the smouldering debris when he arrived in New York. It had been probably the most attractive place of resort and entertainment in the United States. Here were burned up the accumulated results of many years of incessant toil in gathering from every quarter of the globe myriads of curious productions of art and nature. The indefatigable showman immediately began the erection of new buildings at Nos. 535, 537 and 539 Broadway, New York, and started a new chapter in his career. The place was levelled by flames in March, 1868, completely frustrating his plans for the future. The loss did not disturb his tranquillity and he established a "museum, menagerie and hippodrome" in Fourteenth street. Four weeks after the opening, it, too, was ablaze and no effort could prevent its total loss.
"Fire did not, either, confine its devouring presence to his professional enterprises. On December 18, 1857, his home, 'Iranistan,' at Bridgeport, became the prey of flames. His assignees sold the grounds to Elias Howe, Jr., inventor of the sewing machine, for fifty thousand dollars, which went toward satisfying the Barnum creditors, for the showman was at that time in one of his periodical financial difficulties, from which, however, he finally extricated himself. His faculty for making money always successfully asserted itself.
"I was in his employ for many years and wonder that I escaped alive. I was in a dozen crashes on the railroad, and was in Bridgeport both times the winter quarters were swept by flames. Fire first came in 1887 and destroyed the main building. The white elephant and two others, Alice and Sampson, were burned, and nearly all the other animals except a rhinoceros, one lion and a white polar bear, perished. The blaze was of incendiary origin, for the watchman told me he saw a man coming down the outside stairs of the paint shop and a few moments later was struck on the head from behind and knocked down. Immediately after, the fire burst out and illuminated the horizon for miles around. The flames spread so rapidly that the firemen could do nothing more than save the adjoining buildings, cars and wagons. The rhinoceros made his escape through a window but was so badly burned that he died. An elephant came as far as the door of the building, then turned back into the flames. Alice and Sampson also made an attempt to escape. One large lion ran out into the yard and the spectators fled in all directions. It took refuge behind a car and a policeman fired several shots into his body. This partially disabled him and a keeper succeeded in caging him. Many of the museum and menagerie curiosities were in the burned building and were destroyed. One of the engines on the way to the fire was stopped by a large elephant on the streets. There was a panic among the people and they tumbled over each other trying to get out of the way. An escaped tiger also caused a great commotion. The elephant trainer was out of town and the other keepers were unable to quiet the frightened animals. Thirty of the elephants and one large lion started across the country in the direction of Fairfield and Easton, scattering the people right and left. It was several days before they were all recaptured.
"The other fire was in 1898 when Barnum was dead and the show was in Europe. The loss was one hundred thousand dollars. We got most of the animals stored there out safely. Fifty green horses, I remember, broke from their stalls and ran mad through the streets. The townspeople were pretty frightened, for they thought some of the wild beasts were loose."
The husband of "the mother of the circus" drops in for a sandwich. His wife has retired, longing for the happiness of all and full of plans to promote it. He has been twitting the unicycle performer because the latter's wonderful feat has been made almost insignificant by comparison with the "loop-the-loop" accomplishment. The equilibrist retorts that for next season he has arranged an act that will discount anything ever seen under tent. He proposes to hoist the "cycle whirl" apparatus thirty feet from the ground and ride on its track with nothing between him and earth. There is a general protest that he hasn't the nerve or skill; but he smiles knowingly.
The discussion turns to feats of agility; it is agreed that the tight rope walker is the best tumbler with the show. The clown laments because he hasn't received the usual daily letter from the little woman he married in New York in the spring. The equestrian director tells of the circus as it used to be, and all enjoy his stories. One of the trick bicyclist's arms is in a sling; he had a bad fall during the evening performance. The family of Italian acrobats jabber tirelessly in the corner; they know nothing of our language, but their superior skill commands a big salary. A somersault rider dashes in after a sandwich for his wife, with whom he does a carrying act. The Japanese juggler and his son retire together; they are never apart. There is a laugh at the expense of the two horizontal bar performers who lost their way in the sombre village streets and were an hour in finding the car. A partial exodus begins when the word goes forth that the first section is ready to move. Those whose berths are on one of the other divisions bid good-night. So the scene and its actors shift. At midnight or soon after, the Thelma lunch-room is deserted, save for the busy porter. Dusty clothes and shoes that show inconsiderate treatment occupy his time until the yawning cook appears. Then the delicious odor of coffee pervades the quarters, and breakfast food awaits the hearty order of hungry men. They are far removed from the scene of a few hours before and gaze curiously at the surroundings. To-morrow morning the setting will be new and strange again.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified June 2006.