It was in the thriving little manufacturing town of Pawtucket, which lies partly in Rhode Island and partly in Massachusetts, that I was initiated into the mysteries of the Sawdust Ring. I had entered into an engagement, as it turned out, far from a lucrative one with the proprietors of Howes's Great London Circus, and Sanger's Menagerie of trained animals, to appear for "positively one week only" as a member of their matchless company; not as a star rider, a gymnast, or a contortionist, nor even as a "merrie Jester," but in the humble though very useful capacity of "supe," There is nothing like taking a back-seat in the lowest chamber. You can sink no lower, and you may possibly rise to any height to which your ardent ambition may soar. In a traveling circus you may even rise so high as to be deemed worthy of the honor of being sworn at by the ring-master, and, by displaying unheard-of merit and some business ability, you may by a streak of good luck, be actually promoted to the proud position of ticket-collector at the doors.
Fired with a noble and laudable ambition, I had procured such a letter of introduction to Mr. Howes as at once secured me a position, humble as it was, in that gentleman's vast establishment, and five minutes after receiving my appointment I was duly enrolled on the paymaster's books, that official being instructed by Mr. Howes to conduct me to the awful presence of the "boss" "of the "supes." My boss was one of those gentlemen of length without breadth, as that bugbear of my school-boy days - Euclid - defined a line; but, withal, wiry and muscular. He looked me up and down with a critical eye, and then he curtly inquired of the paymaster, in the most contemptuous tone:
"Where in the hell did you pick that up?" at the same time pointing scornfully with his thumb at poor me.
This was not encouraging by any means for a young beginner. However the paymaster gave him to understand that Mr. Howes himself was my godfather.
"Why didn't you say so before?" growled my boss, in a surly way; and then, turning to me, he ordered me to follow him.
The afternoon performance was about to begin, so I was divested of my literary jacket, thrust into a scarlet coat that was too small for me, and told to assist in putting the fancy trappings on the ladies' horses, and make myself generally useful in the entry way of the ring. What a glorious debut!
Within twenty minutes my "boss" confidentially told the ring-manager that "that new supe you've took on don't seem to amount to much." The ring-manager replied, however, that it was none of his business; that Mr. Howes had taken me on. An hour afterward my "boss" declared to Mr. Howes himself that I “wasn't worth a cent a day, and that he had better shake' me as soon as possible." Before the perfomance was half over, he had sworn at me a dozen times for idling about (ignorance of my duties compelled me to confine my efforts to carrying the resin-board, on which the acrobats and gymnasts rubbed the soles of their shoes, into the ring); and after the final act he indignantly remonstrated with Mr. Howes, whose unusual passiveness he could not understand, told him that I was "nothing better than a God-damned loafer, and that he didn't "want no such chaps as him around."
I had not been long a member of the circus troupe before I discovered that all my previous ideas with regard to that class of people were totally erroneous - at least, so far as those with whom I was thrown in contact were concerned. I had expected to find myself among a rollicking, roystering set of men, who preferred short pipes and tobies of ale to wine and cigars, and whose dressing-room was a theatrical exhibition of every thing that is coarse and objectionable. And I had more than a vague suspicion that some of the ladies might be a little loose in their notions of strict propriety. I was astonished, then, to meet a company of staid and decorous ladies and gentlemen, quiet and rather reserved in manner, and so far from having a liking for dissipation that they were only too anxious to get to bed as soon as they got home from the evening performance.
Nearly all the ladies in the troupe are the wives of the gentlemen in the troupe. Among the riding "stars" there is one family, comprising two brothers, the wife of one of the brothers, and three sisters. They are connected by marriage with Mr. Howes, and, even if he were careless on that subject, and he is not by any means, they would not tolerate for one moment the companionship of any one against whom there was a breath of suspicion. The leading clown has his wife in the troupe; so has the leading acrobat, the band-master, some of the somersault leapers and others. Even the women who sell lemonade, oranges, cake and candy, are wives of the ticket-sellers or other employes. A few of them have a young child or two with them.
The leading clown, or, as he should more properly be termed, the jester - for he takes for his model the court fools of the middle ages - has been in the ring for five-and-twenty years. He has been all through Europe, in Australia, India, China, Japan, the Feejee Islands, and Egypt, and has even paid a visit of pleasure to the arctic regions in a whaling-ship. Being a man of thought and intelligence, be has stored his mind with a mass of the most interesting information. He has, as have all his companions, a great idea of sustaining the good name and reputation of the profession.
Another thing particularly struck me - the dress of the lady riders. There was none of that prurient suggestiveness about it which is doing so much to demoralize the stage. It was neat and tasteful, yet pretty and attractive, only short enough to enable them to go through their acts, and free from all unnecessary exposure of the shoulders and bosom.
It is not an uncommon thing among church-going provincials to regard a circus as "something to be avoided," if not even an invention of Satan himself. I have no hesitation in saying that, so far as Mr. Howes's circus is concerned, no child could possibly see any thing in it but a legitimate afternoon's or evening's pleasure and excitement. At all events, I can bear witness that it was so while I remained a "supe" in Mr. Howes's circus.
I cannot, I think, furnish stronger testimony to the general demeanor of our company, than by quoting a remark, which I happened to overhear, made by the landlord of one of the hotels where we stopped to one of his other guests:
“If I had not been at the entrance when they arrived," he said, "I should not have known that there was a circus-man in the house."
There were over thirty of us in that one hotel.
Circus-life begins very early in the morning. It could hardly well begin much earlier, unless it began the night before. But, when it is considered that the journey from one town to another often occupies six hours, and that the doors are open for the mid-day performance at one o'clock, it is evident that this is necessary.
The company is divided Into four detachments. The first - the hostlers - starts with the stable-tents at two o'clock; the second, with the menagerie and circus-tents, starts at three o'clock; the cages of animals, and the enormous pageantry chariots follow them and all the performers start as soon as they have got through their four o'clock breakfast. One very strict rule brings every man to his post at the right time for starting; no one is allowed to ride on any other wagon than his own. To those, like myself, unaccustomed to sleeping in the daytime, going to bed at half-past eleven and getting up at half-past three is a terrible infliction. But, after an hour's ride in the fresh, bracing air of the early morning, one's energies are soon alive, and an interest is aroused in the game of euchre or whist going on in one of the omnibuses, and in the running fire of badinage which is kept up all along the line as those members of the company who have buggies of their own pass wagon after wagon.
When the foot of a hill is reached, most of the men turn out and walk, so as to ease the teams, and many a back-somersault is turned on the high-road, with only a few startled cows looking over the fence by way of spectators.
I used to like to walk by the side of the elephants. They march with such a solemn, stately tread, as though they were a mere lifeless mass moved by means of machinery, and I must ask the reader to accept my assurance that the elephants which traveled with us were no common elephants. They are, in their way, far more remkable members of a circus troupe than I was myself. I had made great friends with one of them, and used to put a roll in my pocket every morning for him to steal. One morning I put it in the wrong pocket, and he got nothing but my pipe and tobacco, which, on finding, out his mistake, he very knowingly replaced. He was an animal of considerable intelligence; for, one morning, when a young urchin by the roadside said to his companion, "Shouldn't I like to have a ride on that elephant," I could have sworn that my friend of the trunk winked at me, as much as to say, "Don't he wish he may get it!" As I have said, these elephants are really very wonderful animals. Their performance in the ring is marvelous, considering that their training only began in January last, They will shuffle round the ring at a great pace like the trained horses, walk on three legs, stand on their hind-legs, stand on their forelegs, using their trunks as a support; go round the ring waltzing, and form themselves into pyramidal groups on pedestals of different heights. One of them even goes up a ladder, turns round, and comes down headfirst, and another grinds a barrel-organ, turning the handle with his trunk. Altogether, it was a marvelous exhibition of animal-training; and yet their trainer tells me they can do still more wonderful tricks, though he is not yet sufficiently sure of them to exhibit them in the ring.
Behind the elephants came four beautiful tamed zebras, drawing an elegant little park phaeton. This is the only team of four zebras that has ever been trained. Queen Elizabeth is said to have had a pair; but no other cases are recorded. The zebras used to cause me a good deal of amusement as we passed through the villages. The rustics would almost invariably exclaim, "Look at them painted donkeys!" It was the same in the show, The provincials had never heard of tame zebras before. There was always a crowd gathered around them discussing the question as to whether they were painted donkeys or really zebras. I heard one man, who evidently thought be was arguing the matter very logically, exclaim to a knot of listeners:
"See here now, them ain't zebers! don't you see they're all marked alike? They've been damned fools enough to paint 'em all to one pattern."
It was just the same with the team of eight spotted donkeys. The unsophisticated rustics would have it that they were painted. They would insist, too, that the lion-cubs were only puppy-dogs dyed to the right shade of color. What an insult to the young family of the king of the forest, who is in truth a lordly animal for whom I have the highest respect! Indeed, I have generally a school-boy hankering after circus-menageries, in spite of the Puritan anathemas under which they rest.
I'spite of till hypocrisy can spin,
As surely as I an a Christian scion,
I cannot think it is a mortal sin
(Unless he's loose) to look upon a lion,"
But I must get on to the next place where we are to perform. By the time the circus and menagerie tents arrive on the ground, the stable-tents are all erected - ten of them in all; for, with the draught-horses the pad horses, the trick-horses, ponies and donkeys, stabling is required for two hundred animals. While the hostlers unharness the teams and feed and groom them, the tent men remove the canvas, heavy tent-poles, and seats from the wagons, and the foreman proceeds to lay out the ring.
Laying out the ring is rather a nice operation. It must be a perfect circle of an exact diameter, otherwise the horses would be thrown out of their stride when going round it. The bank of earth which incloses it is formed by ploughing several furrows, and then shoveling the earth up. A man must have a very correct eye and have his team under perfect control, to plough a true circle; for he has nothing but his eye to guide him.
While he is at work, the tent-men swarm about. And yet no one gets in another's way; for every one has his own poles to raise, his tent-pegs to drive, his seats to erect in a certain section of the tent, or his allotted portion of the canvas to attend to. The whole thing is done as if by clock-work, and almost as rapidly as the erection of the fairy palaces in the Arabian Nights. I traveled with the tent-men one morning for the express purpose of seeing the tents erected. They were put up, both the circus and the menagerie tents, in a little under two hours. Now, the circus-tent itself, though not quite so big as the Circus Maximus of old Rome, which was one mile in circumference, is one hundred and thirty feet across, and holds over six thousand people. One would have thought that it would occupy a whole day to put up the seats alone. The menagerie tent is only a little smaller than the circus-tent. As soon as the animal cages and chariots arrive, their canvas coverings are removed, the tires, axles, and springs are examined, and the dust or mud removed from the wheels. Presently, the omnibuses, rockaways, and buggies, containing the performers and the band, begin to arrive in rapid succession, their occupants hurrying away immediately for the dressing-tents.
Of the ladies' dressing-tent of course, I am unable to say any thing. The men's tent presents a most curious spectacle in the course of five minutes. In the centre stands a sort of high pedestal with small looking-glasses arranged on the top. Before one glass stands the "funny" clown, applying any amount of mutton fat to his face and neck before he puts on the powdered whitening and vermilion paint which is to give to his face the conventional half-ghastly, half-comical appearance which clowns affect. At the next glass stands a stalwart fellow, with nothing on but fleshings and a pair of high jack-boots, dyeing his mustache to a beautiful black. Peeping over his shoulder is a companion whose only garment is supposed to be a steel corselet putting at least a quarter of a pint of oil upon his hair. All around are huge cases; one filled with breastplates, another with helmets, others with lances, flags, and banners, and others with great crimson jack-boots. "Helmet for Number Ten!" cries the property-man, and Number Ten, perhaps almost in a state of nudity, makes a short-cut to the property-man by means of a somersault. (All the performers are required to ride in the procession.) "Breastplate for Number Sixteen!" calls another property-man; and Number Sixteen, who is shaving, nearly cuts a piece out of his cheek. Down goes the razor, for the rules against keeping the property-man waiting are very stringent as I found out to my cost the one morning I rode in the procession.
It was on the second day of my circus-life, and in the good city of Providence, Rhode Island, that I made my first and last appearance as a knight in full armor in the public streets. My costume consisted of a corselet and petticoat, such as were worn by the old crusaders; a steel breastplate, a steel helmet, with visor and nodding plumes, and a pair of large crimson boots, reaching to the knee. The property-man also furnished me with a gigantic battle-axe and gave me very brief instructions as to how I should carry it. For any further information as to the style of my costume, I must refer the reader to the engraving from Mr. Gurney's photograph at the commencement of this sketch.
When we were all mounted - we were twenty knights and twenty ladies - and the remainder of the procession was all in order, the word "All ready" was given, the four heralds sounded their trumpets, the bands struck up a martial air, and the next moment we were marching in solemn procession through the crowded streets for the delectation of the youth and infancy of Providence. The boys cheered, the men stared in an idle sort of way, and the little children clapped their hands; and all along the route we were criticised by young and old. Remarks, such as "Look at them chariots! Say, ain't that the biggest show you ever and, to the knights, "Say, boss! ain't you mighty fine?" greeted us from every side. But I had not gone a hundred yards before I discovered that my saddle was a most uncomfortable one, and that it is very difficult for a novice to carry himself with that martial bearing so imperative in circus street-processions. But the discomfort of my saddle was a trifle to the suffering I was soon to endure from my helmet. The thermometer stood eighty-five degrees in the shade, and the rays of the sun shot down on the polished surface of the helmet with such intensity that I felt as if my head was being roasted. I am sure that I could have steamed potatoes inside that helmet, or broiled a porterhouse steak on the outside of it. It was a patent cooking-stove on a small scale - generating," as the stove-founders say, in their advertisements, "an immense amount of heat with absolutely no consumption of fuel."
And I endured that agony for one hour before we returned to the tents, when I took the first opportunity to feel if my hair was singed. Like a camel, I rushed for a bucket of water, threw my helmet on the ground, and dashed my head under the water. The next moment I lay spluttering at full length upon the ground, with the sensation that a cannon-ball bad struck me somewhere near the region of the heart. I picked myself up slowly, and confronted that awful property-man. It was he and not a cannon-ball who had knocked me down.
"You're a nice sort of cuss to go chucking the properties about like, that!" be exclaimed, as he picked up the helmet and strode away.
Fortunately for me, my friend had so much to attend to that be hadn't time to knock me down again. Otherwise, I think he would have done so, for he was terribly angry, stood about six feet two inches, and was very powerfully built. As soon as the company had resumed the costume of the nineteenth century, they all hurried off to the different hotels to which they were assigned - some to snatch an hour's sleep before dinner, others to write letters, and others, again, to lounge about and smoke. I retired to my room to see if any of my ribs were broken.
I joined the company at dinner that day, for the first time, and found myself seated opposite to one of them whom I had not yet seen. I sat down in mute astonishment. Mr. Pickwick would have gazed at him through his gold spectacles in utter amazement. Sam Weller would have heartily enjoyed the contemplation of him for a good hour. It was the mammoth fat boy, aged eight years. I could not take my eyes off him, and he stared at me with a sort of stolid indifference as he piled his food into his capacious mouth. This young eight-year old ate to such an enormous extent that I expected every moment to see his jacket split. He is very great on roasted chicken, and a roasted chicken was provided for him. A six-weeks old kitten could not have made a meal off what he left of that chicken. I forgot to count how many potatoes he ate but he ate six good-sized hot biscuits, of which be is very fond. His mother sat at his right hand and every minute it was:
“Marmy, I want some more chicken - marmy, more biscuit - marmy, more potatoes."
In addition, he ate half of a very large custard-pie, and wound up with an enormous hunch of molasses cake and two oranges. He drank the necessary quantity of water to wash this immense mass of food down. His mother told me that be eats "four good square meals a day" (I should call them cubic meals), and that he "eats whenever he can get a chance between-whiles." A good supply of food is always placed by his bedside, because he is apt to wake hungry in the night. Perhaps the most marvelous thing about him is that he has never had a day's sickness in his life. I met this infant prodigy the next day in the show between the performances, and I asked his mother to allow me to measure him. She readily acceded to my request, and, in fact, took down his dimensions as I measured him. The task was an easy one, as he was dressed in the fashion of it child of three years of age - bare arms and chest. The following are the statistical results of the measurement of this eight-year-old prodigy:
He measured seventeen inches round the throat, fifty-eight inches round the chest over the, arms fifty-one inches round the waist, thirty-one inches round the thigh, nineteen inches round the leg below the knee and twenty-three inches round the head. He is four feet seven inches high, and weighs two hundred and seventy-eight pounds. I felt the boy's arms and chest and it was just like handling so much dough. If you prod him with your finger, the flesh goes in like an India-rubber ball; and when he sits down he seems to flatten and spread out over the chair. This infant enormity was born on the 25th December, 1863. I endeavored to verify the fact of his age by making inquiries of those performers who were in the show with him last year. They all told me that there was no doubt about his age, for, while they were traveling last summer, he was shedding his first set of teeth; and one or two told me that they had known him for four years, and had watched his extraordinary growth.
I had been so intently studying the "fat boy" that it was some time before my attention was attracted to his immediate neighbors. At his left hand sat rather a petite-looking young lady, nineteen years old, with a full beard and mustache; and next to her sat a little lady of eight-and-twenty years of age and thirty-two inches in height, in a child's high-chair. She is married to one of the employes of the circus, who is an ordinary-sized man, and, strange as it may appear, they say that she rules him with an iron rod by constantly threatening to get a divorce from him. Of course, as she brings him a considerable annual income by exhibiting herself, this is about the last thing he would wish her to do. She gave us a taste of her quality during dinner. The "funny" clown came in late, and, on taking his seat opposite the party, said:
“Well, my 'small by degrees and beautifully less,' how are you all this hot day?”
"Sir," exclaimed the little woman, firing up in an instant, "I will thank you to treat me as a lady; you deserve to have your ears well boxed. If my husband were here you wouldn't dare to address me so."
Left to my own devices during the afternoon performance (my boss having given me up in despair), I took my stand in the entry of the circus, and watched the performance from beginning to end, from, perhaps, the most desirable of all points of view. Our company boasted several first-class "stars." We had one lady who leaped from the back of her horse through four balloons at one leap with apparently as much ease as I could walk through a door-way and, undoubtedly, with more grace. We had another lady who thought nothing of kneeling on one knee on her husband's shoulder as he went round the ring standing on his horse's back. We had a gentleman who turned double somersaults over seven horses. He also performed the difficult feat of jumping on to a bare-backed running horse without touching him with his hands. He appeared simply to be running to catch the horse, but suddenly be seemed to fly from the ground, and instantaneously his feet were planted firmly on the horse's back. This act was always the signal for a storm of applause, cat-calls, whistling, and every other conceivable noise. We had an acrobat whose little boy held himself with his feet in the air, holding on his father's outstretched arm by simply one hand. We had two gymnasts who performed on three bars, and who always alighted on the ground in the very last way one would have anticipated. And we had the sarcastic humor of the jester, and the drolleries of the funniest of funny clowns. I confess that I enjoyed the thing immensely, and I was not surprised to learn from Mr. Howes the following day that they had been compelled to refuse admission to the best part of two thousand persons at the evening performance.
But it was supper-time, and I strolled back to the hotel. I leisurely went through a course of what Sam Weller called "rinsing," and then repaired to the dining room. To my surprise, I saw my "boss" standing, by the side of Mr. Howes as he sat at table and evidently talking in a very emphatic strain. Judge, then, his astonishment on seeing his chief rise from his seat, wish me good-evening as he shook me by the hand, and offer me the vacant chair by his side. Poor fellow! He hastily retired, muttering very audibly, "Well, I'm damned!" Mr. Howes told me afterward that he had been remonstrating most energetically against my being retained any longer; that he had complained that I was doing more harm than good, as the other supes were becoming dissatisfied at the leniency shown to me while they were inexorably kept up to the scratch. We laughed heartily over this little episode together; and, before the commencement of the evening performance, Mr. Howes walked arm-in-arm with me through the different tents. This action added still further to the mystery surrounding me; and, before I left the circus, there was an impression abroad that I was there with a view to purchasing an interest in the concern. Indeed! The small amount of ready money that I could raise would hardly persuade the proprietors of the show to part with a tent-peg! The show could not be replaced to-morrow under an expenditure of from three hundred and fifty to four hundred thousand dollars. Long, however, before I took my departure, my "boss" and I were on the most friendly terms. I told him confidentially who I was, and no one could have laughed more heartily than he did over the way in which he had been taken in. Said he:
"I have been thirteen years with my present employer in the circus business, and this is the biggest circus joke that has ever been played on me;" and then be added, "let's go and take a drink."
On the morning of the second day of our stay in Providence, I lit a cigar after breakfast and strolled down to the circus. On entering the menagerie-tent, I discovered the proprietor of the show seated on a bench and watching the tiger-trainer cleaning the tigers' cage. There were five tigers in the cage, all royal Bengal tigers and the most magnificent brutes that I ever saw.
“How those fellows would make mince-meat of you or me, did we venture into their cage!" I remarked, after wishing the proprietor good-morning.
"Yes, if we went in alone," he replied; "but that man has them under such perfect control that I would walk in there this minute, without a moment's hesitation. Would you like to go in? There's no danger."
I turned the matter over in my mind for a minute or two, and then approached the cage and asked the tamer what he thought about the matter. He replied to my inquiry, by driving all the tigers into one corner with his whip, and opening the door of the cage. The next moment I stood face to face with those fierce, splendidly ferocious animals, with only the tamer between us. For a few seconds they glared fiercely at me as though about to spring, and I clutched more firmly the latch of the barred door. Then one of the males raised himself on his hind-legs to his full length, resting his enormous paws upon the upper cross-bar of the cage. He snarled fearfully at me, and his velvety tail swept backward and forward in the most ominous manner. The jaws of death were wide open before me, and it seemed as if I could look half-way down his throat. But the keeper kept his eye steadfastly upon him, and the upraised whip cowed him into submission. The others paced uneasily up and down the end of the cage, evidently longing to make a meal of me, and uttering continually that horrible snarl peculiar to tigers; showing their gaping throats and tremendous fangs every time they did so. I opened the door of the cage and sprang out as the keeper's whip descended on the shoulders of one which was crouching for a spring, not being desirous of giving my lord of the jungle a ghost of a chance. The keeper himself shortly afterward left the cage, and the animals at once gave vent to the excitement under which they were laboring. They bounded backward and forward in the cage fought among themselves, and told me, as plainly as mute action could do, how great was their disappointment that they were not then engaged in picking my bones. They did not quiet down for half an hour afterward; but, being safely outside the cage, I could afford to laugh at their angry demonstrations, and did laugh heartily when Mr. Howes told me a story of a small boy who gave as his reason for envying the prophet Daniel, that Daniel had been in the lions' den and had seen the show for nothing!
Having done with the tigers, and it being about mid-day, Mr. Howes proposed that we should stroll down and see the men at their dinner. There they were, some seventy or eighty of them, seated at long tables in their tented dining-room. Their dinner consisted of the very best beefsteak, roasted pork, fried liver and bacon, stewed tomatoes, turnips, potatoes, pie, and pudding. Every thing was appetizing to the senses, and I expressed my surprise at the sumptuousness of the repast for that class of men.
“I find," replied Mr. Howes, "that, by giving my men all they want of the best of food, I get more work out of them, and it is much more willingly done."
I asked him where they all slept.
“Well," said he, "I have a capital system of tenting the men; but, as a general thing, they prefer to sleep in the open air, or in the stable-tents."
He showed me the sleeping arrangements. They consisted of a series of arched frames covered with thick tarpaulin, very much like the movable tops of grocers' wagons. They run in sets, each fitting inside a larger one, so that they can be packed together and easily transported. They are all provided with mattresses to fit them; but it is only in wet or very damp weather that the men can be persuaded to use them. That same night I took a stroll through the tents in company with the watchman, and it certainly was a curious spectacle to see these great, brawny fellows lying sound asleep in all directions, many of them within a foot or two of their horses' heels. One might almost fancy one was in some camp through which the Destroying Angel had assed, as through the land of the Pharaohs of old and that, instead of being soundly asleep, they were all dead men, lying where death had struck them down, so little thought had they exercised in choosing a sleeping-place, so apparently uncomfortable were the attitudes and positions of many of them, were it not for the loud trombone chorus which they unceasingly kept up.
An hour after, the scene was lively to a degree. Every one was awake and preparing for the day's march. Some were tethering and watering the horses, some taking down the tents, others packing them away in the wagons. It was a wild, strange scene, the breaking up of that camp by torchlight.
In another hour, the stable detachment had started; in another hour, no vestige of the circus was to be seen, save the broken-down ring and its soiled saw-dust. And yet some peculiar fascination had drawn a crowd of small boys to the spot, even at that early hour. The deserted spot looked like some banqueting-hall the morning after a feast, or a ballroom when the daylight has driven away the dancers.
Before leaving my friends - the knights of the sawdust - I was exceedingly anxious to try my hand at riding round the magic circle, and I persuaded the ring-master to have a pad put on a horse for my benefit. I mounted with any amount of confidence and bravado, in spite of his assurance that I was "certain to come to grief." But I relied on the saw-dust as being soft tumbling, and he started the horse with a crack of his whip. The clown, who was looking on, whistled the favorite circus air from Auber's opera of the "Cheval du Bronze." Of all the horrible jolting processes I ever went through, riding on a circus-pad is about the worst. I can compare it to nothing but riding in a box-wagon, without springs, over a series of railroad-ties, laid about six inches apart. And the edge of the pad, too, cuts into the inside of each thigh in the most merciless manner. The more I tried to hold on without holding with my hands, the more I was jolted; and, after one round, I determined to try the side-saddle fashion. That was very pleasant till the horse started; but we had not gone five yards before I fell over backward on to the rope inclosing the ring, and great was the fall thereof. But I was not to be beaten by one tumble, and I mounted again, this time with a leg on either side of the horse once more. After I had got round the ring, I thought I would try if it were possible for me to get on to my knees. Instead of jumping up on to both knees at once, in my ignorance, I put the outside knee up first. This was fatal. The horse being in what is called a “slantingdicular" direction - leaning at a considerable angle toward the centre of the ring - my position was a perfectly untenable one, and I was shot with considerable impetus from the horse's back, landing in the sawdust with a thud, to the infinite delight and amusement of the few lookers-on. I think that one experience of circus-riding will suffice me for life. It is a profession for which I was evidently never intended by Nature. My respect for circus-riding, however, as an art, is largely increased by it.
“It is not so easy as it looks, you see, sir," remarked my friendly ring-master, as he brushed the saw-dust off me. “People have no idea of the difficulty of attaining a true balance in riding round the ring. The body being out of the perpendicular, the centre of gravity is, of course, an unnatural one, and there is a continual tendency to fall on the inside of the horse. A perfect balance will enable a circus-rider of nerve to do almost any thing. It is this alteration in the centre of gravity in the body which makes leaping over banners and through hoops so difficult. For this reason: At the moment of springing from the pad, the rider's body is not perpendicular, but, in flying through the air, the body naturally assumes its proper perpendicular position. The consequence is that, unless the rider can instantaneously again accommodate his centre of gravity to that of the running horse, when he descends on his back, he must inevitably shoot from the pad into the ring, just the same as a stone bounds away when you drop it on a sloping surface. Otherwise, the leaping in itself is not difficult, provided the horse is well trained, and has a regular, even stride. Without an even stride a leap could not be made, for the rider must spring from the pad at the moment the horse rises behind. It is because the horse is out of his regular stride that riders are sometimes compelled to pass under the banners instead of leaping them. You have no conception of the difficulty of circus-riding." (I rather thought I had.) “Nearly all circus-riders are regularly apprenticed in their childhood, and are literally reared to it. I could train a little child to stand up on a running horse in three weeks. But I don't think you could stand up under a year, because of the vast difference between your size and -weight, and that of a little child."
This was to me a pretty clear definition of the main difficulties of circus-riding.
My experience of a circus has convinced me of one thing - that from the proprietor down to the lowest supe and stable-man, all, without exception, connected with one lead a very hard life, and earn every penny they get (the paymaster utterly forgot, at least, he omitted, to pay me my hardly-earned week's wages, whatever they may have amounted to), and that their short nights, their long journeys in a hot sun, over sandy, dusty roads, their processions in the mid-day glare, their thoroughly broken day, must be exceedingly exhausting to the system. There is, too, a considerable mental strain in going through a horseback act in the ring; while the physical exertion of the acrobats, gymnasts, and leapers, must be something tremendous. And yet, though some of them look worn, they are all as cheery and merry together as possible. Their kindness and courtesy to me will be ever remembered. One and all, from Mr. Howes downward, expressed their regret at the shortness of my stay with them; and, as I said farewell to them at Fall River, they grasped me warmly by the hand when I told them how pleasing and gratifying to me had been the insight they had given me into Life in a Circus. “A. P."
The Circus Historical Society does not guarantee the accuracy of information contained in the information in these online publications.
Information should always be checked with additional sources.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.