When the publisher of this book approached me with the idea that an anthology of my articles from Bandwagon might find favor with those interested in circus history, I was skeptical. There has been very little feed-back from readers in the thirty-five years since I began to publish the results of my research. Sometimes, I had doubted that anyone other than Fred Pfening, Jr., the editor and I had even read them. I was surprised that no one had questioned my conclusions, even with the passage of time. Since much of my work was inspired by the need to question those who had written earlier, I expected to be treated in a similar manner by wiser heads. That such did not come to pass may well be because most of these pieces are dated in the period before the Civil War. As far as I know, no contemporary researcher has confined himself to that era. It is not difficult to be an expert when one is the only Richmond in the field.
Granted that some of this material eventually graced books that I wrote, most of what is printed here has seen the light but once. When the collected articles were handed me, so that I could choose among them, I decided that the ones that had value were those that instructed us in one or more facets of circus history, or presented new information.
To paraphrase Plutarch, it is difficult to trace anything by history, because the view is interrupted by time, on the one hand, and by distortion, on the other. The interruption by time is not important when one is researching in the nineteenth century. Those days are not that different from these. Distortion, however, includes methodology, and it is there that I feel many early commentators fall short.
We should also admit that, too often, the initial solution found to a question was accepted as the ultimate. Popular history is far down the list of important writing, thus its errors are seldom punished.
Plutarch says distortion in the writing of history comes from envy and ill will, and from favor and flattery. We would certainly not accuse circus historians of any of these sins. The most grievous errors would seem to be misreading and misinterpretation.
In the section of the book labeled Generic History we have collected those items the history of which we have not found any record prior to our own efforts. The canvas tent was held to be introduced by Nathan Howes in 1826, as recently as R. W. G. Vail’s 1933 writing, yet no one seems to have sought earlier examples. When the Delaware newspapers were read in 1980, it was discovered that J. Purdy Brown and Lewis Bailey had used a tent in 1825. It was then that a statement in an 1870 issue of the New York Clipper made sense, saying as it did that Brown was the first man to use a canvas tent.
I cite this instance because it is a clear case of distortion based on incomplete information. There are many similar cases in the literature, which are how errors become institiona1ized over time. P. T. Barnum has been credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” to the extent that it’s practically written in stone, but when Barnum’s chief biographer, Arthur Saxon, investigated the statement, he found it to be falsely credited.
Each of the articles in this volume were instigated by a question, and written as a result of an answer. I wanted to determine who had the first tent; how did the evolution of seating play out? Who were in the seats? Others were suggested by statements in the literature.
The history of the cookhouse was offered by the New York Clipper in James B. Cooper’s obituary in 1890. This brought up counterclaims by other managers, as to when the innovation was established. A series of letters to the Clipper eventually proved that William B. Davis, Jr., of the Mabie Circus was the man who first arranged a tent and stoves to feed employees on the lot instead of at hotels. This piece practically wrote itself.
In the same series of letters that concerned the origin of the cookhouse came remarks that helped to establish the beginning of the concert or after-show. In regard to this evolution, were advice and advertisements of the 1857 seasons of Orton & Older, and Nixon & Kemp.
In our section of articles headed General History we offer pieces that we hope serve to analyze questions raised through examining large amounts of material that came our way as adjuncts to our reading. So many commentators held Isaac VanAmburgh out as the first wild beast trainer that we had to research the question to determine if he truly was. As it happened, he was not. The same line of questioning took us to the origins of the traveling menagerie; the history of the Zoological Institute; and the career of the elephant Tippoo Sultan.
Many times, a single item in a newspaper would lead to research that resulted in the solution of problems that had bedeviled historians for years. The item headed “A Parting of the Ways,” refers to a report in a South Carolina newspaper in 1856 that told of the end of the eleven year partnership between John Robinson and Gilbert Eldred. “Bad Press - Big Crowds” chronicles a search prompted by a negative review of the P. T. Barnum and Seth B. Howes Caravan and Menagerie. Joel E. Warner’s memoir of interrupting a speech by Abraham Lincoln unearthed the involvement of circuses with the Lincoln - Douglas debates.
We should also admit to those serendipitous occasions when we were prompted to produce an article from a single source. Fred Dahlinger supplied what amounted to the story of the Yankee Robinson debacle of 1875, wholly from the pages of the St. Paul Press. Fred Nathans’ family papers were the impetus for telling the history of that important group of performers. Delane Ferguson’s genealogical search for her great-greatgrandfather, Victor Pepin, allowed us to learn for the first time the details of the life of that circus pioneer.
Some of our writings of a biographical nature came about through evidence found in the course of looking for something entirely unrelated to the subject. Research, by its nature, is full of such serendipitous events. Our biography of Oscar Stone was prompted when we discovered that he was the only standing rider of record who was selftaught. The choice of James Hunter as a subject was obvious, since he was the first bareback rider in the American circus. We wrote about Joe Pentland when a rare Daguerreotype of him came our way. The Jackley Drops were suggested during a conversation with Ayres Davies.
None of what we wrote here should be accepted as the last word on the subject or the personalities. The world of the circus is so vast that new information in constantly being discovered. Since these pieces were composed, William L. Slout has shown that 1873 was the first year for the two-ring circus, and an 1899 interview with Dan Castello has come to light in which he tells of using fence rails for seating in the days before bleachers. Those are but two examples of ongoing research into various aspects of this fascinating corner of popular amusement. And since the history of the genre is added to each day by the continuing round of performances, the promise of more books, more articles, and more reviews, would seem to stretch limitlessly into the future.
Read: The First Cookhouse
Read: The Out-Side Shows
Read: The Scenic Riding Acts
Read: A Parting of the Ways
Read: Enter Mr. Gardner
Read: Victor Pepin’s Genealogy
Read: The Jackley Drops
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.