On a day shortly after Christmas in 1819 in Nuremburg, Germany, Henri Martin (1793-1882), a French rider temporarily out of work, entered the cage of a four year-old tiger, stayed a few minutes and emerged unscathed. (1) It was apparently the first such meeting in circus history. As time went on Martin taught the tiger, named Atir, to sit up, lie down and other simple movements. He became, then, the first “trainer” and his fame and reputation grew apace.
Thetard’s description of Martin’s introduction of himself into the cage, little by little, sounds like a method worth recommending. He first ventured a scratch or two through the bars, then went into a separated cage with the beast, that is, a cage divided in the center by bars. Then he introduced his head and shoulders into the tiger’s half of the den. Finally, he entered fully.
We find a similar progression in America, though by several different persons. Early menagerie advertisements speak of the keeper of the lion, as an example, combing the lion’s mane through the bars. One ad tells that the keeper will allow the lion to lick his hand. These familiarities seem natural between an animal and its attendant, but are much different from going into the beast’s cage.
The earliest American notice that we have found stating that “the keeper will enter the cage,” is dated 1829 and we suspect that such derring-do was delayed so many years vis-a-vis Martin’s accomplishment because of the nature of the cages then in use. Early cages were what are now called “shifting dens,” boxes with bars on one side, not much bigger than the animal and wholly unsuited for anything but display. These were carried in wagons, unloaded by hand and placed on sawhorses for public viewing. The American Antiquarian Society owns two of the earliest menagerie posters, printed from wooden blocks, each block with an animal’s figure shown. One of these is dated 1831, the other 1835. The one dated 1831 advertises June, Titus and Angevine’s American National Caravan. It shows animals still exhibited in shifting dens. The poster dated 1835 is from the same menagerie (by then one of the New York units of the Zoological Institute) and depicts wheeled cages. It says that the keeper will enter the (lion and tiger) cages at two o’clock. Between the dates of these two posters, then, the American menagerie became entirely mobile and the wheeled cages became of a size to admit both an animal and a keeper.
Actually, it is our belief that a special, larger cage was used for “cat acts” and the animals were transferred to it from their traveling cages. No chutes were used, the beasts were led by chain collars or simply guided by hand from one cage to the other.
To return to our 1829 date, the Pensacola, Gazette (Florida) of November 21 of that year contains an advertisement that reads, “the keeper will enter the respective cages of the lion and lioness.” This predates our 1831 poster showing cages still on sawhorses, of course, and we have no answer as yet to that contradiction. The Pensacola ad was placed by a menagerie that was on the road each year 1826 through 1829 as the New Caravan of Living Animals and in 1830 was titled Carley, Purdy and Wright’s Menagerie. Charles Wright (1792-1862) was the manager of the show in 1828, the year in which it became the first menagerie to travel with a circus. (2) He may have been with it earlier, but we have no proof of it. A native of Somers, New York, Wright was in the menagerie business for some time. He was a witness to Hackaliah Bailey’s will, which indicates that he was a member of the influential Putman County (N.Y.) group of showmen. That Wright was the keeper mentioned in Pensacola would seem to be true based on his positive identification as such in the Cincinnati Gazette of March 23, 1830. The menagerie was on the road all winter in 1829-1830. The Asiatic lion and lioness which were the objects of his attention were with the menagerie as early as 1827 and since they and Wright were continuously with it from then until 1831, it would seem that he was our first American “trainer.”
The menagerie was titled Purdy, Carley and Bailey in 1831, possibly indicating that Wright had left. If so, someone was still going in with the lion and lioness and we can guess that this was Solomon Bailey’s introduction as a keeper. In 1832 the show was named Purdy, Welch and Company, indicating that the “movers and shakers” were now in charge—Eisenbart Purdy and Rufus Welch. Whoever the keeper was in this season, and his name was not advertised, he was an employee, not a partner.
June, Titus and Angevine (we use this name historically, but only one or two of the gentlemen might have been involved this early) had by 1833 hired a keeper for their National Menagerie. This was Mr. Roberts, said to have been sole keeper of animals in the Tower of London for the previous ten years. Actually, Roberts had been an assistant to Alfred Cops, keeper of the Royal Menagerie since the time of George the Fourth. He performed with a Bengal tiger.
The Springfield Republican (Mass.) of November 9, 1833 reported that Roberts was severely mauled by the tiger in a small town in Connecticut. The Haverhill, Massachusetts Essex Gazette of the same day went further, stating that he was torn to pieces and literally eaten up. Whatever the case, the event may have led directly to the employment of his assistant, or possibly his cage boy, Isaac Van Amburgh.
Van Amburgh, by far the most famous of the early keepers, debuted in the winter of 1833-1834 in New York and was on the road with the June, Titus and Angevine interests until July, 1838. In that month he went to Europe for a seven-year stay, during which his fame was further enhanced. Many writers credit him with being the first American trainer, but as we shall see, there may have been as many as nine men in the profession prior to his appearance.
One of them, who later claimed that he had entered a den of lions nearly ten years before Van Amburgh had, was John Sears (1804- 1875). We first find his name in 1832 when he was proprietor and keeper with the New England Caravan. He continued at the task until October, 1833 when he apparently sold out to Tufts, Waring and Company. However, he did not leave the menagerie trade. In 1858 he had the Great Eastern Menagerie on the road. His reference to being ten years ahead of Van Amburgh sounds apocryphal, but he may have been referring to Van Amburgh & Co., a title which did not appear in this country until the famous trainer’s return from England in 1845. Sears was a menagerie operator until his death, the result of the infected bite of a baboon in his Union Street menagerie in Boston.
Mr. Flint, whose surname we don’t know, bowed in October, 1833 at the time of the sale of Sears’ menagerie to Tufts, Waring and Company. Flint was the keeper with this outfit in 1833 and 1834, when it was titled Waring, Tufts and Company. He may have worked for the successor title, Raymond, Ogden, Waring and Company in 1835.
Our ignorance as to Flint’s whereabouts in 1835 points up a common trait of menageries of the period, their oft times reluctance to advertise their keepers by name. Why this should be is puzzling, as they seem to be enough of an attraction to be heavily advertised. What information we do have is as often from editorial content as from paid notices.
Other keepers, identified as to name, who appear prior to Van Amburgh’s 1834 debut, include Mr. Putnam, with Purdy, Welch, Macomber and Company in 1833; Mr. Gray with Raymond & Ogden in the same year; William Sherman with Purdy, Welch and Company in 1834; Mr. Butler, who replaced Putnam in 1834 and Mr. Martin (no relation) with S. Butler and Company in 1834. Also, a Mr. Whiting was mentioned as being a keeper with J. R. and Wm. Howe and Company in 1833, but it is not certain that he entered the cages.
Having pointed out who the keepers were, we now turn to what it was they did once inside the cages. If we limit ourselves to comment prior to the advent of Van Amburgh we find that the acts were of a benevolent, friendly nature. We must remember that this was before Darwin’s indifferent universe had been discovered and that animals were considered capable of reason and response. Thus, there is none of the “wild animal” routines of later times. “It is truly astonishing,” commented the Painesville Telegraph (OH) on August 23, 1832, “to witness with what patience and good humor this [lion] suffers himself to be played with; the keeper opening his mouth, putting his hand in his tremendous jaws, pulling out his tongue and even wantonly whipping him, fearless and safe.”
The St. Thomas, Ontario Liberal of July 25, 1833, adds: “It is very interesting to witness the fondness of the leopard for his keeper during these visits.”
In the Washington, Pennsylvania Examiner of July 12, 1834, there is: “the feat of one of the keepers entering the cage and shutting himself up with a lion and lioness, alternately commanding their submission, familiarly playing with them, and thrusting his head into the mouth of one, which was done in the presence of hundreds, excited a good deal of alarm for his safety, of which, however, he did not seem to partake.”
All this good humor, this delight and fondness went out with Van Amburgh. Using a crowbar he apparently beat his subjects into submission; several sources confirm this.
Born in 1808 in Fishkill, New York, Van Amburgh entered the menagerie business in 1829, probably as a cage boy, as they’re known today. His first advertised appearance was on the stage of the Bowery Theatre in New York on January 8, 1834 in The Lion Lord, a play constructed around his act with two lions. (3) His fame, during his seven years in Europe, became greater than it had been in America. He returned, much honored, and June, Titus and Angevine, or the surviving partners of that firm, named their menagerie Van Amburgh and Company. His name was to be in the title of menageries and circuses until 1921.
The London Times once reviewed his act and printed: “On one occasion the tiger became ferocious. Van Amburgh coolly took his crow bar and gave him a tremendous blow over the head. He then said to him, in good English, as if he were a human creature, ‘You big scoundrel, if you show any more of your tricks, I’ll knock your brains out.’”
In comparing Van Amburgh and Henri Martin, the first man to enter a cage, a London paper said that the wary intercourse of Mr. Martin with his menagerie compared with the command exercised by Mr. Van Amburgh, was the mere display of a showman compared with the mastery of Van Amburgh. (5) It would seem that Van Amburgh’s wild, roaring animals were more popular than the quiet, friendly acts that proceeded his. This must be the corner stone of his success.
To be fair to Van Amburgh, we must point out that his animals were of some size and reviews of his act almost always indicate that the auditor had never seen such large cats in a menagerie act. This may have had something to do with the keeper’s methods. From advertising prior to Van Amburgh’s appearance it seems as if the showmen were concerned lest their potential audience be frightened by the sight of a man fondling lions. We think that the public may have been more willing to be frightened than the showmen realized.
1. Henry Thetard, Les Dompteurs (Paris, 1928), pp. 21-53.
2. Stuart Thayer, Annals or the American Circus, 1793-1829 (Manchester, 1976), p. 209.
3. G. C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, vol. III, p. 680.
4. The Times, (London), September 10, 1938.
5. Spirit at the Times (New York), September 28, 1839, quoting London Monthly Post.
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