In the mid-nineteenth century St. Paul, Minnesota had the reputation of being a graveyard for theatrical companies. When Yankee Robinson’s Circus foundered there in 1875 a reporter for the St. Paul Dispatch expressed the hope that the city would not get the same reputation for circus failures. In the event it did not, but the local press was fascinated by the failure on its doorstep, and devoted many columns of newsprint to the ensuing commercial debacle.
The circus had been framed in April, 1875, near Morristown, Minnesota on a farm belonging to Daniel Scott, who owned the show. Opening day was April 24 in Centralia, Illinois. The final performance was on June 28 in St. Paul. Because of the newspaper interest there has come down to us an unusual amount of information on the disastrous season and the participants in it.
Fayette Ludovic Robinson, famous as “Yankee” Robinson, had by 1875 become one of the better-known showmen in America. Born in 1818 in Avon, New York, to a shoemaker, he was in his father’s shop at fourteen. In 1837 he opened his own shoemaker’s venture in Medina, Michigan. This lasted but a year, and he returned home, married, and opened another shop in Danville, New York. The opportunity to go into the exhibition business presented itself to him in August, 1845, when he acquired two ten by fifteen paintings by S. C. Jones - “Baptism of Christ,” and “Raising of Lazarus.” He traveled west by buggy, exhibiting as he went, until he arrived at Judge Fuller’s Museum at Randolph and Dearborn in Chicago. He parked the paintings with Fuller and journeyed to St. Louis, where he worked as an actor under manager Norman Adams. Admittedly not much at acting, but better at singing and dancing, he organized a minstrel troupe, the Olympic Serenaders, in February, 1846. That fall he joined June & Turner’s Circus at Galena, Illinois, either alone or with the minstrels, the record isn’t clear.
He remained with June & Turner for two seasons, and in 1848 set out with his wife and a musician, Charles Gilson, in a twohorse wagon presenting hall shows in small towns. They traveled from Eaton, Ohio, to New Albany, Indiana, having what Robinson termed “a successful season.” Late in the year they joined Thomas F. Lennox’ Floating Theatre at Evansville, Indiana. The company sailed downriver and, as Robinson reported, “almost every place we stopped the throttle valve was taken out, and the boat tied up for debt.” At Memphis the liens were of such an amount that Lennox lost the boat for good. They went ashore, arranged to have a theatre in an abandoned church, and played the winter. Robinson, a clown in the nightly pantomime, had fifty-four nights as the comic singer as well. The Memphis season was a success, and ended in April, 1849.
In the spring of 1850, and through the season of 1855, Robinson continued in the tented dramatic business, using a canvas in the summer and halls in the winter. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was one of his specialties, “Sam Patch” another. It wasn’t until 1856 that he had what could be called a true circus. It was in 1852 that he first prefaced his company title with the name “Yankee,” which he claimed was hung on him by friends because of his Eastern accent. It was in 1856 that he hired A. S. Burt as agent, a collaboration that lasted many years, through profit and vicissitude. Robinson prospered in the circus business, though he could never quite relinquish the theatre aspects. All of his circuses had as part of their presentation such dramas as “Days of ‘76” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
He and A. S. Burt twice had serious differences. In 1858 these led to splitting the circus in two, though they “kissed and made up” in the words of the New York Clipper, and combined again before season’s end. In 1859 there was another argument, but Robinson’s problems in the South pushed it into the background. After John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry in October, southern sentiment rose to a point of heat wherein a showman named “Yankee” could hardly hope to prosper. He fled Charleston, South Carolina, fearing mob action, and left his outfit, which he valued later at $40,000, on the Citadel Green lot.
Determined to get back in the tented theatre business, Robinson went to a man in DeRuyter, New York, Daniel Scott. Scott had a small farm and a country store near DeRuyter, and was somewhat of a horse trader. During the 1859 season Scott had traveled with Robinson’s circus with a herd of horses and several grooms, and dealt in horses as he went. Scott agreed to lease thirteen horses, harness, a carriage and a buggy to Robinson, who gave him the candy and lemonade privilege. Robinson leased another seventeen horses and a tent from Hamlin Shepard of Strawtown, Indiana, on whose farm the show had wintered in 1857 and 1858. Shepard went along as manager. Thus equipped, they set out under the title Yankee Robinson’s Double Show, and had a successful season. However, they tried it again in 1861 with disastrous results, and at season’s end Robinson owed Scott over $2,000.
Since Scott owned the chattels, Robinson approached him to go out in 1862, to which the horse dealer replied that if Robinson would never again say anything to him about show business he would cancel the indebtedness. However, the Yankee finally prevailed, and they went on the road and they made money hand over fist. It was during this season that Scott bought the farm near Morristown. He didn’t move there until 1867. They continued in the same vein through 1865, “a flowing well,” as Robinson termed it. The receipts in 1865 were almost a million dollars. Scott retired and received $74,000 for his half of the show. It wasn’t the attraction of the variety artists, or the perspicacity of the owners that led to this prosperity. Every circus in the country, and most of the theatres enjoyed the greatest boom in popularity from 1862 to 1865 that any had ever known. The war had ended, money was plentiful, and the public was ready to be entertained.
P. A. Older took Scott’s place as investor and manager in 1866, a partnership that lasted through 1869. Robinson seems to have operated the circus himself in 1870 and 1871. Scott returned in 1871, but as a salaried employee. The Conklin brothers hired Robinson as manager in 1872, and in the fall of that year the Conklins and Robinson went to California where they formed a partnership with the great West Coast proprietor John Wilson. This arrangement lasted through May of 1873.
Buckley’s Hippodrome was the great over-advertised show of 1874, and Yankee Robinson was its general superintendent. He apparently framed the outfit, a western copy of Barnum’s Hippodrome, but had no investment in it. It was a financial failure, though it was on the road for the full season, going into Chicago in the fall.
The 1875 Yankee Robinson circus was framed, as we said, at Scott’s Morristown, Minnesota farm. The operating company was called Scott & Co. The total investment prior to leaving quarters was about $30,000, principally supplied by Scott. Some of the material came from the Montgomery Queen Circus, which had left much of its overland show in Mankato, Minnesota, when it went to the West Coast by rail in 1874. A circular wooden training barn was constructed on Scott’s farm, and Joe Tinkham undertook the training of the ring stock. Yankee Robinson went to Rochester, New York, to arrange for printing, and on to New York City to hire performers. There were twenty-five wagons, and seventy-five baggage stock.
It was, as usual, a half-circus and half-variety show. The bestknown performers were the riders George and Kate Holland. They advertised a “great cotton show house,” and, indeed, the tent was very large (“largest except Barnum,” said the ads). By April 1, 150 workmen had gathered, and the show was transported on twenty cars to Centralia, Illinois, where it opened the season on April 24.
Scott had borrowed $2,000 from a Major H. W. Dike of Faribault to get the circus on the road, the first sign of trouble in the fiscal area. Dike was hired at $100 a month to be assistant business manager. They weren’t even underway when Scott borrowed another $200 from Dike to get the train to the Iowa line. Then, the railroad agent wouldn’t let them go from the state line to Centralia without a payment of $950. Dike once more anted up. He was to do this twice more before the company got to St. Paul.
Daniel Scott was a very sick man by the time of opening day in Centralia. Yankee Robinson, who was ahead of the show, returned to find him so, and remarked he didn’t think Scott had long to live. His condition so alarmed Major Dike, and gave him such fear for the security of his loans, that he asked Scott to give him a mortgage. Scott did better than that, turning the show over to Dike. Scott left for home from Decorah, Iowa, on June 7. He died three weeks later.
Scott’s death was the worst of the misfortunes that befell the circus that season. The spring weather was another, it being cold and wet for the most part. The route covered parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin before reaching Minnesota.
Major Dike was now the owner, and there was not much money in the till. The circus had had but five winning days. The Vincennes, Indiana, Sun of May 14 expressed the opinion that most people pronounced the show a fraud. The writer was inclined to the same belief. “While the show had a few good features, it had many bad ones,” he wrote. A man trying to ride a horse with a pad fell off seven times, and the horse fell down once.
The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, referred to Madame Cerito’s Can-Can company, which had played the town some weeks prior to Yankee Robinson’s stand of May 19. It seems that the lady’s posters were a bit racy for “decent people,” as the newspaper had it, and the show itself was indecent. It seems that she bought a good quality of paper, as some of it was still up when the circus advance arrived, and Robinson’s minions simply covered the title with its own. Robinson has the elements of a good company,” the editor conceded, “and with reasonable good luck, good weather, and less Can-can paper, will undoubtedly make his own show equal to those he has managed in the past.”
Apparently, the Bloomington public filled the seats more fully for the two performances than they had been for two consecutive shows since the season started. According to Robinson, there was plenty of whisky in the ticket wagon. He claimed later that Dike visited it often. Back wages were brought up several times by the working men, and in Stillwater, Minnesota, they threatened attachment. Dike talked them out of it by saying they’d all be paid once they got to St. Paul on June 28. This promise proved hollow, more so when at St. Paul the Express Printing Co. of Rochester, New York, served an attachment for $7,213.75. The printers must have ended paper shipments prior to then, which is why the show was re-titling the girlie posters in Bloomington.
No one turned to Yankee Robinson, as he was a salaried employee of Scott & Co., and since Dike was broke, the employees talked of suing Scott’s estate. On June 30 the sheriff took possession of the circus, and stationed deputies on the lot to protect the printer’s claim. Shortly thereafter, Eugene Scott, Daniel’s son, and Charles S. Cooper arrived with affidavits indicating that they owned twenty-six of the horses and nine cages and wagons that they had rented to the show for $50 a week. The two sideshows, both independent operations, made ready to depart. Then, what had been a very interesting financial set-to became an illegal break for the county line.
George Castello, who had been Dike’s assistant, and was later to be an agent for several shows and the proprietor of at least one, drove onto the lot in a buggy, gave some kind of signal, and twenty-two horses and riders bolted from the horse tent, “under whip and spur,” as the Dispatch reporter phrased it. The deputies attempted to catch the bridles, but several of the riders, some hatless and coatless, drew revolvers, and the unarmed deputies had to relent. Castello also drew a gun before he galloped off after the show horses.
There were close to a hundred workmen milling around on June 30, who had not eaten in two days. Fearing a riot, the Mayor of St. Paul arranged for them to be fed at the city’s expense. They dispersed over the next day or two.
The reporter visited the lot after this and found the seats and tents, seven or eight baggage wagons, four Roman chariots, and two mules, the residue of “Yankee Robinson’s Great Modern Show.”
The background comments on Robinson’s career are from the author’s files. The events in St. Paul were all taken from the columns of the St. Paul Dispatch, in the collection of Fred Dahlinger, Jr. Steve Gossard supplied the Bloomington newspaper clippings.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.