The attempt to determine the early whereabouts of the great John Robinson has been essayed three times in these [Bandwagon] pages. Richard Conover wrote, “Concerning the Origin of the John Robinson Circus and the Myth of 1824,” in 1953. Robert L. Parkinson contributed “John Robinson Circus,” in 1962. Melvin J. Olsen reported locating one of Conover’s references in 1954 in “Newspaper Story Places John Robinson on Raymond & Waring (sic) Show of 1839.” Conover also explored the subject in a book titled Give ‘Em a John Robinson, in 1965. All these efforts combined to establish that the use of the year 1824 as that of the founding of Robinson’s first show was a myth. The date appears in Gilbert Robinson’s Wagon Show Days. The explanation of how these investigations were conducted is given very lucidly in Parkinson’s article. Much of the balance of the comment by these three gentlemen on Robinson’s early career was hypothetical. In this paper we will seek to fill this gap, though by no means will we offer enough to state that the mystery is no more.
Robinson was born in 1807 or 1808 in South Carolina. He ran away from home as a boy and after several adventures caught on with a circus troupe. A biography published in a compendium of prominent Cincinnati residents in 1872 lists shows that Robinson apparently told the writer he had served with. These were, in order: Page’s Menagerie, Parson & McCracken’s Circus, Aron Turner, Stewart’s Amphitheatre, Hawkins’ Circus, Benedict & Haddock and the Zoological Institute.
Captain Page’s Menagerie, not called that in advertisements, was on tour in 1823 and 1824 and, certainly, a fifteen year-old boy might have found employment with it. McCracken’s Circus, owned by Samuel B. Parsons, was an Albany company that existed from 1825 to 1827 and was also on the road in 1828, but under S. V. Wemple’s management. Robinson’s name does not appear on any of the rosters we have found for this company, so if he joined it after his sojourn with Page, it must have been as a workman.
Even apprentice riders, as a rule, were listed by small shows of that time so that the cast would appear as large as possible.
Aron Turner was in the business continuously from 1826 and Robinson might have joined him in any year. Stewart’s Amphitheatre, a Boston winter show, also fails to list Robinson in either of its two seasons, 1831 and 1832. This last is very telling for most of the performers at Stewart’s are only seen in these two seasons, indicating that absolutely everybody was advertised. Thus, we draw the conclusion that John Robinson was not a performer before 1832.
Hawkins and Benedict & Haddock are more difficult to deal with. No show with only Hawkins’ name on it has been found and Benedict & Haddock is completely unknown to us. The name Haddock appears in 1825 and again in 1828 as the owner of an exhibition of Androides. Haddock was an English organ and automaton builder from Cork. However, the first time John Robinson’s name appears in any advertising now known was with the Boston Circus in Columbus, Ohio, on November 24, 1832. The Boston Circus seems to have been managed by Hawkins, Eldred and Callahan. The old man must have forgotten Eldred and Callahan when he gave the interview for the Cincinnati tome.
Hawkins’ name appears only in the management of this show. Eldred was not Gilbert Eldred, Robinson’s future and long-time partner, but his older brother, Edward S. Eldred (1811-1850), making his debut in the circus business. Callahan was D. C. Callahan, a clown who had first performed in 1826. They took out a license in all three names in Detroit on November 14, 1832, and without that reference we wouldn’t know to whom the Boston Circus belonged.
They did not list themselves in advertising, saving Callahan, who was a performer as well as an owner, in either Detroit or Columbus and those are the only two dates we have. T. Allston Brown in the July 9, 1861, New York Clipper refers to “Bancker’s Company,” meaning James W. Bancker, and gives a roster for an Albany, New York, stand of April 9, 1832. Most of the people on it are also listed by the Boston Circus in Columbus, so there can be little doubt that it is the same troupe.
In the program printed in the Ohio State Journal of November 24, 1832, appears John Robinson, stilt dancer. Thus, after possibly nine years with the circus, our hero finally gets his name in print. It is interesting that he was not yet a rider, the occupation at which he gained his later fame.
We have found no references to him in 1833, but in February, 1834, Eldred’s troupe, now owned only by Edward S. Eldred, and called the American Circus, joined with that of J. Purdy Brown in New Orleans. John Robinson is on the roster as a Herculean Horseman. This indicates that he had been with Eldred in the interim. Unfortunately, nothing has been found of Eldred’s 1833 season.
In late October, 1834, Eldred combined his circus with Gerard Crane’s menagerie for a one-month season as Crane & Eldred’s Menagerie and Circus United. Robinson was the stilt-dancer and three-horse bareback rider. This company went into Philadelphia in December, 1834, and emerged in 1835 as one of the units of the Zoological Institute. At this point, excepting the name Benedict, we have answered all the questions arising from the Cincinnati volume.
During the winter of 1834-35, Buckley, Weeks & Co.’s Mammoth Circus performed as a winter show in Philadelphia and Robinson was their two and three-horse rider, as well as performing the “Flying Mercury” with a Master Hicks. When Buckley, Weeks went on the road, Robinson went with them. He stayed with the show until it was sold at auction in Somers, New York, in August, 1837. Charles H. Bacon formed a new circus in Baltimore in November, 1837, and hired Robinson, who remained with it and the successor title, Bacon & Derious, until late 1838.
At this point we turn to Olsen’s article, which is mostly a column from the Indianapolis Evening News of January 6, 1970, in which an article in the Cincinnati Chronicle of December 31, 1869, is reproduced. In it the anonymous writer states that “Thirty years ago today on the 31st of December, 1839,” occurred the famous rampage of the elephant Columbus near New Orleans. The elephant first attacked his brother pachyderm, Hannibal, then his keeper, broke up a cage and lunged at John Robinson and Arthur Crippen (“both of this city”), who escaped because they were on horseback. The article places Robinson on the show, a combination of two Raymond & Waring units, and there he has remained in historiography ever since.
However, there is a major error in the Cincinnati account. The incident did not happen on December 31, 1839. It happened February 23, 1841. A full description is in the New Orleans Daily Picayune of February 24, 1841. John Robinson was on the scene as a visitor, being at the time “director of the circle,” read; manager) of the circus troupe attached to Ludlow and Smith’s American Theatre.
Where was he, then, in 1839? We don’t know. Glenroy avers that Robinson was with Bacon & Derious in May, 1838, and we do not find him again until he was advertised by Ludlow & Smith in St. Louis in September, 1840. He held the position of manager of the circus contingent until April, 1842, when he left to form a partnership, his first circus, with Joseph Foster. The myth of 1824 was eighteen years ahead of the truth.
Cincinnati, Past and Present (Cincinnati, 1872).
C. H. Burton, Extract from the Proceedings of the Trustees of Detroit, I:179 (unpublished ms., Detroit Public Library).
Ohio State Journal (Columbus), 24 November 1832.
Daily Picayune (New Orleans). 24 February 1841.
Richard E. Conover, “Concerning the Origin of the John Robinson Circus and the Myth of 1824,” Bandwagon, June 1953 (old volumization), p. 10.
Robert L. Parkinson, “John Robinson Circus,” Bandwagon, March-April 1962, pp. 4-8.
Melvin J. Olsen, “Newspaper Story Places John Robinson on Raymond & Wahring Show of 1839,” Bandwagon, April-May 1954, pp. 3-4.
John F. Polacsek, “Ludlow and Smith, Circus Proprietors of the 1840’s,” Bandwagon, September-October 1983. pp. 27-34.
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