Sharon, New York, is a tiny place 40 miles west of Albany. In 1845, it had about 15 dwellings. It was not large enough to be visited by Ogden, Weeks & Co.’s Grand Menagerie, so when the star performer of the show expressed a desire for an appearance in his home town, the caravan played the county seat, Schoharie.
“Early in the morning of June 4th,” a local historian has written, “people from Schoharie and vicinity gathered in the village to await the arrival of the show, and particularly to see and greet their former townsman, who was making his first appearance with his menagerie in his home town.” (1)
Jacob Driesbach had left Schoharie County about 1830. He had been born on a farm near Sharon on November 2, 1807. His grandparents had settled there from Germany. Orphaned at 11, Driesbach was taken in by his uncle, Philip Driesbach, who had a farm on the Albany Road, two miles east of Sharon. Shortly thereafter, he was apprenticed to Christian Keyser, a shoemaker. He followed that trade until he was in his early twenties. Then he moved to New York City and became a policeman. After that, he entered the employ of a menagerie. At some time prior to 1842 he took up the trade of lion trainer.
To continue the account of June 4, 1845, “. . . about ten o’clock, a.m., four large elephants were seen coming over the hill west of the village, followed by a number of wagons drawn by gray horses. It was an imposing spectacle. Reaching the valley, the procession was formed for the grand entrance to the village. About 11 o’clock the procession under the direction of Herr Driesbach started towards the village amid the music of the band and the shouts of the people who nearly blocked the street, and preceded to the exhibition grounds in the rear of the Methodist Church.
“The performance started at 1 o’clock, p.m. The admission was twenty-five cents, no half-price. So great was the crowd which came to see Herr Driesbach that, after the tent was filled, the sides were thrown open to make room for the overflow crowd. It is said that the attendance reached 4,000. He was well pleased with the enthusiasm with which his friends greeted him and his acts, while they were amazed at the wonderful feats he performed with his animals. They could hardly believe that this was their old friend ‘Jake.’” (2)
Driesbach was famous not only in Schoharie County. His ability to master his lions and tigers and leopards had made him a celebrity throughout America. His actions, be they misfortunes such as attacks by his cats or accounts of his appearances, were printed in the press and copied from paper to paper. In fact, so often was one or another of his adventures in print that the New York Clipper once hinted that it was advertising bunkum. (3) He was a protégé of the most aggressive advertiser of the period, James Raymond, so it is not beyond reason that a certain amount of what we now call “manipulation of the media” was practiced.
The two most famous American wild animal trainers have been Isaac Van Amburgh and Clyde Beatty. All others, no matter how successful or talented, have worked in their shadows. Van Amburgh’s name was before the public for 95 years; Beatty’s still is, after 60. Such celebrity is a difficult thing with which to compete. Jacob Driesbach played second fiddle to Van Amburgh for 15 years.
We have no way to measure either man’s competence in modern terms. Suffice it to say that the accolades they both received are enough to convince us of their superiority over their contemporaries. Driesbach, coming upon the scene later than Van Amburgh, was often compared to his predecessor, yet he was more often than not the beneficiary of these measurements. Driesbach rose to notoriety during the period when Van Amburgh was in Europe (1836-1845), and thus had no real competition in the United States during the first four seasons he performed. Working as he did for James Raymond, the pre-eminent menagerie operator of the period, was of decided benefit to his career.
He was 35 years old when his name first appeared as a lion trainer (Van Amburgh was 26 at the time of his debut). This was at Thomas Hamblin’s Bowery Theatre in New York in May, 1842. The play was titled The Lion of the Desert, and in it Driesbach played the part of an Arab outcast attacked by a tiger (in Africa!). What it amounted to was a wrestling match between man and beast and Driesbach used the same format as part of his menagerie act for some years thereafter. During the run of the play, Driesbach was attacked by his cats and accounts of the event appeared in newspapers across the country. He was not badly injured, but the copy helped spread his name.
We do not know what connection, if any, James Raymond had with the play at the Bowery, but in July, after it had closed, Driesbach joined Raymond, Ogden & Co.’s New York Menagerie at McCarran’s Garden in Philadelphia. It was his first appearance under canvas. The show visited New England and New York and ended the season in Philadelphia, where they exhibited until January 23.
The 1843 edition of the menagerie was called Raymond, Weeks & Co.’s Zoological Exhibition. This was the one on which the famous four-elephant hitch first appeared. (4) It opened in Philadelphia and went to New York, where it was ensconced from the 12th to the 27th of May. An article appeared in the New York Atlas of May 28, complete with a woodcut of Driesbach attired in a headdress of ostrich feathers and a sleeveless shirt made of animal skin. On his lap sat a jaguar. Unfortunately, the picture cannot be reproduced.
“We have had Van Amburgh, and he was thought a wonder,” the article read. “Carter, the lion tamer, followed, and he was accounted more wonderful than Van Amburgh; but now we have Driesbach, who is the most wonderful of all.” He had so “civilized” his lions, the writer said, that he was able to ask them to dinner.
“You must imagine a large cage, in which a greater congregation of animals than Daniel encountered is assembled. In the center is a table and around it are placed stools - Driesbach, as the host, takes the place of honor. [The animals] wait in the most patient manner until they are helped and do not dream of swallowing their food as if their existence depended upon getting it down in a few seconds.”
“Well, this assuredly is impressive,” wrote George C. D. Odell of the description and added that Driesbach would harness a lion to a cart and drive it over a road erected in the pavilion, as well as do the slave and tiger wrestling bit. (5)
Excepting the dining room business, these animals were not separated from the audience by anything more than Driesbach’s control over them. With this in mind, one forms an entirely different view of the uniqueness of his performance.
An article in the Hartford Daily Courant of June 7, the day the show opened a two-day stand there, admitted to some apprehension about this.
“A green cloth was spread before the cages in the open tent (parlous work, I thought, among such tender meat as 200 children) and out sprang a full-grown tiger who seized the gentleman [Driesbach] by the throat. A struggle ensues in which they roll over and over on the ground and finally the victim gets the upper hand and drags out his devourer by the nape of the neck. I was inclined to think once or twice that the tiger was doing more than was set down for him in the play, but as the Newfoundland dog of the establishment looked on very quietly, I reserved my criticism.”
He added, “Herr Driesbach stood at the door to bow us out, a fine, handsome, determined-looking fellow he is.”
The public performance consisted of Driesbach’s battle with the tiger, his caged act, elephant rides in the ring aboard the great Siam, and the appearance, the first one we have documented, of a snake charmer. Otherwise, one’s quarter entitled one to examine the menagerie, a matter of 15 to 20 cages.
In 1844 the caravan, titled Raymond & Co. since midyear 1843, was enlarged to 30 wagons and 100 animals. After a winter show in Baltimore, it opened in Philadelphia on April 11. The tent was 200 x 80. A Miss Moore was part of Driesbach’s act in Baltimore. We have found no earlier reference to a woman in a wild-animal act. However, she was not advertised during the road season; perhaps she didn’t take to the life.
Driesbach was described in the Albanian of Albany, New York, as being “clad in a beautiful Eastern costume, his head covered with a gorgeous turban, his arms bare and sandals of admirable workmanship on his feet.” This sounds like the same costume he wore in the Atlas woodcut.
Another title change occurred for 1845, this time to Ogden, Weeks & Co. Driesbach and the four-elephant team were still featured, as was Mlle. Fanny, an “Ourang Outang” and the first of her species to be exhibited by an American menagerie, though not the first one to be shown in this country.
In 1846 Raymond & Waring re-assumed their place in the title of the “Grand Zoological Exhibition.” The show had wintered in Zanesville and it spent most of the season in Ohio and Michigan. By this, Driesbach had not repeated a route in his first five seasons. For the first time the proprietors added the words “in connection with Herr Driesbach’s Menagerie” to the title, a sign of his fame, to be sure. By this time he was using two performing cages, placing them end-to-end, so as to have the full run of both of them for his act.
The caravan wintered in Cincinnati and it was some time after the first of the year that a Mr. Hawkins took the daguerreotypes that illustrate this article. (6)
Raymond & Waring’s Grand Zoological Exhibition for 1847 was made more grand by the acquisition of one of two Stephenson-built fancy bandwagons. Raymond ordered this built in answer to Van Amburgh’s importation of the first of these chariots heavily laden with carvings. Oddly, advertising cuts of the period indicate that Driesbach rode in the fancy bandwagon, a la an Eastern potentate, while the band occupied the “Yankee” bandwagon that had served the show previously.
Another lady trainer appeared in 1848, Mlle. Cybelle. She drove the lion hitched to a cart, now in the two-cage setup rather than loose in the tent. The title in this year was Raymond & Waring and, later, Raymond & Co. To that was appended “And Herr Driesbach’s Lions and Tigers.” John Shaffer, whose employment by Raymond antedated Driesbach by one year, was still the keeper on one of Raymond’s other shows. He never gained the notoriety of “the Herr,” as newspapers referred to Driesbach.
In 1849, Raymond & Co. played Ohio again, the third straight season in which Driesbach toured that state. It had become their custom, once in quarters, to send Driesbach’s act east to the large cities for a month or so. The show wintered in Zanesville in 1845, 1848, and 1849.
“The Herr” may have been slowing down by 1851. A second keeper appeared with him, one Hideralgo. The caravan was advertised as “Raymond & Co. and Herr Driesbach’s Menagerie.” It had twelve lions, a rhinoceros, and two elephants. In this same season, the other Raymond menagerie was called “Raymond & Co. and Van Amburgh’s Menagerie.” Van Amburgh may have last performed in 1846, but for several years thereafter he apparently traveled with whatever show was graced with his name. In the years 1852, 1853, and 1855 he was again advertised as entering the cages.
We do not know if Driesbach was actually on the payroll of the Welch, Raymond & Driesbach show of 1852. He had not retired, yet there are no references to him in the press accounts that have been found. Raymond, now owning the Van Amburgh title, may have placed more value on the original than on his own man. In 1853, Driesbach’s Menagerie and Rivers & Derious’ Circus was on tour and Driesbach appeared as a performer. It was during this season that he again visited Schoharie with a show.
The animals from the 1853 effort were switched to the Great Broadway Menagerie for 1854 and Driesbach went with them. This was the first season since 1846 that his name was not in the title of the concern that employed him. In this year he married Sarah Walker, whose father was a farmer near Wooster, Ohio. Driesbach was now 47 years old.
There is no sign of him in 1855, but in 1856 Herr Driesbach’s Grand Consolidated Circus and Menagerie appears. Henry Barnum and Hyatt Frost owned the Great Broadway Menagerie of 1854 and might well have owned this 1856 Driesbach opus.
Herr Driesbach & Co.’s Menagerie and S. P. Stickney & Co.’s Circus operated in 1857, but our hero’s name was not on the roster of the opening stand in St. Louis. He may have retired temporarily. There is a Clipper reference to his leaving the Mabie Circus in Texas in February, 1860, and another to his being with George F. Bailey in 1863 (at some stands, his name was in the title). An 1868 combination advertised itself as Herr Driesbach Menagerie and Howes’ Transatlantic Circus, but again, there is no evidence that he accompanied it. Frank Howes and Lyman Hitchcock were the owners.
He may have leased the use of his name or have given up the rights to it long before. We do not know how those legalities were handled in the early days.
In its issue of September 30, 1876, the Clipper printed the news that Driesbach was living in retirement in Apple Creek Station, Ohio. Jacob Driesbach died on December 5, 1878, at the age of 71. He left a widow and one son.
Despite the fact that he was heavily promoted by the Raymond interests and that our conceptions of early nineteenth-century performers are colored by unsophisticated critics, it would seem that Driesbach was an outstanding practitioner of his art. No one else is on record as presenting wild animals unconfined by cages; few other performers received as much newspaper copy; in reviews he fared well in comparison with his predecessor Van Amburgh. It would appear that Jacob Driesbach should be accepted as one of the two premier animal trainers of his day and as one of the very top performers in field show history.
1. Joseph R. Brown, Jr., “Herr Driesbach. Lion Tamer from Schoharie
County,” County Historical Review (November. 1948). p. 15.
3. New York Clipper, 18 July 1857. p. 102.
4. Stuart Thayer, “James Raymond’s Four Elephant Team.” Bandwagon, 27:4 (1983), p. 30.
5. George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage (15 vols.),. Columbia University (New York, 1949), Vol. 4, p 676.
6. Religious Recorder (Syracuse, New York), 25 February 1847.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.