In the winter of 1848-1849 Robinson & Eldred’s New York circus played in Georgia and Florida. One of their performers appeared nine times in the program. Since they often gave two shows a day, this could entail eighteen acts daily. This athlete did tumbling, leaping, vaulting (all separate acts), the running globe, a carrying act with a little girl, a twopony act with a young boy, a principal riding act using a pad, a bareback riding act, and an Indian scenic act. He was eleven years old. His stage name was James Robinson.
Born James Michael Fitzgerald in Boston in 1838, James Robinson was initially bound to John Gossin, the clown, in 1844. A year and a half later, in July 1845, Gossin sold the boy’s time to showman John Robinson. Because he had run away from a religious orphanage (his father had died) the boy refused to tell John Robinson his name or from whence he had come. Robinson set him to learning circus skills, of which riding became his passion. By 1848, as we mentioned, he was doing a bareback act, and in 1851 he added somersault riding.
John Robinson trained several apprentices in his long career as a manager. Two of these were outstanding performers. He named both of them James Robinson. However, the first one, whose real name was Michael Kelly, was renamed Juan Hernandez in 1840. He stayed with John Robinson through 1845. James Robinson was with the master from 1845 through 1855.
“I received my board, clothes and spending money,” Robinson later recalled. “Did I earn my money? You can judge that for yourself,” and he recited the same list of acts we referred to above. (1) Having an eleven year old appear in half the program, one wonders what the audience thought; after all, they paid their quarters, and expected to be entertained by adults, not children. There are references, however, that such use of apprentices was widespread. Juan Hernandez, for one, appeared in seven roles for John Robinson in 1845. A writer in Savannah, Georgia, in 1840, commenting on J. J. Nathans’ apprentices (the Pastor brothers), said: “We object to the amount of labor imposed on those two, poor little boys. About one half of the performance, it seemed to us, fell to their share. . . .” (2)
Apprenticeship was arduous in any profession, and the circus was not excepted. As in all athletic endeavor, circus skills needed to be constantly practiced, and to incorporate youngsters in the program may have seemed a method of public exposure that also produced profit.
One of the early appearances James Robinson made was in standing on John Robinson’s head while their horse circled the ring. This was the culmination of what was called a “carrying act,” and was first introduced in 1845 by two different riders, J. J. Nathans and W. B. Carroll. As with most innovations, this one was widely copied almost immediately, in the nature of athletic competition. James Robinson later remarked that John Robinson held him by the ankles when they presented the feat, whereas when he (James) carried a boy in the same way, later in his career, he didn’t use his hands.
By 1850, at age twelve, James was being advertised by Robinson & Eldred right below John Robinson himself, as “. . . the cynosure of every eye! The admired of all beholders! And who, in all the cities of the South has been crowned with ‘Victorious Laurels’. . . .” Such verbiage could easily turn a boy’s head, but since James couldn’t read, he was probably unconscious of it.
We know of his lack of “learning” from the memoirs of a Savannah native, whose aunt ran a boarding house in that city in the 1850’s. He wrote: “To my great delight I was told one day that Mr. John Robinson, the proprietor of a celebrated circus, with his wife and son ‘Jimmie’ had taken rooms in the house for a week or more. Now, ‘Jimmie’ Robinson was a hero to every boy in Savannah; every high sounding adjective in the dictionary was used to describe him on the bills and posters, and in fact he was one of the finest ‘bare-backed’ riders that I ever saw . . . but alas! Disillusion comes to us very early in life; the brilliant creature, separated from pink tights, satin breech-clout and spangles, proved to be a very ordinary boy in everyday attire. Stockily built, coarse features, low language, innocence of grammar were his special peculiarities; they shook my faith in the world, and when in addition I found out that he could neither read nor write, I realized that my idol had ‘feet of clay’ indeed.” (3) The author had no way of knowing it, but his description probably fit most of the apprentices then in the circus world, and many of the adults as well. Today’s professional athletes would seem to fare no better.
It was in 1851 that James Robinson became the second rider in the world to accomplish a somersault on a bare-backed horse. In so doing he emulated John Glenroy, who had accomplished the feat in 1846. By then, the trick may have lost its luster, for Robinson & Eldred made no mention of it in their advertising. However, they did refer to him as, “everywhere hailed as the best equestrian in the world,” and as having “no equal.” And in 1853, Robinson and Eldred offered a match of $5,000 that “he is the best rider in the world.” And this all for a boy not quite sixteen years old.
For a description of his somersaulting, we have to turn to Robinson’s own comments in 1884: “I turned somersaults, both forward and backward, over banners four and five feet wide; banners of that width are not attempted these days. I would stand well back on the horse, at the tail, with my back to his head, and throw a backward somersault. Hard, indeed with the horse moving from you, but I do not remember ever missing one of these.” (4)
The reader must understand that Robinson was not riding a large horse, such as a rider of later years would employ. We don’t know just when large horses made their appearance in bareback riding, but it was after Robinson and his ilk had retired. A commentator on his career, circa 1900, referred to artists performing with broad-backed draft horses. Robinson used thoroughbred horses, which are notoriously thin, and bred to be so.
It was also in the early 1850’s (Gil Robinson says it was 1852), that John Robinson introduced the dirt ring bank, a consequence of having a wagon fail to arrive by show time. Both John Glenroy and James Robinson said they preferred the dirt ring; Robinson was quoted as believing he did his best riding in a dirt ring.
Physically, Robinson was a small man, just five feet-three inches, and 120 pounds. He was flat-footed, and claimed that it allowed him better purchase on a horse’s back. His athletic ability cannot be challenged; he jumped and danced on that unsteady platform, leaped garters and hurdles, even jumped from horse to ground and quickly back to the horse. But it was his somersault riding that made him a champion. He did both forward and backward somersaults, some over banners and through hoops.
In 1856 his apprenticeship ended and he left Robinson & Eldred for Spalding & Rogers. This was the season in which the latter managers introduced their nine-car railroad circus, as a second show to their Floating Palace. Perhaps to overcome the onus against the smaller size of railroad troupes, the owners loaded the roster with talent. Besides Robinson, they hired such luminaries as the Lavater Lee troupe of acrobats, Puss Horner, the clown, Madame Olinza, the wire-walker, Ned Kendall’s band, and the riders LeJeune Burt and John Davenport.
It was with Spalding & Rogers, according to Robinson, that he turned twenty-three consecutive somersaults, after first doing twenty-two in Pittsburgh. This was a phenomenal undertaking. “The greatest rider that has ever lived,” was the way Spalding advertised him.
In 1857, Robinson was with Spalding & Roger’s wagon show, and in the fall of the year went to Europe. He was abroad for two years, returning late in the 1859 season. While abroad he worked for several managers, finally appearing with Howes & Cushing’s United States Circus. In May, 1858, he rode before Queen Victoria when Howes & Gushing were at the Alhambra Palace in London.
In the winter of 1859, James Nixon journeyed to England, and arranged to hire several of the finest acts then appearing in London. These were to grace his 1860 circus in America. Among them were Omar Kingsley, the Hanlon Brothers, and William Cooke. He also induced James Robinson to join him, and Robinson rode for Nixon & Co. for the first six months of 1860.
In January, at Niblo’s the New York Clipper reviewed the show, and it is here we find the only negative reaction to Robinson we have discovered. The anonymous Clipper correspondent said that Robinson’s bareback riding was inferior to that of the Australian James Melville. Since his first appearance in the eastern United States in late 1857, Melville had been the doyenne of the New York press, and deservedly so.
From Nixon’s troupe, Robinson went back to John Robinson in mid-1860; joining the Robinson & Lake troupe. He stayed there through the 1861 season. In 1862, a new circus, Thayer & Noyes, made its debut, and had three outstanding riders, Robinson, Eaton Stone and John Glenroy. Possibly because of the war, and the restricted geographic area available to traveling shows, the managers opted for a short, twenty-week season, even though they were well-rewarded financially. Among gains of a popular tour was the purchase of a Fielding band chariot for 1863. They again announced the engagement of James Robinson, “who stands alone and unparalleled for grace, daring, and execution, absolutely throwing forward and backward somersets while his untrammeled horse is running at full speed.”
In 1863 Robinson made the big step of becoming a proprietor. He became the partner of Frank J. Howes in what they called the “Champion Circus.” Frank Howes (1832-1880), a native of Rochester, New York, had been an agent for several circuses, beginning in 1851. He is probably best-known for bringing Joseph Cushing’s hippopotamus to America, the first live one to reach this country, in 1860. But he had worked for Seth B. Howes for four seasons before that event.
The partners constructed a circus building in Chicago on the oftused Washington Street lot, across from city hall. Most of their company had been with Thayer & Noyes that summer. “It was about the strongest company that had ever exhibited in the States,” according to Glenroy, and deserved the name “Champion.” The Chicago stand lasted until 15 April 1864.
Reorganized for the summer tour, Robinson & Howes opened on 18 April in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The entire season was spent on rail cars, one of the earliest such arrangements. It was in 1864 that Robinson took on an apprentice, one Clarence Armstrong, who thereafter performed as Clarence Robinson, ostensibly James’ son. It was Master Clarence who rode on James Robinson’s head, which we referred to previously. This carrying act was presented on two bare-back horses, and was a very popular part of the program. They performed this feat for eight years, until Clarence grew too big; in 1872 he switched to his own twohorse act.
Robinson sold his share of Robinson & Howes to Horace Norton in November, 1864.
This was the year in which Lewis B. Lent opened the Hippotheatron building on 14th Street in New York City. For his 1865 season, Lent gathered an array of accomplished performers, including the likes of Joe Pentland, Louise Toumiaire, James Madigan, Grizzly Adams’ bears, and James and Clarence Robinson.
Of Robinson, Lent said, “(He) will, besides giving his sensational pirouette act, and the terrific hurdles act called ‘Robinson’s Ride,’ introduce his infant son, Master Clarence, in a series of classic calisthenics.” The hurdles act which Robinson presented may have been the beginning what came to be called “jockey acts.” Dressed in the boots and silks and cap of a jockey, and mounted on a bareback horse, Robinson took various poses as his horse cleared series of hurdles. He stood on one foot, kneeled, was at the tail, at the neck, as the horse went at full speed around the ring. Sometimes he dropped from the animal only to rebound on to its back. The horse had a string of sleigh bells around his neck, and became known, and still is, as a “finish horse,” in the finale of the act.
Horse racing was a southern specialty until the Civil War, and not much practiced in northern states. But once the Rebellion was quenched, and southern racing was in ruins, northern owners and breeders took over the sport in such places as Saratoga Springs, New York, Monmouth, New Jersey, and St. Louis, Missouri. This was the beginning of the era of such prominent owners as August Belmont, Governor Bowie and Pierre Lorillard, and the fame of their stables, and the jockeys they employed. Robinson’s Jockey Act was so popular that it was copied by every bareback rider in the country, and was still performed as late as the 1920’s.
The Robinsons remained with Lent in 1866, which was the year in which that worthy put his show on rails. James was at the head of the bill, as usual, and was claimed to have “created the most profound sensation throughout the civilized world . . . no other performer has commanded such munificent compensation . . . received such marks of respect . . . such costly presents . . . as the wearer of the golden diamond belt.”
Robinson earned $50,000 a year in the 1860’s, according to one report, which seems about twice what one would guess. The highest weekly stipend we have found for him is the $500 James A. Bailey paid him in 1877. He was the highest paid performer in the business year after year. The costly presents referred to were medals and ribbons from the crowned heads of Spain, France, Russia and England before whom he had performed in 1857 and 1858. The golden diamond belt was presented to him by admirers in Cuba.
Napoleon III of France decreed a World’s Fair in Paris in 1867, to celebrate the rebuilding of the city by Baron Haussmann. A group of American showmen (Avery Smith, G. C. Quick, J. J. Nathans, G. R. Spalding, and David Bidwell) anted up $150,000 to send a circus to the affair, and chose James and Clarence Robinson to head the bill. They had a wooden-walled and canvas-topped building made in Albany, which they shipped overseas, but which they were forbidden to use by the authorities. They rented a theatre to good effect, and had full houses for their entire run. Of Robinson, Robert Stickney, one of the three bareback riders with the group (Frank Pastor was the third), and who commanded $250 per week, said, “I have never seen his equal.”
Returning to America for the 1869 season, Robinson signed up with Gardner & Kenyon’s circus, which in his honor they titled “James Robinson’s Champion Circus Combined with Gardner & Kenyon’s Menagerie.” He was the star performer as well as the equestrian manager, and had a salary of $350 per week. His medals and honors were displayed in local jewelry store at many stands.
“The champion bare-back rider of the world” went into partnership with Abe Henderson and Andrew Springer in 1870, to frame “James Robinson’s Great Circus and Animal Show.” They opened in Cincinnati, and made a great circle of Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas before reaching Cincinnati again. Part of the tour was made on the railroads. The season was not a success, and in October they reorganized for a winter tour of the South, but business was still poor, and they closed in November in Tennessee. There were nine shows in the South in 1870, all of which reported dull business.
It was in 1870 that Robinson introduced William E. Gorman (1852-1940), his brother-in-law, to whom he had taught the bounding jockey routine. Robinson had married Laura Gorman at an unknown date. She was not a performer, but Robinson gave her much credit for his success. At one time he said, “she has given me fifty-five years of happiness; fifty-five years of real backing and help.”
For 1871, Robinson went into partnership with his fellow-rider Frank Pastor. The company was titled “James Robinson’s Champion Show.” It was a rail-mounted effort, had two small elephants and eight cages of other animals. Though they advertised that they did not pretend to give a gorgeous street procession, as most small railers advised, we have found that they did parade in Detroit, and perhaps in other larger venues. Since they had purchased one of the well-known Golden Horse bandwagons from Avery Smith, it seems logical that they would use it in a street display. Fred Dahlinger discovered that the company transported this vehicle in a stock car, rather than on a flat.
As with most railers they covered a good bit of ground, mostly in the mid-west, but going as far east as Washington, D. C. They closed the season in St. Louis on 23 October, where they wintered.
Eugene Robinson, whose real name we don’t know, made his debut on the 1872 Robinson and Pastor opus; he took over Clarence’s task of standing on Robinson’s head for a dozen circles of the ring. Clarence became the two-horse rider on the show.
“The Largest Circus in the World,” the advertising trumpeted, but with thirty-four horses it was far from that. Barnum’s railer had about eighty; Forepaugh’s wagon show claimed 280. Opening in St. Louis, the company visited Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, before heading east into Ontario, New York and Pennsylvania. They closed the summer season in Philadelphia in October, and took a steamer to Savannah for a winter tour of southern cities. On 23 December they opened for a week at the Academy of Music in New Orleans.
Eighteen seventy-two is a mythical season, because of the success of Barnum’s new railroad show. But for many other managers it was a disaster. There was a late spring, meaning much rain, followed by extreme heat, and it being a presidential election year, it diverted the public’s attention from popular amusement. As a result, twenty percent of field shows closed early (ten out of fifty), and only thirty-two were on the road in 1873. Robinson and Pastor’s winter tour indicates that they failed to make much money that summer.
They shipped the goods to St. Louis for a two-week stand at the Olympic Theater, and sold the concern. Later events indicated that, they were burdened by debt.
The buyer was Spencer Q. Stokes (1819-1888), whose 1872 effort lasted but two months, but which closed with all salaries paid. He retitled Robinson’s circus, “The Great Chicago Show,” and appointed Robinson as arena director (equestrian manager). With the big Royal Yedo Japanese troupe of acrobats, and Stokes’ female relatives (wife and three daughters), it was a large show for one mounted on the railroad. In June, Stokes resigned, and possibly sold the chattels to G. W. DeHaven and Miles Carpenter, who changed the title back to “James Robinson’s Circus.” They claimed that they moved on thirty-five cars, and this may have proved too many as the firm folded in Mississippi in November. However, Andrew Haight appeared on the scene, and reinvigorated the corpse, naming it anew, as “The Great Eastern.” James and Clarence were prominently advertised, as might be expected. At some stands the ads said, “James Robinson’s Great Eastern.” They got through the season of 1874, but were brought under the auctioneer’s hammer in February, 1875. This probably accounted for much of the Robinson and Pastor equipment, of 1871.
A writer for a St. Louis newspaper gave an eloquent tribute to Robinson in 1874: “The poetry of motion was exemplified in his every evolution on horseback. Perilous somersaults that few gymnasts can imitate on the carpet, pirouettes that no other rider can do, the reckless manner in which he carries his little boy, Eugene, the feat of his foot above his head in any position, the startling picture of one foot on the swiftrunning horse’s head the other in the middle of the back, and the furious riding at the close can be executed only by James Robinson. He stands alone, without a rival, unequaled and unapproachable. (5)
Montgomery Queen returned east in early 1875, having wintered in San Francisco. He brought James and Eugene Robinson and “Bud” Goman with him. They had been in California from January to April working for Jackley and Wilson. Queen had Charles Fish as his premier rider until Robinson arrived. He then advertised a $10,000 challenge match between the two, which was probably a hoax, but enlivened the attraction of two of the best bareback riders in America appearing in the same program.
Cooper & Bailey hired the Robinsons for the next two seasons. In 1876 the circus was almost entirely rebuilt, in anticipation of a tour of Australia late in the year. After a tour of the mid-west that lasted until mid-August, the firm left Grand Island, Nebraska to cross the mountain states and exhibit for two months in California. On 8 November the show embarked from San Francisco, and after stopping in Honolulu and Fiji, arrived in Sydney on December 7.
James Robinson was advertised by James Bailey as heading the show, and being “the peerless and undisputed challenge champion bareback rider of the world,” and whose salary ($500 a week plus the expense of the rider’s wife, and his horses) was the largest sum ever paid to one artist. Dan Rice supposedly received $1,000 a week from Forepaugh in 1865, but a clown may not have fit Bailey’s conception of an artist. The Australian tour lasted from November, 1876, to March, 1878, with a side trip to the Netherlands East Indies from June to October, 1877.
It was at this time that George Middleton saw Robinson ride, and he later said, “He was the greatest rider that the world has ever produced. When he walked into the ring to begin his act, with whip in hand, and jumped on the back of his barebacked horse one was impressed at that minute that he was ‘it.’ He had that style and grace and finish to his act that no one else ever had that I have seen or heard of.” (6)
Mark St. Leon has written that for the run to Java, Bailey cut down the size of the company, taking the sideshow and a reduced arena contingent, but not the menagerie. (7) The circus was apparently not as profitable as had been expected, and one of the solutions was to jettison Robinson’s high salary. However, when Bailey suggested this to his star employee that perhaps the heat and hardship of the journey would not be to Robinson’s liking, he was informed that even if he pitched his tents in hell, Robinson intended to be there.
As it played out, Robinson, Mrs. Robinson, Pauline Lee and “Bud” Gorman left after a month-long stand in Batavia, and went to Marseilles, France and then to Paris and James W. Myer’s American Circus. Cooper & Bailey returned to Australia in early October.
Upon arriving to America for the 1878 summer season, the Robinsons and Gorman made a contract with The Great London Show. Though featuring a very strong east of performers, the London had an indifferent season, and was bought by Cooper & Bailey, which incorporated it for 1879. Much of the 70’s, following the Panic of 1873, were times of poor business, a condition that lasted until 1879.
It was in 1878 that James Robinson was forced to declare voluntary bankruptcy, because of the debt incurred by his partnership with Frank Pastor in 1871 and 1872. While Pastor, according to the New York Clipper, chose to “face the music,” Robinson petitioned on 16 May to be acquitted of the consequences. As we reported, the partners sold the circus to Spencer Q. Stokes after the 1872 season. The debts that Robinson acknowledged amounted to $11,288 and his assets as nominal. When this figure is weighed against his high salary, it is difficult to understand how he could hide in bankruptcy. In fact the Clipper commented that his assets were “infinitely below what a great bareback-rider deserves.” And since he had plenty of assets when he retired in 1889 we find it hard to believe that he acquired them in the last ten years of his career, which were likely a time of lower income.
In 1879, two Chicago men framed a circus using Stokes’ 1873 title, “The Great Chicago.” George W. DeHaven, that undertaker of wobbly concerns, was the manager, and Robinson was the equestrian director. These situations where Robinson was both the bareback rider and the equestrian director indicate that managers were filling two positions for one salary, and could mean that Robinson was not the catch he had been. However, he was still considered the champion of his specialty, even in the face of such luminaries as Charles Fish, James Melville, and Robert Stickney.
The firm opened in the eponymous city on 19 May, and within a month was re-titled James Robinson’s Circus, and in August was advertised as the Dan Rice Circus. Then it was back to the Robinson title in August, and in October was George W. DeHaven’s Circus. All this changing of titles, and the coming and going of such stars as Robinson, Dan Rice and Pete Conklin indicates a lack of custom, and finanicial instability. James Robinson left the show in October, but Clarence Robinson remained. W. C. Boyd wrote that Cooper & Bailey purchased the company, and put it out as a winter show on the lower Mississippi.
The Sells Brothers’ Circus hired Robinson for 1880 and 1881, and continued the practice of advertising him as the highest-paid man on earth. With his earnings, Robinson joined Patrick Ryan in a one-season effort titled “Ryan & Robinson.” Then he went to W. W. Cole for 1883. Cole put the rider’s portrait on his advertising car, certainly a mark of his fame.
It was back to Sells for Robinson in 1884, and to their sistershow, S. H. Barrett & Co. in 1885. Robinson was now fifty years old, and surely a step slower than at his peak. C. G. Sturtevant wrote that for the rest of his career he appeared with undistinguished circuses, in which he often took an interest in lieu of salary. If that is true, then we’d mention John B. Doris in 1886; Miller, Stowe & Freeman in 1887; the James Robinson’s Circus in 1888; and Grenier Bros. in 1889, his last year in the arena. When Grenier closed in mid season, Robinson switched to W. C. Coup’s Equescirriculum.
As with most athletes, Robinson lived a self-contained existence, brought on by having to use his body in order to make their living. They must see themselves as the center of the world, otherwise the effort of constant practice of their craft has no meaning. The best ones, whatever the specialty, constantly compare themselves to their rivals; this gives them their impetus to compete. Robinson and Juan Hermandez had a contest in 1857 in Washington, D. C., and Robinson’s act was described thusly: “When he entered the ring he displayed a personality of showmanship which indicated supreme confidence. . . . His first routine was straight bareback riding, and he astonished the spectators by his wonderful command of balance, poise and daring. Like a graceful cat he was all over the horse’s back, on the ground, on again with practically no effort, and finishing with his four complete somersaults in once around the ring, both forwards and backs. Following his work over four and a half foot banners, his pirouettes, and finished with somersaults through balloons. . . .” (8)
Such accolades as this leave us with the impression that he was truly the greatest rider ever to appear in the American circus, perhaps in the world. Since no one living ever saw him ride, and we are dependent upon impressions that we cannot judge well, this may be a misuse of our sources, yet we can think of no one in the modern era that even approached James Robinson. When he retired he had a stock farm in Kentucky, and an interest in a Louisville department store that provided him a comfortable living. He had drawn over a million dollars from his art in his forty-four years in the ring.
Reporters sought him out for interviews up until his death in 1917. In an obituary, Billboard said he was generally conceded to have been the greatest bareback rider of all time. He once said that his success was because of his wife, his pipe, his horse and his distance from booze. “I never tasted liquor,” he acclaimed, somewhat self-righteously, but an important distinction in his day. C. G. Sturtevant once wrote of him: “He left a record that it is doubtful will ever be equaled. No circus artist has ever held the individual fame, and received the triumphs and ovations over nearly the entire world for such a length of time. . . . It is difficult to imagine anything being done on a horse’s back, that was not accomplished by James Robinson.” (9)
1. Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, 20 April 1884.
2. Daily Savannah Republican, 27 January 1840.
3. Lilla Mills Hawes, ed., “Memoirs of Charles H. Olmstead,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, XLII (December, 1958), p. 406. 362
4. The Circus Scrap Book, April, 1929.
5. Unknown St. Louis newspaper, reprinted Buffalo (NY) Daily Courier, 10 July 1874.
6. George Middleton, Circus Memoirs, (p.p., Los Angeles, 1913), p. 39.
7. Mark St. Leon, “Cooper, Bailey & Co. Great International Allied Shows. The Australian Tours, 1876-78,” Bandwagon, September- October 1992, p. 17-30.
8. C. G. Sturtevant, “James Robinson-The Equestrian King,” The White Tops, (June, 1931), p. 4.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.