There are two circus acts that are named after real persons—the Jackley Drops, no longer performed, and the Risley Act, which is still occasionally seen in the ring. The former was introduced by the Jackley family, nineteenth century acrobats, the latter by one of the most active, well-traveled circus artists of all time.
Richard Risley Carlisle (professionally, Richard Risley) was born in Salem, New Jersey, in 1814. A youthful interest in athletics apparently led him to the circus, one of the few outlets then available for athletic performing. Circus acrobats were the early nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s professionals in sports. We know nothing of his youth, and find him on a circus bill only in 1841, when he was twentyseven years old. Hannah Winter states, without providing a reference, that he joined a traveling circus which advertised him as “Professor Richard Risley, athlete and performer on the flute.” We have not been able to verify this statement. If he served an apprenticeship to a performer he might have begun it at twenty, which is very old for such a relationship. From his later life we would guess that he must have simply taken up athletics, as another challenge in a busy, almost manic, career.
In 1841 he was with the third unit of June, Titus, Angevine & Co. a combination circus and menagerie. He appeared with two apprentices as the “Polish Brothers.” This was an oft-used name for what later was called, and is today, a “brother act,” an acrobatic ensemble in which the performers are not actually related, but use a single name. The reason for using “Polish” as a cognomen is not clear, but it appears over and over in circus rosters. The original “Polish Brothers” - Charles and William Brown - were still active, thus it may have been a designation of type. We find “Hungarian Brothers,” “Swiss Brothers,” and “French Brothers” in literature.
Henry Rockwell, manager of the 1841 show, had a winter show in New York in 1841-42, and Risley and his group were on the bills. Pierre Coudere, the master chronicler of things acrobatic, and, incidentally, a Risley performer himself, wrote in the January-February 1965 Bandwagon that it was with this circus that what we call the Risley Act was introduced.
Foot juggling, of which the Risley was an off-shoot, was first seen in America in 1831. The man who introduced it was a native of Columbia named Marino Perez, almost always advertised as Sig. Perez. He lay on his back, and juggled a nine-foot long wooden beam, turning it, throwing it up, catching it, all with his feet. The turn was referred to as a “tranca” act, “tranca” being the Spanish word for cross-bar. In that same program, at Castle Garden in New York, Perez lay on a horse’s back as it circled the ring and juggled an eighteen-inch wooden ball. He was active in various circuses through 1837. Between Perez and Risley we find two “tranca” acts in America. Harvey Whitlock (fl. 1835-1847) did one on Yale, Sands & Co. in 1838, and on one of James Raymond’s shows in 1839. John P. Garvey (fl.1832-1846) offered the act on J. W Stocking’s National Circus in 1839. If Risley introduced his eponymic turn in November 1841, then we must assume he was performing it with Welch & Mann in 1842.
With his six-year-old apprentice John, Risley made a journey to the West Indies in early 1843 and was in Guadaloupe when an earthquake occurred. We only know this because their miraculous escape from danger was reported in the New York papers in April.
Risley and John appeared at the Park Theatre in New York in May 1843. It is here that we first find a description of their performance. In Odell’s Annals of the New York Stage a reporter for the New York Herald is quoted as writing “The somerset, in which he alights upon his father’s feet, is a brilliant performance, and we believe never before attempted in this city.” Later in that same year Risley and the boy appeared in London. In George Speaight’s A History of the Circus (London, 1980), we read, “no description, however vivid, can convey a faint idea of the grace and eloquence of their hitherto unequalled performance ... in which the son, flung from the upraised hands of his father, alights upon the feet in like manner upraised.” In September they were described as the youth “standing on the feet of his father throws from thence a somersault and alights in the same position again.”
The next step was for the apprentices, who as a type came to be called “Risley boys,” to roll up in a ball and be juggled by the feet of the understander just as he would a wooden ball. This was even more spectacular, though it was physically demanding for the boys, who were constantly black and blue from the pummeling they received. In Europe the act was, and is, called “the Icarian.”
Risley had three apprentices over his career, all of whom adopted his surname. The eldest, John (d.1873), was with him for years. The others, Henry and Charles, we have not found after the master’s death in 1874. John and Henry were with Risley in England and Hannah Winter implies that Henry was added to the group in that country. The troupe traveled about Europe to great success, visiting Paris, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Milan and Rome. They were everywhere received with much acclaim. The highlight of the tour may have been the performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. To the researcher, however, an event in London seems more important, as it throws light on the man’s character. It is related in his obituary in the New York Clipper (6 June 1874). When he returned to London in 1846, Risley was accorded a dinner by a number of distinguished gentlemen. At its close he rose to state that he was the best shot, the toughest wrestler, the longest jumper, the best billiard player, and the farthest thrower of the hammer of any man in London. It was thought that the wine was talking, but an appointment was made for the following day “when it was found that Professor Risley meant business.”
“He won the wager with the rifle, and after vanquishing his opponent, performed for the amusement of the guests some startling feats, such as throwing small articles in the air, and hitting them with a bullet. He defeated the wrestler, and in the jumping match made the longest standing jump to that time. He gave the hammer thrower ten feet odds, and then distanced him fifteen inches. At billiards, however he was defeated.” If true, this is an amazing catalog, and may answer why he came so late to the exhibition business. He had spent his youth perfecting all these skills, possibly in one or another of the gymnasiums that had proliferated in the cities in the 1830s. That he was a consummate athlete cannot be doubted. In Russia in 1845 he entered and won a number of figure-skating contests and rifle matches.
Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), a critic of great note, described the Risley troupe in 1844, when they appeared in a ballet at the Theatre Port Saint Martin in Paris: “There appears a great devil of a genie, perfectly constructed, with magnificent pectorals, muscular arms, but without the enormities of professional strongmen; he is costumed exactly as his children, whom he throws at once some twenty-five feet in the air, as something of a warming-up or preparatory exercises. Then he lies on his back....
“There begins a series of tours de force the more incredible in that they betray not the least effort, nor the least fatigue, nor the least hesitation. The two adorable gamins, successively or together, climb to the assault of their father, who receives them on the palms of his hands, the soles of his feet, launches them, returns them, throws them, passes them from right to left, holds them in the air, lets them go, picks them up with as much ease as an Indian juggler maneuvers his copper balls.” (Translation by Marian Hannah Winter.)
Risley returned to America, much enriched, in 1847, appearing at the Broadway Theatre in New York, and at Rufus Welch’s National Circus in Philadelphia, both in October. An advertisement referred to them as “The truly electrifying display of acrobatic excellence, by Professor Risley and his sons.” He may have then ceased to perform for a while. At one time in our investigation we thought that he performed in Tasmania in 1847 and 1848, but that proved to be a local acrobat who had adopted the name John Risley. The real Risley took a panorama painting of the Mississippi by John R. Smith to London in 1849, and as well opened an American bar and bowling alley in Vauxhall Gardens. In February 1850 he was showing the panorama in Brussels, when he discovered the Rousset Sisters, a troupe of ballerinas. He arranged to have them tour the United States in 1851, which they did quite successfully; however, Risley was apparently done out of his profits in some manner. Also in 1851, he performed in midyear in a circus in London titled Welch, McCollum & Risley. This would be in partnership with Rufus Welch and Thomas McCollum. Welch dropped out of the firm, and Risley and McCollum’s French and American Equestrian Troupe was still active as late as September 1851 in London, when Risley was presented with a medal at his benefit. They appeared in Dublin in 1852.
He decided to retire, and did so, to a farm near Chester, Pennsylvania, but was able to lead an idle life for only a short time. He was not yet forty years old. In 1854 he took Henry and another apprentice, Charles, and set to touring. Hannah Winter reports them as appearing in Hartford, Connecticut in that year. With them was a contortionist named Devani, who would remain with Risley for several seasons.
In 1855 Risley’s Vatican and Circus made its debut in California. The use of the name “Vatican” has no connection we can be certain of. Aya Mihara believes it referred to a backdrop or other piece of scenery that was unusual enough to merit its own mention. She found playbills for Risley in San Francisco in June, and Michael Sporrer found him in Sacramento in July. They visited the mining country, with its wonderful camp names such as Rattlesnake and Negro Hill, and were back in San Francisco in October. C. B. Mille was listed as manager of the troupe. Devani was with it, as were A. V. Cadwell and Dan Conover. Cadwell, a rider, and Conover, a contortionist, had been part of Cadwell’s troupe earlier in the year, and their presence with Risley raises the question as to whether the latter had taken over Jones & Cadwell’s Circus Co., as it was titled. The Coroni (sometimes Corroni) family of rope dancers were featured in Risley’s advertising. The company performed in halls as often as under canvas; and in December were in a building in San Francisco.
In 1856 Risley used three titles, Excelsior Mammoth Circus; French Ballet Troupe and Vatican Circus; and Risley’s Vatican & Circus. Henry and Charles were on the roster, as was Mons. Devani, Joe Long and his wife, and a rider named Miss Freeth. This was most likely Dave Long and his wife Cellina, who had been in California circuses since Rowe’s first effort in 1849. In fact, in October 1856 the Longs were back with Rowe. Miss Freeth was possibly the daughter, perhaps the sister, of a West Coast showman of the 1870s. The circus visited Sacramento and Marysville and Nevada City and Auburn. The Cincinnati Daily Commercial of 27 November had them in Oregon.
In the next season, according to Michael Sporrer, Risley did not advertise in the newspapers, thus our knowedge of his whereabouts, and his roster, comes from editorial comments in the papers in the various towns he visited. He had a hall show in Sacramento, and one in San Francisco and then took to the road. At Maryville, California, on May 22 the paper called it “Miner’s Circus & Risley’s Vatican.” They traveled as far north as Vancouver, Washington, and were in Portland, Oregon, in October.
In the New York Clipper of 20 March 1858 it was noted that Risley and Devani were performing at the Royal Hawaiian Theatre in Honolulu. By September they were in Sydney, Australia. A Scotsman, John Reddie Black (1827-1880), wrote in his Young Japan in 1880 that he had met Risley in the Australian gold fields in 1858 and that he (Risley) was mining for gold without success. Since they were back in Sydney in May 1860, the presumption must be that they were on tour in the intervening time, though no proof of that has been found. The advertisements for their 1860 appearance there said Professor Risley and his son (Charles) would “illustrate the poetry of gymnastic science.” Devani did his India rubber act, and two musical performers contributed as well. A year later, October 1861, they were in Singapore. By 1863 they were in Shanghai, China. There are two marks by which Richard Risley can be measured as a contributor to the cultural history of his time. The first, of course, is his invention of the Risley act. The second is his introduction of the circus into Japan. Prior to Risley’s arrival there was no organized field show in the western sense of arena, ring, equestrian acts, etc. There were performers aplenty and had been for years, but just as in the American scene prior to the advent of John Bill Ricketts, the Japanese artists appeared individually, in what might be termed booth shows. They had acrobats, jugglers, rope dancers and the like, many of them street artists just as in the west.
Risley landed in Yokohama, from Shanghai, on 6 March 1864. With him were ten performers and eight horses. The tent was erected on a vacant lot in the area where foreign residents were quartered. The first performance of an equestrian circus in Japan was presented on 28 March, and was attended by about 250 occidentals and 200 Japanese, according to a review in the English-language Japan Herald. The program included a pair of “Italian Brothers,” acrobats; Miss Lizie Gordon, equestrienne; Mr. Eugene, dog act; La Petite Cerito, dancer; and a somersaulting rider, Mr. Rooney. Unfortunately for Risley he was unable to present his show anywhere in Japan but in the foreign quarter in Yokohama. The Japanese authorities were very much opposed to “alien invasion” in their country. As a result his audiences decreased as time went on, and he finally disbanded the troupe in May 1864.
Ever the entrepreneur, Risley then opened a livery stable, and offered gymnastic and riding lessons to the public. Later, he had an amphitheatre called “Royal Olympic Theatre,” which was part-circus, partvariety in its offerings. He turned this operation over to his partners in 1865. They were the Yeamans: he a clown, she a rider, who had been in various Australian circuses for some years. In September 1865 Risley presented a program of Japanese performers at the Royal Olympic which was a novelty in Yokohama, but was not well received owing to the refusal of the star performer to present an advertised specialty. In 1866 Risley imported a herd of dairy cows into Yokohama from San Francisco, another first for that country. He established the sale of milk and ice cream at an ice house he owned, the ice being imported from China.
During the Yedo era, private citizens in Japan had never been allowed to leave the country, just as foreigners were not welcomed to visit. But in May 1866 the government decreed that passports for exit would be established. Risley desired to take a troupe of performers to the Paris Exposition of 1867 and thus it was that the first-ever Japanese passports-numbers 1 to 18-were issued to his troupe. He had to deposit a large sum of money with the government to guarantee the safe return of the performers. This was in November 1866. A second troupe, this headed by a Japanese top-spinner, were issued the next group of passports, numbered 19 to 27.
On December 5 Risley and his Japanese performers departed Yokohama for San Francisco. The troupe received an enthusiastic welcome. Risley took in a partner, Thomas Maguire (1824?-1896), and the company became Maguire and Risley’s “Imperial Japanese Troupe.” In May 1867 they reached New York. Odell speaks of them as a sensation. Mark Twain, writing from New York to the San Francisco Alta California (16 June 1867) said, in part, “Tom Maguire’s Japanese Jugglers have taken New York by storm. . . . It has to be a colossal sensation that is able to set everybody talking in New York, but the Japs did it. And I got precious tired of it for the first few days.”
All in all, the troupe gave a hundred and fifty performances in California and New York. They went to England in December 1867, and from there to the Continent. Several other Japanese troupes followed them within a year, lured by promises of great profits. The star of the Maguire-Risley company was a boy named Umekichi who appeared with his father in an acrobatic act. However, calling it just an acrobatic act does not do justice to the performers. They were accomplished at plate-spinning, rope walking, juggling and other turns. The boy was known as “Little All Right,” because of his use of that phrase to reassure his audiences that he was not in danger. The Risley troupe returned to New York in 1869 having toured America, France, Britain, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
After a farewell engagement at the Tammany Hall on 6 February the troupe was split. One group, including All Right, remained with Risley and they traveled together until early in 1870. The rest of the Japanese returned home in March 1869.
Risley’s last adventure was in bringing a variety troupe from Europe to New York; it proved to be a financial disaster. He set up as a variety agent in Philadelphia, and again failed. He suffered a nervous breakdown of some sort and was institutionalized. He died in May 1874.
In a life of constant movement, that even by modern standards seems to have a hectic quality about it, he stands out for his introduction of the act that still carries his name, over a hundred-fifty years after he first performed it, for his carrying the western amphitheatre to Japan, and for introducing the first Japanese performers into America and Europe.
Aya Mihara, “Professor Risley s Life in Japan, 1864-1866,” Japanese
Language and Culture, Number 16, Osaka University of Foreign
Marian Hannah Winter, “Theatre of Marvels,” Dance Index, vii: 1-2 (1948).
New York Times, 27 May 1874 (Risley s obituary).
New York Clipper, 6 June 1874 (Risley obituary).
Fred Braid, Australian researcher, personal correspondence to Stuart Thayer, 24 April 1994.
The reason for the double authorship of this article lies in the far-flung activities of the subject. Aya Mihara, Associate Professor at Ohtani Women’s University in Japan, discovered Risley’s Japanese career, while Stuart Thayer had applied himself for some time to his American appearances. Ms. Mihara is currently at work on a book which will more fully delineate Risley’s life.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.