The story of the Circus begins with Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1889), who was born in Bethel, Connecticut; he moved to New York City in 1834; he moved into a house on Hudson Street. He wrote in an autobiographical account that “I had no pecuniary resources, excepting such as might be derived from debts left for a collection with my agent in Bethel, and I went to the metropolis literally to seek my fortune.” Someone told him about a Negro woman in 1835 who was said to be 161 years old, and had belonged to George Washington. She was a “remarkable curiosity”; she attracted much attention; she was probably no more than 80, but as a “rare spectacle” she attracted much attention. Barnum purchased a half-interest in the woman and with “posters, transparencies, advertisements, (and) newspaper paragraphs he set up rooms in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Albany, and in other large and small cities”; he made “much money” commemorating the Negro lady.
Barnum wrote that with the success of this venture “I had at last found my true vocation.” He found an Italian through the Albany, New York Museum who called himself “Signor Antonio“ and had him perform “certain remarkable feats of balancing, stilt-walking, plate spinning ,etc.”; he took “Signor Antonio” on tour. While his performer was giving a show Barnum heard a hiss from the audience; it came from a professional balancer and juggler, “who boasted that he could do all that Vivalla had done.” Barnum hired him and “contests” between him and Vivalla “amused the public and put money in my purse.” In 1836 Barnum made a connection with a “travelling circus company” and went through parts of New England with his tour, overcoming opposition by religious protesters; he went to church and spoke gospel even though “We made no pretense of religion…” “If his enemies abused him in the newspapers as a trickster, he chuckled because they drew attention to his exhibits and that meant more paying customers. If his enemies failed to abuse him, he did the job himself.” Tom Thumb was his most profitable, and winning anomaly. Barnum found him in 1842; he was five years old and stood twenty-five inches tall. Barnum gave him a cram course on how to act; when he took him to England he entertained Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. He delighted the palace with “songs, dances, and imitations” that Barnum had taught him.
Barnum boasted that his chief aim was to make money; he turned to the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, one of Europe’s leading vocalists, to that end. Her reputation was impeccable; there was not the slightest shadow on her personal life; when Barnum sought her out she hesitated to trust him because of his reputation. Barnum offered her $1,000 a night for up to 150 nights, plus all her expenses. He paid for her servants, carriages and secretaries; she was not well-known in America so Barnum mounted an advertising campaign, with newspapers the main vehicle. He did everything possible to publicize her; when she walked down the gangplank in 1850 thirty thousand people greeted her. When her carriage took her to her hotel five thousand people were waiting for her in the street. Jenny’s tour was a striking success; it included a trip to Washington, where she performed before President Willard Fillmore.
Barnum published The Life of P.T. Barnum Written by Himself in 1855; if critics considered it trash it sold extremely well and gave him free advertising. He brought out a second edition in 1869, in which he said the book was the “matured and leisurely review of almost half a century of work and struggle, and final success, in spite of fraud.” The fraud was by others; he had invested in a clock company that left him with liabilities of $500,000, which he repaid in a few years. It was in the 1889 edition that Barnum added a section on the circus, which came out of an agreement that he entered into with J.A. Bailey in 1870. Bailey had begun a circus after the Civil War; Barnum expanded the ordinary one-ring circus into a two-ring extravaganza under a large tent. He brought together different attractions that included acrobats, showgirls, clowns, bareback riders, elephants, lions, and tigers. Members of his circus appeared as Queen Victoria and the Emperor of China, the Pope and his cardinals. They were preceded by splendid processions mounted and on foot, heralds, flag bearers, knights in armor, cavalrymen, uniformed warriors, and charioteers driving their chariots. When the “Greatest Show on Earth” appeared in New York in 1881 window space was sold on Broadway to people who had the best view of the circus as it passed by. By the time of his death in 1889 even the Times of London had warmed to Barnum. His funeral in that year was the grandest show Bridgetown had ever seen; his autobiography became the most widely-read book in America after the Bible.
John Ringling was one of six brothers; there was one sister. The older brothers organized a circus in 1870; Bailey died in 1906 and the Barnum and Bailey Circus was sold to the Ringlings in 1907. In 1919 the two circuses were combined; the headquarters were in Bridgeport, Connecticut. John Ringling (1866-1936), the best-known of the six brothers, was the fifth son; he married Mable Burton in 1905; when the Ringling brothers bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907 for $400,000 John took a leading position in the firm; the Ringling Circus merged with Barnum and Bailey in 1918; its first show debuted at Madison Square Garden in that year. In 1927 the circus moved its headquarters to Sarasota, Florida; John now headed the firm. John Ringling bought bay-front property in Sarasota in 1909; he built a 30-room mansion in the Venetian Gothic style; he built the Ca d’Zan Museum in 1926; he was one of the richest men in the world. He and Mabel traveled to Europe; they collected art; in 1929 he bought the American Circus Corporation for $1.7 million (over $23 million today); it was in that year that the depression began. John Ringling’s health failed; he lost virtually his entire fortune during the depression but kept his museum and art collection. Mable had died in 1929; he remarried. He was voted out of control of the Ringling business in 1932; he was divorced in 1936, the year of his death. He had $311 in the bank; his nephew sold the circus in 1967.
The grounds where the Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Circus performed is a short distance from the Ringling Museum; it is where the last performance of the fabled circus will give its last performance later this year.