The Humble Beginnings of the American Circus
Les Standiford on James Bailey's Hard-Scrabble Roots
One of the great ironies of the fabled imprimatur of “Barnum & Bailey” is that half that well-known stamp is in fact a fabrication, invented by P. T. Barnum’s partner long before the two ever met. James A. “Bailey” was actually born James Anthony McGinnis, in Detroit on the nation’s birthday in 1847, around the time when Barnum, already 37, was making a name for himself as a museum keeper and exhibitor of “oddities.” Barnum’s life and career have become legend, but the particulars of Bailey’s early life and ascension into the ranks of circus men make for a novel themselves. In an interview with the New York Times on March 19, 1891, well after he had arrived, Bailey revealed his true name, explaining that he was the youngest of four brothers, all of them orphaned when he was ten years old.
Though his father had left an estate of $20,000—a considerable sum in those days—James was sent to live with family in the country who would act as his guardians. “Instead of being treated as a ward for whom comfortable provision had been made,” he said, “I was made to work like a dog. On the slightest provocation I was whipped. My guardian had boys of my age. For their misdeeds I was punished. I was kept working so hard that I was always late at school, so I was continually being whipped by the teacher and kept after school. Then, for being late in getting home, I was whipped again. I stood that until I was nearly 13 years old.” As if all this was not bad enough, the woman who had been appointed as his legal custodian and who so eagerly dished out all those beatings was none other than his eldest sister, Catherine—a fact James, perhaps out of embarrassment, neglected to mention to the Times reporter.
James stood the abuse until one day in 1859, when he was 12, enough had finally become enough. “I remember well now the morning that I started down the country road, determined never to return except as my own master,” he said. “I wore a big straw hat, a little brown jacket, and trousers that buttoned to it and was barefooted. My only possession was a jackknife with one broken blade.”
It being the harvest season, he got himself hired on at a neighboring farm, where he made $3.25 a month, plus his room and board. His job, in those days long before the advent of farm machinery, was to follow along after the scythe wielder and bind the cut wheat into sheaves. “It was very hard work for a small boy,” Bailey recalled, but he complained for only one reason: “Another boy, doing the same work as I was, was getting $6 a month, which was not fair, for I was a better boy than he was. I could lick him and I did lick him.”
Though it is unclear whether the hoped-for raise was forthcoming as a result of this licking, James eventually made his way to Pontiac, Michigan, where he found work as a bellhop at a small hotel, a position that also required him to lend a hand in the establishment’s stables, where he took a particular liking to horses. “It was at this time that Robinson and Lake’s old-time circus came along,” he said. “The advent of its advance agent [Fred H. Bailey, nephew of the original Flatfoot, Hachaliah], with his big red and gilt wagon . . . set the whole country around wild and me with it. Like all the rest of the boys about, I helped to post bills, etc., in consideration of a ticket to the show. Lake took a fancy to me, and when the circus came along introduced me to Robinson. I told Robinson I was an orphan, with no friends, and would like to go with the show,” and with that the die was cast.
“He took me along, making me useful where he could. I have never done anything but circus work since,” Bailey declared, “and I never want to.” James, in effect, became the ward of advance man Fred Bailey, and the relationship between the two became so close that James A. McGinnis eventually adopted the surname of his mentor, though it is not certain whether Fred Bailey and his wife ever formally adopted young James.
During the summer seasons, young Bailey traveled with the troupe, and during the winters, he found odd jobs, usually in entertainment-related endeavors. During the winter of 1862, Lake secured a job for him “in the express business” in the hamlet of Zanesville, Ohio, but young Bailey soon tired of driving a delivery wagon up and down the streets of that town. He made his way to Nashville, where he took a job in the city’s namesake theater as an usher. Soon his experience and industriousness led to his promotion to bill poster and ticket seller. One evening, a man named Green, who worked as a provisioner for the Union Army, offered Bailey a handsome tip if he could find him a seat in the sold-out theater. Bailey found Green a seat, but “indignantly” refused the bribe. Green was so taken with Bailey that he hired him on the spot as his clerk, something of a boon, given the hard times. Bailey spent the rest of the war in the employ of the Federal Army.
While Bailey whiled away his time as a clerk, and the circus business managed to limp along in the North during the Civil War, hostilities effectively put an end to traveling circuses south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Robinson & Lake circus, in fact, was to begin its 1861 performances in Lexington, Kentucky, but shortly after its tents had been erected and the American flag raised up the center pole, a deputation of citizens arrived to lower the colors and advise that the troupe should best remove its operations to the northerly side of the Ohio River, and be quick about it. Even for some time following the war, northern circuses often had a difficult time in the South.
As George F. Holland, a member of the Haight & Chambers troupe, recalled in his memoir, even in 1867 trouble remained: “Down there nearly every day someone of our company was killed. At Fayetteville a band of guerillas that had not yet disbanded after the war made a raid on the circus at a night performance, in which nine of the guerillas were killed, but no one belonging to the circus was compelled to bite the dust. The management employed thirty Rangers to travel with the circus for protection, and they certainly did protect us on that occasion.”
And even with the gradual erosion of such tensions, other dangers for the traveling circus were ever present, as a vivid tale told by veteran showman W. C. Coup bears out. One placid morning, as his troupe was traveling north from a small Missouri town where their performance had been especially well received, good fortune changed to impending disaster in moments:
The circus caravan was nearly a mile long, “and stretched out like a long serpent” over the treeless plains, the very picture of circus glamour: “The elaborate and gilded chariots, the piebald Arabian horses, the drove of shambling camels and the huge swaying elephants gave a touch of genuine oriental picturesqueness to the scene,” he rhapsodized.
Lulled into a near-doze, he roused when he noticed oddities in the behavior of the wildlife nearby. A jackrabbit, ordinarily a timid creature, sat on its haunches at the roadside, watching the caravan progress, then began to follow along after it. Then, Coup spotted a rattlesnake curving out of the grass and past a trotting team of horses without hesitation. Typically, it would have occasioned the snake to sink its fangs into one of the horses in an eyeblink.
Soon, as if drawn by an invisible force, flocks of birds overtook the caravan, lingering low in the sky and then zooming on. The tall grasses on either side of the road were alive with rabbits and other small creatures, all of them scrambling in the same direction.
“The captive animals in the darkened cages began to show signs of unusual restlessness,” Coup noted, adding, “The lions and tigers began a strange moaning unlike their ordinary roars and growls. From the monkey cages came plaintive, half-human cries.”
Coup sat upright, his gaze on the open prairie behind them, searching the hazy landscape for any sign of a pack of predators that might have prompted the animals’ fears . . . and then it struck him. Not haze back there but smoke. The endless grasslands behind them were ablaze.
Within moments a rider on horseback caught up to the caravan, shouting, “Whip up, man! The prairie’s on fire! Move for the river straight ahead!” As quickly as he had materialized, he was gone.
There were shouted orders, and the lead wagon master laid on his team with the whip.
Coup worried that the speed of the procession would be dragged down by the camels and elephants, whose pace was notoriously deliberate, but he needn’t have been concerned. The rate at which both the elephants and camels began to swing over the ground astonished them all.
“Where is the river?” one man called. “Can we make the water?” cried another.
It was a genuine chariot race, Coup said, “in which the stake was life and the fine death by flames.”
Even with the cursing and the lashing of the drivers, the wall of fire that stretched across the horizon behind them steadily advanced on the wagons. It would come to no good end, Coup thought, as he clutched a rail on the bucking wagon he rode in. Then he caught sight of the circus boss galloping up the line and past him, on ahead of the lead team, where six big white horses strained with all they had. A hundred yards in front of the caravan, the circus boss leapt off his horse and bent and struck a match to the dry grass there.
Coup was dumbstruck. Building a fire in front of the caravan? Fire behind them, fire ahead? And then the boss was atop his horse and thundering back.
“Wait till the flames spread a little,” the boss called to the lead driver, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Then break through the line of the back fire I’ve started and form a circle.”
This “back fire” had nothing like the volume of the wall that chased after them, and one after another, the drivers were able to force their rearing teams through the low-crawling flames the boss had set, until the whole troupe— sans the speedy cadre of camels and elephants that had long since outstripped the caravan and disappeared—found themselves inside a broad charred circle, which still smoldered and sputtered, watching the great conflagration swooping toward them.
“As the prairie fire rushed upon the huddled caravan, the lead team of six white stallions who had led the escape effort abruptly lost all reason: The driver held desperately to the reins, but it was useless: The six horses charged directly toward the oncoming wall of flame and churning black smoke, the driver giving it everything to hold them in check.”
“Jump back!” cried the boss at the last instant. And jump back the driver did, just as the crazed team and the wagon vanished into the wall of black and red.
“Then came a moment which was a dizzy blank to most of us, I guess,” Coup said. The men could only stare, stunned, as the deadly inferno parted as if by magic, speeding around the circular firebreak, then gathering itself to tear on ahead toward the still-unseen river.
Some of the men had fainted, and the rest were dumb with relief. No more flames, no thundering herds of fleeing animals, just a smoldering silence and the grunts and snorts and pawing sounds of the remaining horses. Circus men were scarcely true believers, but a man beside Coup finally broke the silence. “I reckon there’s been more genuine praying done in circus circles in the last hour than since Noah let the elephants out of the Ark!”
In time the men gathered themselves, and Coup and some others set out over the still smoldering ground. It was not far before they encountered the axles and rims of the obliterated wagon and the blackened remains of the splendid white horses. The stallions had been the pride of the show, and the loss seemed nearly as great as if it were six people whose ruined bodies lay there. “As for myself,” Coup recalled, “I could hardly keep back the tears.”
As it often had and as it ever would, fire proved to be the cursed bane of the circus. And yet for all the hardships and uncertainties associated with circus life, the appeal for young men like Coup and Bailey was irresistible.
Excerpted from Battle For the Big Top by Les Standiford. Reprinted with permission by the publisher, Public Affair Books. Copyright © 2021 by Les Standiford.