It’s supposed to be “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus has been in hot water for salacious scandals as well as the “freakish” attractions.
The Unbelievable (and Often Freaky) History of the Circus
While exotic acts bewitched audiences, performers and animals were being seriously mistreated and abused behind the scenes. Read on to learn more about the troubling and intriguing history of Ringling Bros.
Run Away to the Circus!
The circus represented magic and adventure. You may have had a romanticized notion that when times got tough, you could always run away and join the circus. You’d be a star, even part of a family of misfits-and-outsiders, and live the life you always dreamed was possible.
If that was ever your dream, even as a young child, it’s likely that dream is no longer an option. The Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus Big Top will be performing for the last time soon. They’re calling it quits. So, as we look ahead to the end, here’s what you need to know about the haphazard world of the circus.
When Did It All Begin?
P.T. Barnum was a showman, beginning with his first exhibition in 1835 when he bought and put on display a blind slave woman, Joice Heth, claiming she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse. She died a year later and was only 80 years old. You’ll remember, this founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus is famous for saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
The bounds of his showmanship or his willingness to exploit people and animals appeared to know no end. He brought to the stage every manner of freakish and misanthropic creature imaginable. From the Fiji mermaid, General Tom Thumb, and every manner of jugglers, magicians, exotic ladies, albinos, and giants. He also included a menagerie of animals as part of his sideshow extravaganza.
What’s the Ringling Connection?
Of course, you also have to consider the Ringling Brother side of things as well! The Ringling Brothers (Charles and John, along with Albert and Otto) founded the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884. They took the country by storm, principally because each brother had his own role to play in the circus business. They became infamous entrepreneurs and built their infamous extravaganza to become the largest circus in the US.
The Ringling Bros. purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. in 1906 when Bailey died, but each circus still ran separately until 1919. The Great Depression hit the circus, and John Ringling North (John Nicholas Ringling’s nephew) headed up the circus starting in 1937. The circus received permission by President Roosevelt to continue traveling the rails during World War II, despite travel restrictions. Under North’s management, the circus also quit its “Big Top” tenure and began using only permanent venues in 1957.
The Fiji mermaid also referred as the Feejee mermaid, is a famous sideshow hoax that is concocted with the head of a juvenile monkey and the body of a fish. In popular myth, it was a mummified half mammal and half fish, romanticized as a fabled “mermaid.” It was called the “Fiji mermaid” because it was said to be caught near the Fiji islands, in the South Pacific.
The now-infamous original version of this freakish creation was exhibited by P.T. Barnum in 1842, though he claimed he was only using it to draw the crowds, and that he wasn’t “fooling” anyone. The Fiji mermaid eventually disappeared, though it’s not certain how or why. It may have been destroyed in a fire. Tricking audiences with fake mermaids is one thing, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was involved in something much more sinister: human kidnapping and exploitation.
The Stolen Albino Brothers
Eko and Iko were the stage names for African American albino brothers, George and Willie Muse. With their watery blue eyes, blond hair and poor eyesight, they were kidnapped by “freak hunters,” people who scoured the countryside looking for oddities they could turn into sideshow attractions.
The boys were six and nine when they were first taken, and little is known about their childhood. What is known is that they were told that their mother was dead, not allowed to read or write, unpaid, and transformed into sideshow attractions. They were called “Barnum’s Original Monkey Men,” “Ambassadors from Mars,” and “The Shepherded Men,” as the elaborate yarn of how they came to be in the circus continued to grow. Their only outlet was their music, and they frequently sang about missing home.
Eko and Iko: The Rest of the Story
The story doesn’t end there, though. Their mother, Harriet, discovered them when the circus traveled through Virginia. The police were called in because she wouldn’t leave without her sons, and the authorities sided with her, letting her take her sons home.
Harriet also took the circus to court for back wages and won. With the court-ordered compensation, she was able to buy a small farmhouse. Although the men did return to work in the circus, she’d won some measure of security and freedom for them for the rest of their lives. They were paid for their appearances, and they were able to go back and visit their family whenever they were off-tour.
Many people who were ostracized from society because of medical conditions found work in the circus. Annie Jones Elliot appeared on stage, as The Bearded Lady, a circus attraction for showman P.T. Barnum. She had a condition, hirsutism, which caused hair to grow on her face. Already, she was called “Bearded Girl” when she was five, and there was even an incident where she was kidnapped by a New York phrenologist. It was probably just another of Barnum’s publicity stunts, but the police were brought in.
Although she was a star attraction and spectacle, she also used her celebrity status to become a voice for circus performers. She sought to end the use of the word “freak” to describe the circus celebrities. She had a long career, during which she gained acclaim for her musical talents as well. Elliot wasn’t the only performer to achieve fame.
The “Dog-Faced Boy”
Another circus performer born with a rare medical condition was “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.” Born with hereditary hypertrichosis which causes excessive hair growth, “Jo-Jo” was born Fedor Jeftichew in 1868 in Russia. P.T Barnum brought him to America when he was just 16 years old and billed him as “the most prodigious paragon of all prodigies secured by P. T. Barnum in over 50 years.”
“Jo-Jo” would reportedly play up his canine association, by barking and growling at audience members, who would take turns tugging on his facial hair. Sadly, he would only live to the age of 35 when Pneumonia killed him in January of 1904 while he was touring in Greece.
General Tom Thumb
General Tom Thumb’s real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton, and he stopped growing around the age of four. P.T. Barnum was Stratton’s distant relative, so when he discovered the Stratton’s condition, he taught him to sing, dance, and impersonate famous people.
Stratton began touring at 50 years old, and became an international celebrity, with appearances before royalty: Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Although P.T. Barnum has been regularly denigrated for creating spectacles of people and creatures, Stratton became a very wealthy man playing the role of General Tom Thumb. He made his last appearance on stage in 1878.
Myrtle The “Four-Legged Girl from Texas”
Another case of a circus performer with a physical disability, Myrtle Corbin was born with two separate pelvises and four legs, two of which belonged to her dipygus twin sister. While she was able to move the two inner legs, they weren’t strong enough to support her weight for walking. Her success as a circus act spawned several other four-legged circus acts, though those were ultimately proven to be fake.
Myrtle eventually married a doctor and gave birth to a son and four daughters. It’s rumored that two of her children were born via one set of organs and the three others were born of the other set, though there’s no way to confirm this.
Women in the Circus
Some of the most popular attractions under the “Big Tent” were beautiful women performing stunning and unexpected feats. Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers were quick to try to capitalize on this, with a third to half of the cast members reportedly being women.
These ladies ranged in talents and capabilities, from Antoinette Concello, the trapeze artist who was billed as the “greatest woman flyer of all time” and one of Ringling’s most popular attractions, to Kittie Smith, known as “The Armless Dynamo” who became famous for writing, painting, and even playing the piano with her feet.
Hartford Circus Fire
Among the controversies and catastrophes of the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus misadventures, there were dangers as well. One of the most infamous events was the Hartford Circus Fire, on July 6, 1944. It has been called one of the worst fire disasters in US history.
The Big Top event had some 6-7,000 out of a possible 9,000 seats possible, in attendance when a fire broke out. It took place during World War II, which meant that supplies were sparse, as were people who could fight the fire. Added to all that, there was the fact that the Big Top was covered in paraffin wax and gasoline to make it waterproof. The fire spread quickly, claiming 168 lives, and injuring 700+ more people.
Marilyn Monroe Rides Elephant at Opening
In 1955, to get circus-goers amped up for the shows, famous actress Marilyn Monroe rode an elephant on the opening night of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus in Madison Square Garden, New York. Dressed like a flapper girl, Marilyn attempted to ride the elephant side saddle before reverting to straddling the elephant.
The elephant was pink (although it’s unclear how it was dyed) and adorned with rhinestones and a pink bow on its tail. Needless to say, the media went wild for Monroe’s stunt and drew much attention to the circus in New York City. Of course, behind the scenes, the elephants were badly treated.
Poor Living Conditions for Elephants
While the elephants were one of the main and favorite attractions for the circus, the Ringling Bros. circus was often criticized for its poor treatment of the wild animals. Catherine Doyle of Performing Animal Welfare Society said, “The public just doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes. Elephants are chained for 17 to 18 hours a day on average, or even longer when they’re traveling. They’re controlled using bullhooks.”
It wasn’t until the Disney film Dumbo, a tale about a circus elephant,was released in 1941 that the audience began to view the animals in a more humane, compassionate light.
100 Wild Animals Killed in a Fire
In this graphic and tragic photo from 1942, you can see Detective Inspector Frank Story viewing the circus elephant that he euthanized. After a performance went wrong in Cleveland, Ohio, a fire ignited and quickly spread across the Ringling Bros. Circus show grounds. Although the spectators escaped the burning tent without any fatalities, the animals weren’t so lucky.
It was reported that more than 100 wild animals were killed in the fire, including elephants, lions, tigers, camels, and zebras. Many of the animals were tied up in areas with straw and hay on the ground, which quickly caught fire and continued to burn.
A Favorite with Children
Despite mounting controversy over the circus and its treatment of both animals and performers, the Ringling Bros train trip to their winter base each year was met with great fanfare by people who lived in Florida.
Gunther Gebel-Williams was a huge draw for the crowds who came to the circus. A seasoned animal trainer who got his start with television appearances like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Gebel-Williams stunned audiences with his “menagerie” of dangerous animals. Another favorite act was the clown car spectacle, where a tiny car (usually a VW bug) entered the ring and a seemingly endless procession of clowns would emerge one by one.
Lancelot the Unicorn
In the 1980s, Lancelot the Unicorn was the center of both fascination and horror. The exhibit of Lancelot, who looked remarkably like a goat, was challenged by animal-cruelty groups, but also the subject of controversy as a “fraud” and claims of “mutilation.” The US Department of Agriculture investigated the creature, and confirmed that the animal was “well treated,” though they did not call Lancelot a “unicorn.”
For their part, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus ran ads, urging: “Don’t let the Grinches steal the Fantasy!” To make the fascinating story more mysterious, there’s Otter Zell, a naturalist who claims to know the ancient secrets of creating a unicorn. The key is fusing the buds of a kid together so they grow into a single horn as the goat matures. The circus’s battle with animal rights activist was far from over.
Beating the Elephants
Throughout the history of the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus, elephants have always been a huge reason why so many thousands of attendees are drawn in. Attractions like Jumbo the Elephant were monumental attractions, leaving everyone in awe.
More recently, though, the circus has come under fire for their training practices with elephants, as well as other performing animals. The fact that elephants are now known to be so intelligent, and the fact that they also have such long memories, has aided in the efforts of those who have challenged the circus for their acts of animal cruelty toward animals. But, it’s not just about the adult elephants…
What About the Babies?
There has also been an ever-growing outcry for the baby elephants as well since they are born in captivity. Reports detail the tragic circumstances under which they are trained and treated, to get them to the point where they can perform on such a grand scale in the circus.
More than anything, it’s probably the deaths of the Ringling baby elephants that has caused the most uproar by outraged animal rights activists. As you can probably imagine, many are heartbroken to hear of when any baby animals are mistreated. When we also find out that an endangered species is beaten, tied and chained on cement floors, and taken from their mothers, you can hear the gnashing of teeth and rage-filled cries for the abuse to end.
Small Cages for Tigers & Lions
While the plight of the elephants is often the most publicized animal rights issue, the treatment of other animals was also widely condemned. While it may make sense to the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus, the practice of keeping tigers (and other animals) in cages so small that they can’t even stand up or turn around has been pointed to as further examples of the widespread abuse and mistreatment perpetrated by the circus.
The lack of movement in those small little cages leads to obesity and sores, but there’s also genetic defects to contend with (as there can be captive inbreeding). All of that also leads to some 30 lions or tigers that are destroyed for every one animal that has the right “look” or temperament for training and appearance in the Big Ring. Show business may seem like lots of glitz and glamor, but there’s lots of suffering behind the scenes.
Olivia Munn Bares All
With such a long and varied history of controversy, you won’t be surprised to learn that some celebrities really are willing (and ready) to bear all in the pursuit of ending the circus. Just look at Olivia Munn!
Munn lays it all out, “When you look at something like the circus and everyone’s laughing and there’s color and there’s music and everything seems so great, but when you go right behind that door and they’re in these crates all day long and then they’re getting shocked and beat just so they can get up and dance around on a ball … it was just so sickening.”
Boycott the Circus
Of course, Olivia Munn isn’t the only one who is very vocal about her opposition to the circus. Their message has continued to gain momentum, as celebrities and activists of all ages have joined the call to “boycott the circus.”
It’s not a situation that P.T. Barnum would have liked to see, though he wasn’t a stranger to controversy in his day either. It’s now easier than ever to get the word out, to publicize every tragic animal story, and to let people see, hear and make a heartfelt decision for themselves. And, all those calls to “boycott” have probably affected ticket sales too.
Long Battle to Remove Elephants from Circus
With the long and varied list of complaints against the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus, related to elephant mistreatment, abuse, and poor overall conditions, it’s probably not surprising that they decided to disband with their elephant performers, sending them off to greener pastures.
While on the one hand, many animal-rights activists would say that it should have been done much sooner, the reality of their decision also ensured the further decline of the circus. Ticket sales slumped even more without elephants, which have always been a monumental draw. So, while it may have “saved” the elephants, it also killed the circus.
What about the Clowns?
There’s another factor that may be hitting the sale of tickets at the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus too, though, and that’s the appearance of clowns. Yes, there really is such a thing as clown phobia, coulrophobia. You may even have it!
Horror movies haven’t been shy about featuring clowns in the most creepy and sadistic ways possible. It’s no wonder, that you may be just a little freaked out by that huge painted white face, red lips, big red feet, and bizarre clothing. Do you think a fear of clowns may just be killing off a love of the circus? Of course, that’s not the only reason, but no parent wants to deal with their child’s nightmares in the middle of the night.
Acrobats Injured When Scaffolding Collapses
In June of 2014, eight acrobats were severely injured during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Providence, Rhode Island. The structure they were suspended from collapsed while they were 35 feet in the air. It was a scary event, while the crowd looked on, the performers were hanging upside down, grasping the chandelier-like platform with their feet.
The young performers from around the globe sustained injuries that sent them to the hospital, including neck injuries, and possibly ended many of their careers. 20-year-old Ringling Bros. acrobat Julissa Sergrera told NBC News, “My dream was to be a star performer. Now my dream is to get up and walk.”
P.T. Barnum’s Modern Day Equivalent
P.T. Barnum has periodically been likened to other figures through history, often because he represented such an eclectic variety show of public-facing personas and showmanship. Salon has called President Donald Trump “the second coming of P.T. Barnum” and Samuel L. Jackson called him “more P.T. Barnum than politician.”
And, that seems to be just fine with Trump, as he says, “We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit because we have to build up the image of our country.” But, here’s the thing. There’s more than just larger-than-life showmanship in the comparison. “Both men are known for skirting the truth,” according to The Washington Post, “using exaggeration and in some cases, downright lies to garner attention…” Stephen Colbert commented about the closure of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus: “Apparently the circus didn’t think they could compete against a Trump presidency.”
So, It’s Curtains?
Finally, the end draws near. May 2017 is slated for the last-ever event for the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus. After more than 100 years in business, there are a lot of memories tied up in the circus. You probably remember when your parents or someone took you to see the elephants, tigers and perhaps even bears. It was a giant spectacle and it was unforgettable. Of course, part of the circus history also involves horrors you also don’t really even want to imagine.
That’s all done with, though, right? Or is it? Just because the Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing up shop doesn’t mean that circuses will be gone for good! The closing of those giant circus doors will (probably) just leave more room for all the others.
In Need Of A New Home
Now that they are going out of business, between 40 and 50 animals have to go on and find new owners. They had about 18 tigers and several camels and horses. Animals that might take some time to find new homes. But, “the company-owned creatures will likely be moved to zoos and conservation centers in the U.S., but the plans are not yet final,” reported Time back in early 2017.
“We have a lifetime commitment to these animals,” said Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment. “We obviously will want to continue to provide care for all of them regardless of what happens ultimately with the circus.”
Off To The German Circus, They Go
After scrambling to find a new home for these precious animals early in 2017, the group found a place for them but it didn’t come with a warm acceptance. Animal activist around the world had hoped that the animals would be allowed to live a more natural life but that isn’t the case.
“Feld Entertainment, Inc., d.b.a. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (‘Ringling Bros.’) respectfully submits an application to re-export to Germany fifteen (15) captive-bred big cats (lions, tigers and a leopard) under CITES and ESA,” the application reads. Animal activists remain uncertain about the quality of life these animals will receive.
Barnum Made Opera A Big Hit In The United States
While Barnum was a master manipulator, he did manage to perform a public service that still resonates in the United States today. In 1850 he signed a deal to bring European opera singer Jenny Lind to the United States for a multi-city tour. Americans were not familiar with Lind and opera was still a fringe musical art in the USA.
Barnum arranged a nationwide contest in which fans of the circus could write a song that Lind would perform on stage. Lind was such a massive success that Barnum earned a staggering $500,000 during the tour. Americans fell in love with Opera music and it quickly became a popular form of entertainment at American theaters.
There Isn’t A Sucker Born Every Minute?
Barnum is credit with saying “there’s a sucker born every minute” but there is absolutely no proof that the famed Circus operator made this statement. In fact, Barnum often became angry when people would claim his customers were “suckers.”
In reality, Barnum long held the belief that his customers were not suckers but rather willing participants who enjoyed his lighthearted pranks and hoaxes. He was accurately credited as claiming, “the people like to be humbugged.” Indeed, Barnum would often create such unbelievable spectacles that it seems implausible that every person who visited his circus was a “sucker.” Perhaps we’re all suckers for believing this saying came from Barnum after all these years.
Barnum Stopped Public Unrest About The Brooklyn Bridge
In 1883 rumors started to circulate that the Brooklyn Bridge was not structurally sound. At one point, a human stampede across the bridge left dozens of people dead. When the bridge was first opened Barnum offered the bridge’s owners $5,000 to cross the structure with his circus animals but they refused.
Following the death of so many innocent people, the bridge’s owners changed their minds. On May 17, 1884, Barnum marched 21 elephants and 17 camels over the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Jumbo, the giant elephant, was among the animals that successfully crossed the bridge. With animals weighing thousands of pounds each crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, any doubt about its ability to withstand a lot of weight was put to bed. For his exhibit, Barnum earned an amazing amount of publicity that fueled ticket sales for his circus.
Barnum Hated Alcohol And Joined The Temperance Movement
During his younger days, Barnum would drink wine and scotch but he swore off alcohol after hearing a lecture by a pro-temperance reverend in the late 1840s. He soon became an avid teetotaler and prohibition advocate, a role that would stick with him for the rest of the businessman’s life.
When he was not entertaining millions of supportive fans, Barnum would give lectures on the evils of liquor. He also forbade drinking in his American Museum and anyone who visited his lecture room was made to watch “The Drunkard,” a cautionary tale about alcoholism. He often bragged that, just like his animals, he never drank anything stronger than water. Oddly, Jumbo the elephant was said to love beer and was rumored to put down an entire keg full of the stuff whenever given the option. Also, who gives an elephant that option?
Barnum Won Political Office And Fought For Equality
While his circus was found guilty of kidnapping a pair of black albino brothers, Barnum would go on to run for public office and then fight for equality. In 1865 he won a seat in the Connecticut General Assembly as a Republican, thanks in no small part to the love people had for his entertainment business. Despite his past ownership of the slave Joice Heth, he quickly became an impassioned advocate for African American equality and voting rights.
Years later, he would run against a distant relative who also had the last name, Barnum. The famed circus owner lost a heated debate and failed to claim the seat. He would later become the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. It wasn’t until the late 1870s that he returned to the Connecticut Legislator to become a leading advocate for pro-temperance reforms and the abolition of the death penalty.
Barnum Was Not Young When He Founded The Circus
Barnum was an amazing businessman who knew how to attract crowds to his businesses but his circus wasn’t founded until he was 60 years old. Barnum first found success with his American Museum and some other smaller ventures.
The transition from a museum business to the circus made a lot of sense for Barnum. The American Museum was focused on showing off his quickly growing collection of attractions he personally curated from around the world. At its peak, the museum hosted around 15,000 visitors per day and it’s believed that 38 million paying customers traveled through the museum during its run. That’s more people than the entire population of the USA at the time.
82 Million Tickets With A LITTLE Help From A Friend
Barnum’s circus sold more than 82 million tickets during its heyday and 20 million of those tickets were sold thanks in no small part to Tom Thumb. Standing at 25 inches and 15 pounds, Charles S. Stratton, AKA, “General Tom Thumb” was far and away the most popular act at the circus.
While Tom Thumb started growing at four-years-old, his bank account didn’t suffer the same saint. Tom Thumb was well compensated for his work with PT Barnum & Bailey. Given that his “freak show” act was simply being short, it was an astounding amount of tickets that were sold just to gawk at the small man’s stature.
The Autobiography Of Barnum Was Wildly Successful
“The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself” sold more than one million copies during the circus operators life. This was one of his biggest passions and Barnum would release a new edition of the book almost every year. Each edition gave his fans more insight into his personal life and business operations.
When he died it was revealed that Barnum wasn’t ready to let his updates stop, he instructed his widow to add one final chapter that spoke about his death. Long after he was gone, the circus continued to dominate the industry that Barnum had built a monopoly over during his years as a savvy businessman.
Some Of The Circus’ Biggest Stunts Happened Outside The Circus
We would argue that P.T. Barnum was the world’s first and possibly most effective guerrilla marketing expert. He quickly realized that his biggest publicity stunts shouldn’t happen inside the big top tent but rather in public.
As part of his publicity stunts, he attempted to buy Shakespeare’s childhood home, employ the Zulu leader who had ambushed a British army, and tow an iceberg from the Arctic to New York Harbor. Throw in the Brooklyn Bridge march and hundreds of other students and it’s immediately clear that Barnum knew exactly what it took to make people interested in what his circus could offer.
PT Barnum & Bailey Circus Employed The Only Female Clown
As previously mentioned, Barnum was a huge supporter of equal rights for everyone. He practiced what he preached by employing the only female clown at the time of his circuses early years.
In 1939, the Barnum circus opened at Madison Square Garden with 35-year-old English women taking on a big role as a clown. The historic moment drew so much interest that the new act was considered responsible for a large percentage of the show’s ticket sales. It was a small gesture by Barnum but it inspired other women to look into the craft that had always been dominated by male performers.
The Circus Made One Man A Billionaire – In 2014!
In 1978 Irvin Feld and his company Feld Entertainment purchased the circus for a small sum of $8 million. Feld immediately canceled the freak show portion of the circus to avoid capitalizing on other people’s deformities. He also made the show much more family friendly.
In 2014, Forbes announced that Feld Entertainment brought in over $1 billion in gross revenue the year prior. The massive growing success of the circus made CEO, Kenneth Feld, into America’s latest billionaire with a net worth of $1.8 billion a sum that grew to $2.5 billion in 2017.
The First African American Ringmaster Was Hired In 1999
Despite P.T. Barnum’s focus on equality, he failed to ever hire an African-American ringmaster during his time in charge of his beloved circuses. It wasn’t until 1998 that a black man took on the role!
Johnathan Lee Iverson, a native New Yorker, was hired to lead the circus. It was nearly 60 years after the first female clown was hired that his major milestone was achieved. Iverson landed on Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 1999 list. He landed the job at 22-years-old and remained the voice of the big top until the very end. Famed writer and critic Clive Barnes said Iverson “redefined the role” of the Circus ringmaster.
A Clown College For Men Only?
In 1968, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus Clown College was founded with the hopes of keeping the art of clowning alive and kicking. Oddly, the clown college did not accept women until 1970 despite a growing history of female clowning.
While the first female clown was introduced to the world in 1939, it was still very much a male-dominated profession when the clown college was founded. When the circus gave its final performance in May 2017, female clowns had become a regular part of the company’s shows. In the decades ahead, hundreds of women would graduate from the world-famous clown college.
A Massive Effort To Save The African Elephant
In 1995, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation was opened. The facility, located in central Florida, features 200 acres of land that is used specifically to save the African elephant species. There are currently less than 35,000 African elephants alive on earth.
The CEC was launched to care for African elephants while providing a safe and secure location for elephant reproduction and retirement. Researchers from all over the world also come to the facility to study the beautiful animals. In May 2016, the 40 remaining Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants were retired to the facility.
A Baby Elephant Brought Barnum And Bailey Together
Barnum and Bailey were rival showmen until Bailey needed more money to keep his show alive and Barnum was in desperate need of a baby elephant. In 1880, a 15-year-old elephant gave birth to a female named Columbia and owner James Bailey was hoping she would help his new circus compete with P.T. Barnum. Columbia was such a huge draw for circus-goers and Barnum offered to buy her for $100,000. Bailey refused and Barnum soon offered to partner up with his rival.
The men merged their circuses with Hutchinson’s Consolidated Great London Circus & Sanger’s Royal British Menageries and the International Allied Show to create what would become known as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Barnum Tricked Farmers Into Using Elephant For Farming
Even after he retired from circus life, P.T. Barnum loved to play with people’s imagination. Barnum kept a single elephant and would take them out to his farmland every time a train passed by his land.
In reality, the elephant was not an actual part of Barnum’s working farm. Barnum was just messing with train passengers but the trend caught on. Farmers started buying elephants to use as plow animals and circus managers started using their elephants for farming during the off-season. Even in old age, Barnum proved that he had the ability to make people think about the world in new and fantastical ways.
Barnum And Bailey Had A Baseball League – For Elephants!
Barnum was willing to try anything for publicity and in the 1900s Barnum & Bailey’s chief elephant trainer decided to teach the giant animals to play baseball. An elephant named Pilot learned to swing a bat and a second elephant, named Bessie, was taught to use a mitt.
After two years, a third elephant named Coco learned to pitch. In 1912, the three elephants played in their first public game. Elephant baseball was such a big draw that Barnum and Bailey eventually taught nine elephants to play and other circuses soon followed their lead by training other elephants to play America’s game.
Barnum Read His Own Obituary In The Newspaper
Right before he died of a stroke P.T. Barnum convinced “The New York Sun” newspaper to print his obituary. He was really interested in reading the final copy before he actually passed away.
The 80-year-old businessman and performer got his wish and read his own obituary just weeks before he died. The headline that preceded his obituary read: “Great And Only Barnum — He Wanted To Read His Obituary — Here It Is.” It was his last publicity stunt and it was a moment that has never been reproduced for anyone else. It turns out that P.T. Barnum really knew how to make an exit while still playing on his own terms well into old age.
The Circus Won A Lot Of Money From Animal Rights Activists
Feld Entertainment was regularly attacked by animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States. The company ended up fighting allegations of mistreated animals for a total of 14-years while standing up for its reputation in various courts of law.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment was not only vindicated of the actions groups claimed they made against their animals but were also awarded a massive $25.2 million in settlements from various animal rights groups. While there was definitely animal mistreatment in the past, Feld Entertainment apparently showed the courts that the company was more responsible for its animals’ treatment standards.
The Circus Closed Down Because Attendance Plummetted
On Sunday, May 21, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey offered a final farewell to a sold-out crowd of incredibly enthusiastic fans. After more than a century of entertaining people around the world, attendance had plummeted and the massive show was no longer sustainable.
The Greatest Show On Earth may have been full of controversy for many years but in the end, elephants were being retired in peace, barriers were broken down, and hundreds of millions of people had the opportunity to experience what was often a life-changing show. The big top might be gone but its history will live on forever.