Archive Archaeology

Digging Up History at the Danbury Museum

“There Was Circus in the Air”

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A Bit of Background

Danbury has always been well acquainted with the circus. In fact, the town was home to several early pioneers of the American circus, namely Aaron Turner. Turner, the proprietor of one of the earliest traveling shows, Turner’s Columbian Circus, was actually P.T. Barnum’s mentor and from 1836 to 1838, Barnum traveled with  Turner’s wagon circus working as a ticket seller.

The Turner House, built on Main Street next to the courthouse, served as both a hotel and the winter quarters for Turner’s operation. In 1854 after Turner’s death, his son-in-law George F. Bailey, took over the operation.  Bailey’s was the first American circus to tour Latin America and his menagerie included the first hippopotamus brought to the United States.

But soon enough, there’d be another Bailey would visit our town and ultimately partner with P.T. Barnum.

According to an online exhibit from the Westchester County Historical Society, http://www.westchesterhistory.com/index.php/exhibits/people?display=bailey, James A. Bailey bought an interest in a circus after the Civil War that came to be known as Cooper and Bailey.  By the late 1870s, he had merged with or purchased several other shows and had become quite a force in the entertainment world.  In 1880, James A. Bailey decided to challenge his most serious competition, and took his circus on a tour with stops in Danbury and Bridgeport, CT – Barnum’s backyard.

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James Anthony Bailey, circa 1890s.

Throughout the tour, Bailey’s circus was in direct competition with and outsold Barnum’s show at every stop. Bailey took in $2 to every $1 of Barnum’s.  After their tours ended, rather than continue to compete head-to-head, Barnum proposed a merger.  Bailey took over management of business affairs, while Barnum worked on the showmanship, and together they created “the greatest show on earth.”

The Great London Circus Comes to Town – The Advance Team

In the official Route Book of Cooper, Bailey & Co.’s Great London Circus and Allied Shows for the Season of 1880, compiled by press agent W. G. Crowley, James A. Bailey is listed as General Managing Director and Chief in Command of All Departments in advance of the Exhibition.  The Great London Circus employed numerous people solely devoted to publicity and advertising and they were known as The Advance Department.

According to the route book, “Every means that experience suggested or ingenuity invented has been resorted to that the people might know the Great Show was coming, with all its wonders.  Between forty and fifty men went forward to herald the approach of the London Circus.  There were two advertising cars and a dozen agents of various departments.  Mammoth many-colored posters were placed upon the walls and bill-boards; small bills were thrown broadcast over city, town and country; attractive lithographs were seen in every window.  In all newspapers were seen the pictures of the show and read the glowing descriptions of its greatness.  For miles around the fences, blacksmith shops and boards blazed with the wonderful display.  Nor was printer’s ink the only means employed.  A skillful crayon artist placed a picture of the Baby Elephant, with the name and date of the show, on every pavement and everywhere else he could get them.  A man went about drawing pictures with soap; the stereopticon was well employed.” 

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The advance team visits Danbury ahead of the circus to advertise using a stereopticon.

A transcript of the full tour book can be found on the Circus Historical Society website. It is drawn from a copy of an original that is housed at the Circus World Museum’s Parkinson Library in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  http://www.circushistory.org/History/CB1880.htm

Beginning in April of 1880, word spread in Danbury about the impending arrival of a circus.  An enormous advertisement, published in the April 28th edition of The Danbury News, hyped ‘The Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie with afternoon and evening performances scheduled for May 10th.  Admission for adults was .$50 with children just $.25.

In 1879, the main attraction of the Cooper & Bailey tour was the “Electric Light”, but in 1880, the irrefutable star of the show was billed as ‘The BONANZA BABY, WORTH $100,000″:

“First Elephant ever born in captivity anywhere in the whole world.  Nearly all theories in regard to the Infant Elephant’s habits, advanced by ancient and modern writers are in error and are proven false by the beautiful Baby Elephant, born in Philadelphia, March 10th 2:30 a.m., in the winter quarters of Cooper & Bailey’s Menagerie, corner of Ridge Avenue and Twenty-third street, which nurses with its mouth, instead of its trunk, as commonly taught by the authorities.  The period of gestation was ascertained to be just 20 months and 20 days in opposition to the assertions of all written on the subject.  Weight 213-1/4 pounds; height 31-1/2; length 49 inches; length of trunk, 12 inches; length of tail, 20 inches; is health; the exact color of its parents and a beautiful miniature copy of its mother.  Scientists agree that no natural event of such moment has occurred in 2,000 years.  America has the distinguished honor o f being the birthplace of the first Baby Elephant Born in Bondage.

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A portion of the enormous ad touting the upcoming circus in the April 28, 1880 edition of The Danbury News.

The birth of the baby elephant was an event widely covered in newspapers all across the country.  The tour book states: “It was the first of its species ever conceived and born while the parents were held captive by man.  Darwin in his History of Domesticated Animals, together with the most learned scholars of natural history, support this assertion.  ”Mandrin,” the father, and “Hebe,” the mother, of the now famous baby were imported into America in 1871. Musty libraries and Ancient lore have been explored in vain for proof of the birth of an elephant in captivity prior to this one.  Hundreds of scientists and clergymen have come thousands of miles to see it.”

Of the menagerie, The Danbury News reported, ” ….the tent was a model of size, light and convenience.  In the centre of the pavilion was space for the elephants, of which Cooper, Bailey & Co. have decidedly the best performing troupe in America.  And then there was the baby elephant and its mountainous mother.  All babes are more than ordinary, of course, but this is remarkable. It is as playful as a kitten and appears to be fully as much attached to its keeper, Mr. George Arstingstall, as to its mother and follows him around the enclosure, getting between his legs and tumbling over him and pushing him about, as its royal humor prompts it.  Like all other first babies it is the master of the establishment.”

Other highlights not to be missed included: $15,000 Electric Light – The Only Traveling Show that ever successfully applied and used this now celebrated discovery,’ 15 trained elephants, Bovine Performing Team, 200 Superb Circus Performers, Twenty Deftly-Designed Gold-Crowned Chariots and  Over $100,000 in New Attractions

In addition to the animal entertainment, the tent was to be filled with bareback riding and other feats of equestrian prowess, tumbling, acrobats and, of course, clowns.  The route book announced that, “Every act has a masterpiece; every artist a star.”

Performers on the tour included William Dutton, the peerless equestrian, Charles W. Fish, M’me Adelaide Cordona, Linda Jeal, Signor Geronimo Bell and the Lawrence Sisters “The Queens of Aerial Art. “

“The leaping party has been by far the strongest ever organized.  It was led by the world’s champion, William H. Batchelder. The acme of the art of performing on the tight-rope was illustrated by M’lle Eva and the wonders of  Japanese juggling were exhibited by Prince Katsnoshin.”

The roster of clowns were “Nat Austin, the great Shakesperian clown; Whimsical Walter, the famous trick and pantomime clown and Johnny Patterson, the only and unapproachable Irish clown” among others.

Circus day was a Monday. The morning of May 10th started with a parade through the downtown streets. As reported:

“Cooper & Bailey, who are now proprietors of the London Circus, veterans themselves in the circus business, made their first appearance in Danbury, on Monday.  The weather was favorable for the occasion.  It was a gala day for Danbury and by ten o’clock the main street was full of humanity.  A little before that hour the procession started from the grounds on North street.  Its route was down Balmforth avenue to White street, through White to Main, thence to West, up West to New, thence to Elm, and through Elm to Main up which it proceeded to North Street. In length and appointments it made the most successful display ever witnessed in Danbury on a circus day.  Several remarkably handsome chariots gave brilliancy to the pageant.  There were four open cages of animals, a number of teams of ponies and a flock of camels in the line, with many wagons, a steam calliope, a Tally-Ho coach and a Hansom cab.  Two bands of music, three Scotch bag-pipes, the calliope and a band of jubilee singers furnished the music. The performances both afternoon and evening was witnessed by immense audiences.  The great tent was filled and a better pleased audience never sat under a circus tent in this town.”

Drawing from the historic newspaper accounts located in the archives of The Danbury Museum & Historical Society always offers a far more powerful and descriptive account of events. The language used by the person(s) who reported on the eventful day, more aptly conveys the excitement. Below are a few excerpts as published in The Danbury News on May 12, 1880…well after the tents were down, after empty peanut shells were left scattered to crunch underfoot, after the circus trains were loaded and on their way to their next stop.  And, well after Danburians were left to carry on with calliope music playing in their heads.

In my estimation, most of the coverage was written by yet another Bailey – James M. – otherwise known as The Danbury Newsman.

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The Danbury News, May 12, 1880

“The baby carriages were out to the circus. And we are glad of it.  The babies, bless their hearts, wanted to see fun just as well as other people did.  And if they couldn’t appreciate it, their tired mothers did.  And we are glad of that.  The time is going by when to have a baby is a crime which the mother must expiate by being shut up with it at home while everybody else is off having all the fun.  And so we are grateful to the man who invented baby carriages, and would kneel and bless him were not our shins so sore an stuff from falling over them.”

“The circus trains came in about half past eleven Sunday night and about a thousand night-birds welcomed them.”

“Ten of the elephants were watered at the tank in front of The News office in the morning.  One minute sufficed to draw it dry.  The camels immediately behind them went without.”

“Hatters are subject to excitement as well as others.  Every shop in town was closed Monday, except Beckerle & Co.’s.”

“It would need an unusually smart mathematician to compute the number of peanuts or the number of bushels of peanuts eaten in Danbury Monday.”

“There is nothing that takes a stronger hold upon the public heart than a circus.  Can you explain it? What is there in the tinsel and sawdust and gaudy paint that penetrates to every heart in the community and draws it irresistibly out of the regular channels of life? We like a circus and we don’t care to deny it either.  We commence to think of it several days before it comes.  We awake on the day full of excitable expectations.  We wouldn’t miss the procession for the price of a universe.  We see beautify in the sawdust of the ring.  We find glory int he dash of the performance.  We are intoxicated with the lights, and the tinsel and the sounds that come from every side.  Isn’t that so with you? Don’t deny it.  be honest, and confess you were just as delirious as the rest of us.”

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