10 Weird Facts About the Circus

A wall of death rider reads Zoo magazine with a lioness. Think that's strange? This list gets even weirder.
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Strange facts about the circus are plentiful. The circus is — simply put — weird. Part of its appeal is that it's outside the realm of normal: We don't usually pet tigers, swing from a trapeze or watch clowns pile into a car. Since there's a lot that's "weird" about circus acts, we chose to include facts about its origins and legacy that may surprise you.

Here's a start: It might shock you that the circus is still a wildly popular business. Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had an estimated $1 billion in revenue in 2013, and the owner of Cirque du Soleil is worth an estimated $1.8 billion [source: Mac].


Let's take a look at some strange circus facts that made the bizarre and fantastic circus what it is today.

10: Performing Animals Made Their Debut in Theatres

An elephant rides a custom-made tricycle in 1918.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While we think of elephants as circus stalwarts, they actually became popular in an arena a little more sophisticated than the Big Top. Although elephants had performed in various menageries and tours for a while, they became a big hit in the august theatre.

In 1829, a play called "The Elephant of Siam" was performed at the Adelphi in London and later toured the country. It featured a trained elephant that went by the rather hoity-toity name of Mademoiselle D'Jeck. Mlle D'Jeck was trained to complete a number of actions — ring a bell and steal a crown with her trunk, then place it on someone's head, for instance [source: Speaight]. This bit of theatre was quite popular, and soon other circus promoters began advertising elephants that performed tricks in the ring, as well.


But it wasn't just elephants: Trained lions were first used on the stage in breathtaking productions. Queen Victoria was in the audience for some of them, which ignited the public's appetite for performing cats [source: Speaight].

9: Rope Walkers Were Titillating

Tightrope walker Mlle Elleanorer performs on a high wire in 1922.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not to paint with too broad a brush, but it's probably fair to say that many of us watch tightrope walkers and feel pretty much undiluted fear. But that's a modern audience, bombarded with any kind of scintillating entertainment we want on-demand. It was a little different in the early days of circus, when the sight of a lady wearing trousers could rouse a serious blush.

Think about it — high-wire-walking ladies were going to give everyone an eyeful if they were wearing skirts. The leg-baring doublet and hose women wire walkers wore allowed men to gawk at women's bodies in a way that certainly wasn't socially appropriate for the time [source: Victoria and Albert Museum]. One 1699 review even describes how a wire walker's dexterity might translate well in the bedroom [source: Speaight]. Apparently, watching a wire-walker proved to be a very chaste way to get one's jollies.


But let's peel our eyes from the lady dancing on the rope to learn a little more about the weird origins of the word circus.

8: A Horse Ring Is the Circus' Namesake

A couple rides horses in 1913 in Hyde Park, from which the circus supposedly got its name.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So perhaps you're a classical studies scholar and familiar with Roman entertainment, or you've seen "Spartacus" one time and vaguely remember it. Either way, you're probably under the impression that the famous Circus Maximus (the ring where chariot races took place) gave the contemporary circus its name. You're kind of right, in the sense that it's the same word. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.

The first modern circus, founded by Philip Astley in 18th century Britain, was actually referred to as an amphitheatre. In George Speaight's entertaining book "History of the Circus," the author suggests the word was initially adopted because it sounded fancy, which is as good a reason as any. It was only when equestrian showman Charles Hughes decided to perform a show he called "The Royal Circus" did the circus moniker come to be associated with the acts we see today. It probably had nothing to do with the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome but instead was derived from the "circus" ring around Hyde Park where rich people would exercise their horses [source: Speaight]. By the 19th century, "circus" was the accepted nomenclature.


7: John Wilkes Booth Was From a Circus Family

John Wilkes Booth might not have committed this infamous crime had his father avoided a fight with circus folk.
Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Infamous characters populate circus history, like the snake-oil salesman P.T. Barnum and those guys from the Insane Clown Posse. (Totally counts, don't try to argue.) But did you know that because of a simple twist of circus fate, one of the most villainous characters in modern U.S. history was born?

John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, was born on American soil as a result of some circus-related drama. His father was Junius Brutus Booth, a well-regarded British actor. In Liverpool, England in 1821, J.B. Booth got into a fight with the Portuguese circus performer and rope dancer Il Diavolo Antonio, and Booth injured him badly [source: Speaight]. Booth decided to make a quick getaway to avoid the long arm of the law — and his wife, too. He left for America with a flower-selling girl to make a clean break. John Wilkes Booth was born to the couple in 1838.


But let's return to the ring, where you might be amused to find acts that were once considered incredible acrobatics but aren't as impressive today.

6: Leaping Was Huge

Audiences were amazed when performers made huge leaps over objects.
Felix Man/Picture Post/Getty Images

We demand a lot from circus performers these days. We not only want to see them defy gravity, but we also need other twists to make the show super-exciting. Perhaps they could do wild contortionist routines while hanging from their hair? Or maybe perform a high-wire act with no net while balancing on a chair? But in the early days of the circus, the demands of the audience were a lot less challenging, and leaping was a big deal.

Leaping, you say? Yup. Literally leaping over things. Which is still not considered "uncool," I suppose, if you're a big parkour fan. But jumping over stuff (horses, people, carriages, whatever) really was a prime attraction. While we might think of acrobats as aerial or contortionist acts, in the late 18th century and early 19th century, leapers got the pulse beating. In 1842 a clown named Dewhurst (a fairly staid name for a clown) was jumping over ten horses and through balloons and the like [source: Speaight]. But the act provided one of the circus' first secrets: Trampolines or springboards were hidden to assist the high jumpers.


5: Circus Parades Were Spectacles

Pre-show parades were full of pomp and circumstance.
NEMPR Picture the Past/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The glitz and glam of the circus is pretty much taken for granted in standard shows. Companies like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cirque du Soleil offer a certain amount of prestige, but there was a time when the acts under the Big Top felt secondary to the arrival of the show itself. The pre-show parade, which heralded the circus into town, was no pokey affair.

One parade in 1880 is said to have taken five hours as it crawled along the streets of New York, and others boasted themed floats nearly 30 feet (9 meters) high [source: Speaight]. The cool thing is that the parades were basically free spectacles for the public. In fact, when Barnum & Bailey went to Germany, the residents supposedly assumed they got enough show from the parade itself and didn't bother buying tickets to a performance [source: Speaight]. As the railroad and larger trucks caught on, however, circuses no longer caravanned into town with as much majesty.


4: Circuses Were Publicity Machines

A publicity photograph for the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus shows a collage of posters surrounding a clown.
Circuses spent a ton of money on posters in the early 20th century.
Transcendental Graphics/Archive Photos/Getty Images

You'd think that the circus sells itself, with its death-defying acts and feats of amazing ability. But the circus was actually a well-oiled machine of public relations and became more heavily promoted than pretty much any form of entertainment on American soil before it. How did they do it? Paper. So much paper. Posters became a booming circus business spearheaded mostly by Strobridge Lithographing, a printing company in Cincinnati that met the high demand [source: Duke University Libraries]. And boy, was the demand high.

The Forepaugh Circus alone had over a hundred different posters for promotion, and it's estimated that by 1915 Ringling Bros. was posting 10,000 posters a day by employing 70 people in advance cities [source: Speaight]. And kind of hilariously, there were serious turf wars over poster space. Circuses would spend loads of money printing up a jillion posters, and rival circuses would come and post right over them. There was so much strain that the Showman's Association even tried to address it in a 1911 Code of Ethics, a code that was pretty much ignored, which might tell you something about the ethics of the circus [source: Speaight].


3: Floating Circuses Traversed Rivers

The Floating Circus Palace provided ease of shipment and a permanent location for the show.
The Library of Congress

We've talked about how circus parades came into and went out of vogue, but another transportation option spawned a new American circus tradition that was quite popular. While traveling with wagons was all well and good, circus proprietors, who desperately depended on the ability to build and strike a tent quickly, began to see the appeal of setting up on the banks of rivers. They could ship their equipment quickly from town to town without much travel.

But by the middle of the 19th century, an even better idea was hatched. What if the circus itself was on a barge? The Floating Circus Palace offered such a sight. It contained a 42-foot (12.8-meter) ring and accommodated 3,400 people [source: Speaight]. It traveled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for years, until the Civil War effectively shut down the operation. Nevertheless, it provided a permanent house for the circus and became one of the first showboats in a long history of American entertainment.


2: A Tragedy Bred Safety Measures

The 1944 circus tent fire proved fatal for many spectators and circus animals.
Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

In July 1944, one of the most horrific accidents in American entertainment occurred. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus was in Hartford, Connecticut for an early afternoon show when a fire ripped through the paraffin-covered tent. It caused a stampede, which resulted in 168 deaths, including that of at least 67 children [source: Daily Kos]. It was a horrific tragedy in circus history, but it put a spotlight on some much-needed safety regulations.

After the fire, Hartford — and Connecticut in general — took a look at the laws in place regulating things like fire exits. Temporary structures like the Hartford circus tent were not stringently regulated or enforced. In response, the city and state adopted some extremely strict safety regulations, among the toughest yet in the nation, to prevent another disaster. The American Standards Association adopted new regulations for temporary structures to create a national code, and in the 70 years since the Hartford fire, nobody has died in a commercial tent fire [source: The Hartford Courant].


1: Balloon Ascents Were All the Rage

In the 19th century, hot air balloon ascents were exciting feats of flight.
ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Look up there, flying high above the circus ring! No, that's no flying trapeze artist. It's a ... hot air balloon? Does that check out?

Turns out, it actually does. Balloon ascents became a popular part of the British circus tradition in the 19th century. While it might seem pretty strange to a modern audience, remember that the hot air balloon (and flight in general) was a gigantic deal back in the day. It was as bizarre and strange as an elephant calmly taking commands or contortionists bending themselves into nearly inhuman shapes.

And at one of the original British circuses — that would be Philip Astley's in 1840 — the pilot of the balloon decided to bring a leopard onboard to add some interest [source: Victoria and Albert Museum].

Balloon ascents weren't all moonlight and roses, though. Balloonists were under such pressure to perform that they often ascended in unfavorable conditions. In 1871, an acrobat named Professor Torres was performing tricks on a trapeze hanging from a balloon when the balloon exploded. The performer survived the crash, only to drown in another balloon accident later that year [source: Kotar and Gessler].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Weird Facts About the Circus

Much is owed to George Speaight's awesome "History of the Circus," which is basically chock full of weird circus facts. It covers a lot of American and British circus history, and his own asides — he's no milquetoast when it comes to circus opinion — are worth the read.

Related Articles

  • Booth, Junius Brutus. "Memoirs of J.B. Booth." Chapple. 1817.
  • Daily Kos. "How regulation came to be: The Hartford Circus Fire." Sept. 18, 2011. (May 6, 2015) http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/09/18/1017648/-How-regulation-came-to-be-The-Hartford-Circus-Fire
  • Duke University Libraries. "Guide to the Strobridge Lithographing Company Advertisements, 1910-1954 and undated." Sept. 2002. (May 6, 2015) http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/findingaids/strobridge/
  • The Hartford Courant. "Devastating Circus Fire Sparked Push for Safety." July 3, 2014. (May 6, 2015) http://www.courant.com/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-hartford-circus-fire-20140703-story.html
  • Kotar, S.L. and J.E. Gessler. "The Rise of the American Circus, 1716-1899." McFarland. Sept. 22, 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=VoyOa5mIlI8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Mac, Ryan. "Ringling Bros. Owner Not Clowning Around With Business, Cannons to Billionaire Status." Forbes. Jan. 28, 2014. (May 8, 2015) http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanmac/2014/01/28/ringling-bros-owner-not-clowning-around-with-business-cannons-to-billionaire-status/
  • Speaight, George. "A History of the Circus." Tantivy Press. 1980. (May 6, 2015) http://books.google.com/books?id=DG5OAAAAYAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=
  • Victoria and Albert Museum. "The Development of Circus Acts." (May 6, 2015) http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/development-of-circus-acts/