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Although I saw the original Barnum show about every year after its initial tour as a railroad circus in 1872, until it was combined with other organizations, there were two occasions that stand out as gala days in my experience as a budding and youthful circus fan. The first of these was on or about July 4th, 1873, when Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, then the eighth wonder of the world, exhibited at Bloomington, Illinois.
It is a matter of history that a disastrous fire at Barnum's Museum head-quarters in New York City, late in December, 1872, almost totally destroyed the 65-car show which toured the northern states East of the Mississippi in 1872. Notwithstanding, in the first week of April, 1873, Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Museum, Menagerie and Circus opened with a bigger and better-show, using 95 railroad cars* Such a miracle of enterprise has never since been duplicated, though somewhat paralleled by messrs. Zack Terrell and Jess Adkins, when after almost their entire circus outfit was destroyed by fire at winter-quarters in February 1940, they went on the road in April with a Circus and Menagerie which was runner-up to the Big Show.
Speaking of "big shows", I am inclined to the opinion that the Barnum's World's Fair, Museum, Menagerie and Circus of 1873 and 1874, in extent of quality exhibits in each and all of its various departments, should be ranked as the biggest and best show of all time. In the Museum were most of the freaks and curiosities which gave P. T. Barnum the reputation of the master show-man of the world. In the menagerie were specimens of wild men and beasts, and rare animals from the African and Asiatic jungles which cannot be collected or exhibited to-day at any price, and in the circus programme were the names of international celebrities as the leading equestrians and acrobats of worldwide fame. W. C. Coup was Barnum's general manager of this colossal aggregation, and Dan Costello was the equestrian director of the circus.
My grandparents on my mother's side, with two families of uncles, aunts and cousins, were living In Bloomington, Illinois, at the time, and my mother with the children were visiting there. One uncle lived near the Illinois Central R. R. tracks, over which the show came into the city. For family prejudices against the circus, and shows in general, I did not get inside the mighty big top on that day; however, under plea of visiting with cousins in another part of the city, I spent most of the day roaming about the showgrounds and viewing the world of wonders to be seen on the outside. From ten O'clock until noon the immense parade was coming on to the lot, and there was everything there to excite my boyish curiosity. Barnum himself divided his time that season partly with the show and visiting in the East, and it happened that he was not with the aggregation on that day.
It was not until about ten years later, as I recall it, that I saw P. T. Barnum in person with the show, then under the management of Messrs: Bailey and Hutchinson, exhibiting at Bloomington Illinois. My recollection is that it was around July 4th and a tremendously warm day. I was visiting my parents then living there, and this time I saw everything, taking Dad and a sister to the matinee performance. At one P. M. there were thronging thousands on the show grounds, all pushing and crowding toward the ticket wagon near the main entrance. Long excursion trains had come to the city with hundreds of eager circus goers. This was the year when the show had representatives of wild men from every uncivilized quarter of the globe, all riding on the tops of the parade vans and cages in the two mile parade. Such a parade has never been duplicated or since witnessed.
I had learned from the local newspaper that the distinguished show man was with the show that season, and usually appeared on the midway each show day in person. With eyes for nothing else, I elbowed my way toward the main entrance, and located the celebrity sitting in an open carriage or barouche, with his intimate attendants, I pushed forward until I was standing almost within touch of the vehicle, where I could get a good view of the world's foremost man of that time. As I recall his appearance, he was a rosy-cheeked, smoothed faced, person with black hair, and rather stout in build. He was garbed in clerical or professional black, and wore a large black hat. To me his countenance seemed to have a benign expression and I judged him to be a kindly natured person. I was so engrossed with my study of the great showman that I almost forgot the main show and had time for merely a casual glance at the surpassing wonders of the museum and menagerie before going into the circus big top.
Strange as it may seem, I cannot now recall a single feature of the performance in the circus arena. I only remember that there was a tremendous crowd in attendance, in a seating capacity of 15,000, and after notices the next day reported that over 2,000 had been turned away from the night show.
Note: Perley M. Silloway was the owner of a one-ring circus that operated in Illinois circa 1910-1919. He authored a number of articles on the circus for CFA's White Tops.
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Last modified November 2005.
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Last modified November 2005.