One of only two acrobatic circus acts to be named for an individual (the Risley act is the other) the Jackley Drops are seemingly no longer performed. And it is no wonder, given the stress on the back and shoulders that the performers of it sustained.
Simply described, the act consisted of falling from a height to land on one’s hands on a low platform, and doing several flip-flops, ending in a standing position. The illustration from G. Strehly, L’acro-batie et les Acrobates, shows in diagram, the essence of the turn. Not at all complicated, it should be classed among the “daredevil” acts, such as being shot from the mouth of a hydraulic cannon. The most recent practitioner was Leon de Rousseau in 1954.
It was introduced by, and named after, an Alsatian acrobat, Nathan Jackley. He was one of twenty-four children fathered with four different wives by the father of the Jackley family of acrobats. According to John Turner, as many as seventeen Jackleys performed together at one time. Born about 1850, Nathan Jackley made his ring debut at age four. He was an accomplished ring, bars, trapeze and riding performer. When he developed the Jackley Drops isn’t known, but he must have originated it, since it’s named for him. Strehly called him the “King of Leapers.”
His first documented engagement in America was in September, 1873 at the Howard Atheneum in Boston. In 1874 he was in Cincinnati for six weeks from August 27 to April 3. He used the title “Jackley’s Great Vienna Circus,” which was set up in a tent on Emery’s Lot, the block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Vine and Race Streets.
The ads indicated that the Jackley Family would perform, though no number of persons in the group was given. Spencer Q. Stokes, his wife, and four daughters were the principal riders. Abelardo Lowanda and his sister Clarinda did the two and four horse acts. There was a fortypiece band.
As far as we can determine, this Cincinnati stand was the only one for the Great Vienna Circus. The next mention of the Jackleys was in November 1874, when they appeared in New York at P. T. Barnum’s Hippodrome. William Slout described their participation with the Hippodrome as being the forming of human pyramids on a series of raised platforms placed about the interior. No reference was made to “Jackley Drops.”
By January, 1875, the troupe was in California under the banner “Jackley’s Vienna Circus combined with Wilson’s Great Circus.” John Wilson was, of course, the well-known California showman, then in his sixteenth season. Here, Jackley was again advertising his somersault from a column of seven tables. Though an illustrated advertisement shows eight tables, the height of the hall may have dictated the number of tables, or the size of the furniture may have varied. The troupe members were named at this stand. They proved to be Hash, Harno, and Cassim, and they sound as if they were Arab tumblers, perhaps of Lebanese origin. We have no information as to why they were with Jackley.
Their venue was Wilson’s Palace Amphitheatre in San Francisco, where they played from January 25 to April 6, 1875. The great James Robinson and his son Clarence were the headline act; Ella Zoyara, Romeo Sebastian and Nat Austin were other prominent participants. According to Don Francis, the company journeyed into the interior of California after closing in San Francisco. We have found two advertisements in Nevada, neither having Wilson’s name in them but Jackley and Kingsley (Ella Zoyara) were in the title; it was likely Wilson’s outfit. On May 6 they were in Nevada City, and on May 14, Virginia City. By October they were in the Pacific Northwest. Gordon Brown found several notices of their visit by the steamer Panama to Victoria, British Columbia, where they performed on October 2, 4 and 5. Though their presence was well-documented by the newspaper, the Colonist, none of the twenty-six performers were named, nor was Jackley in the title. On October 8, the company, Wilson’s Hippodrome, appeared in Seattle. This was the last season for John Wilson as a circus owner.
The Jackley troupe then returned to Europe, though Nathan occasionally spent a winter performing in the United States. As an example of this was his appearance with Pullman, Dingess & Co., a vaudevilletype show in 1885. A feature of their act in the late 1870s was to form a great human pyramid from the top of which Nathan Jackley turned a back-somersault to the ground. Nathan continued to perform with the family act until 1910. He died in London in 1923. An interesting footnote to the history of the Jackley family is that Samuel W. Gumpertz, later general manager of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, joined the act as a nine-year old top-mounter in 1879.
An act as popular as the Jackley Drops could not go long without someone copying it. In 1885, Adam Forepaugh heavily advertised Mlle. Kabowls who performed “a death defying plunge from a 35-foot high pyramid of tables.” Kabowls, said to he Russian, managed a change of costume during her fall, a sort of vertical “flying wardrobe” act. We find no more about her doing the drops after this, her first season in America, though she was listed as a trapeze performer on French’s Circus in 1889.
The next practitioner of the art was George Parento, whose real name was George P. Mansfield. A native of Tidioute, Pennsylvania, and born in 1867, he was a member of the Parento troupe of acrobats, and adopted their name. Lucas Parento was the owner of the act. George and his brother, Eddie, presented a brother act in the 1880s. By at least 1887, George was doing the Jackley Drops. In that season, he and his brothers Eddie and William were with Menches & Barber’s Big Ten Cent Circus, and later, Lemen Bros. George was with the Whitney Circus in 1889. He is mentioned in the Gollmar Bros.’ program in 1900 and 1901; Kit Carson Wild West 1914; Lemen Bros., 1928. In addition to his feature act, “headlong plunges from great heights,” he also did acrobatics, and performed on the trapeze. By 1932, still active, he was using an eighteenfoot ladder for the Jackley act (at age 65). He died in 1951 at age 94.
Perhaps the best-known, certainly the most heavily advertised Jackley performer was Joe LaFleur. For thirty years he did chair and table drops, which was what the Jackley Drops came to be called, at least in advertising. Both Ayres Davis and Walt Grabell used the term “Jackley Drops” in conversations in recent years. Born in Plattsburgh, New York, in 1873, LaFleur moved with his family to Providence, Rhode Island, at four years of age, and made his home there the rest of his life.
In 1889 LaFleur began in vaudeville, and switched to circus performing the next year, appearing with Washburn & Arlington for three mouths. In 1891 he was with Harper Bros. (Billboard says Harbor) from Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1892 with Lac’s Great London Shows. LaFleur formed a partnership with Dick Farnum for 1892-1893; they called themselves the Farnum Brothers, and were together until the spring of 1894. In all these affiliations, LaFleur was in vaudeville or hall shows in the winter mouths.
It was for the 1894 season, which he spent with Bob Hunting’s Circus, that he changed from using tables to employing a thirty-foot ladder in his act. We would suggest that piling up the tables, while good for the element of suspense, without which no circus act is truly remarkable, came to take up more time than the managers cared to allot. We say this without any proof. We have found no one using piled furniture after LaFleur switched to a ladder.
His act was so popular that he was the subject of special lithographs, not only in the circus, but with hall shows as well. Beyond Jackley himself, LaFleur was the outstanding practitioner of this grueling turn. He spent 1895 and the six subsequent seasons with Ringling Brothers.
The Gaskell & Mundy Carnival Company hired him for 1904 and 1905. In 1906 he was with the Carl Hagenbeck show in Mexico. In 1907 he introduced a small Mexican dog into his act, which jumped from the top of the ladder with him. Nineteen-ten and 1911 saw them on Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers, and in 1912 they returned to Ringling. In 1915 LaFleur transferred to Sells-Floto-Buffalo Bill, and then spent two seasons on Hagenbeck-Wallace. He was off the road in 1918, and performed for the last time in the 1919 season with Downie’s Walter L. Main Circus. LaFleur retired in September 1919, citing back trouble, which after thirty seasons of drops is certainly understandable. He was forty-six years old at the time. He died in Cranston, Rhode Island, in 1941.
Over the years, there were other practitioners of the Jackley Drops. None of them achieved the fame of Jackley, Parento or LeFleur, but certain it is that they deserve mention in an article such as this. The Holloway Brothers, Art and Max, of Birnamwood, Wisconsin, used a twenty-foot ladder in the 1890s. This smaller height was made necessary in hall shows and on stages. Sam Burt, “The King of the Ladder,” appeared with John Robinson in 1899; Ben Lucier was available to managers in 1909: Berre and Hicks, a husband and wife team, dates unknown, appear in various sources; we previously mentioned Leon de Rousseau in 1954.
The jolt which the arms, back and shoulders sustained in the Jackley Drops would, on the surface, indicate a short career for an acrobat, yet, as we’ve seen, some of them had long careers. Turning a somersault or two after striking the low platform, and landing on one’s feet would seem to be icing on the cake, yet Nathan Jackley often bounded from the ground to the shoulders of an understander as an added and exciting finish. Jackley’s fame as the originator and LeFleur’a as a longtime practitioner of the art were justly earned.
Credit must be given to Steve Gossard and Fred Dahlinger, Jr. for their assistance in researching this article.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.