The Circus and the
Pandemic of 1918

“One hardly knows where to commence, so many have been the happenings and so unusual the season that it will go down in circus history as the most eventful and surprising….”


– Fletcher Smith,
The New York Clipper, December 25, 1918

In the summer of 1918 the newspapers were filled with war news as the Allies began a push that would ultimately lead to the armistice. Small items also began appearing in newspapers telling of young people dying of influenza. Doctors had been tracking the “Spanish Flu” for several months, but wartime censors had kept the story from being reported. In August, the flu took hold and rapidly began spreading. By the time the pandemic ended in November, 675,000 Americans had died, and circuses were hit hard by the common fear of contracting the virus in big crowds.

Ringling Bros. started feeling the impact of the flu scare in September, and the further south the show traveled the more serious the situation became. As the show started billing South Carolina in September, Governor Richard Manning called on the State Board of Health to issue an order preventing the Ringling circus from touring the state.

​Within days shows across the country were told they were not welcome. In nearly every town circuses were quarantined, and townspeople were not allowed on the show grounds. It was not just outdoor entertainment that was hit hard by the epidemic. Vaudeville theatres and nickelodeons were closed nationwide. According to the New York Clipper over 500 acts were affected during the second week of October.

In a few towns that did not quarantine, people were too afraid to come to the circus.

In Norfolk, Virginia the John Robinson Ten Big Shows was not allowed to unload, and the circus quickly moved to Raleigh, North Carolina several days ahead of its billing in hopes of finding open territory. After missing six dates, owners Jerry Mugivan and Bert Bowers realized it was time to close and the staff was paid off in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 9. The show was then shipped to Peru Winter Quarters, arriving on October 13.

The Sparks circus was caught in Laurinburg, North Carolina with all the towns in the region closed to entertainment. Fortunately for manager Charles Sparks his circus was not far from his previous winter quarters in Salisbury, so he was able to send the show trains there.

In just a matter of days the season ended for virtually every circus. Yankee Robinson closed at Stuttgart, Arkansas on October 9 and moved to winter quarters in Granger, Iowa. Cole Bros. closed in Corinth, Mississippi, and a statewide quarantine of Texas caught Gentry Bros., Al G. Barnes and the Christy Hippodrome Shows while they were touring there.

One of the earliest shows to head to winter quarters was Sells Floto which closed in Walsenburg, Colorado on September 28. Andrew Downie shut down his Walter L. Main Circus a week ahead of schedule and shipped it from Tasley, Virginia to Havre de Grace, Maryland on October 8. All of those with the show were in good health until the show reached winter quarters when “The Governor,” Andrew Downie collapsed. In a matter of days, however, he was back to supervising activities at the winter quarters.

After a tour which took Sun Bros. from South Dakota to Georgia, the show ended its tour with a six-day stand at the Southeastern Fair in Atlanta in mid-October. At the end of the engagement Sun Bros. was quarantined and not allowed to leave Atlanta. Pete Sun immediately took out an advertisement in The Billboard, and over the next several weeks he sold most of the property.

When Al G. Barnes arrived in Dallas on the morning of Sunday October 13, the show found that the city, like all others in the state was under a quarantine. Barnes connected his advertising cars and a private Pullman to a locomotive and left that day for home. The rest of the show arrived in Venice, California October 20.

Despite three days of cancellations in Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, Ringling Bros. still had to feed 1,200 employees. On the morning of October 7, while the show was in Jacksonville, Charles Ringling placed a notice on the front door of the cook house stating that the circus would close the next day in Waycross, Georgia. The note to the staff also said that for the first time the Ringling show would move to winter quarters in Bridgeport rather than Baraboo.

On October 8 the Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows gave its final performance ever. Local officials in Waycross had tried to cancel the circus, however a small crowd was on hand to see the what would be the last show. After the performance ended Charles Ringling went into the dressing tent and told the performers that he was not in a position to hire any of them for the next season. He also told them that he believed it wasn’t practical to have two big circuses on the road in 1919, and if the Ringlings were able to put out a show the following spring it would be combined as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The next day Charles Ringling paid off his employees, and before the trains left for Bridgeport, over 100 horses and ponies were sold to local residents at prices ranging from $75 to $175.

On the same day Ringing closed in Waycross, Barnum & Bailey arrived in Houston for its last date before being combined with Ringling Bros. By then influenza had been detected in 77 Texas counties and at the recommendation of the U.S. Surgeon General the Governor of Texas banned all public gatherings. Schools would also be closed “as well as places of amusement.”

Beaumont and Lake Charles, Louisiana were to have been the next stops for Barnum & Bailey, but the show remained in Houston until October 11, with “authorities of both cities canceling performances owing to the epidemic of influenza.” With no hope of reopening, The Greatest Show on Earth began the long trip to Bridgeport, with the only stops being when it was necessary to feed and water the animals.

On the same day that the Barnum & Bailey trains were leaving Houston, Henry Ringling, the youngest of the brothers, died of heart disease at his Baraboo home. He was 49. Although Henry was merely a child when the brothers began touring, he later became an important part of the organization.

In 1898 the Ringlings leased the John Robinson circus, and at the age of 28 he was put in charge of the show, later managing the Forepaugh-Sells Circus from 1905 until 1907. It was reported that after Otto Ringling died in 1911, he bequeathed his shares in the circuses to Henry, making him a full partner.

Some circus historians have told the story that the death of Henry Ringling was the catalyst that allowed the two shows to combine at the end of the 1918 season, however that appears unlikely. At the time of Henry Ringling’s death, the Ringling Bros. circus trains were already enroute to Bridgeport, arriving at its new winter quarters on the afternoon of October 14.

More than a century after the fact, questions about why Bridgeport was chosen over Baraboo remain. While it may have been the larger facility available in Connecticut, or easier access to railroads, almost as soon as the decision was announced the state of Wisconsin and its tax structure became a villain.

As The Billboard explained it, “state authorities of Wisconsin have taxed the Ringling Brothers so heavily on their property in Baraboo that the brothers decided that inasmuch as the quarters at Bridgeport afforded ample shelter and conveniences for both of their shows, their interests might profitably be concentrated there.” The article went on to say, “The rumor that there might be only one show belonging to the Ringlings taking the road next year is very premature, everything depending upon wartime conditions.”

When Barnum & Bailey reached Bridgeport on October 16, it found the Ringling crew in full control. According to John Staley, a long-time employee of the Ringlings, during the first two or three weeks after both circuses had unloaded for the winter, the main office was open around the clock with a continuous stream of executives and department heads interviewing for positions with the new combined show.

The armistice that ended the war on November 11, was reported by the New York Clipper with enthusiasm, a signal that the troubles of the previous season were over. “The sudden and unexpected close of the war acted as a tonic to the jaded nerves of showmen, who had all had a disappointing season, but now rumors are thick and fast of new shows, enlarged shows and two shows under one management.”

Among those who were no doubt surprised by the sudden end of the war were the Ringling brothers who had been executing their plan for a combined show that would be easier to staff and transport should the war drag on for another year. It was only days before the war ended that the Ringlings officially announced that there would be only one circus in 1919. The statement, on November 4, explained that the menageries of the two shows would be consolidated and the combined circus would carry 42 elephants. In an editorial comment, The Billboard marveled at the choices that were available to run the circus and applauded the decision to engage Fred Worral as general manager, Charles Hutchinson as treasurer, Jack Snellen as general superintendent and Jim Whalen as boss canvasman. The article predicted that John, Charles and Alf T. Ringling “are determined to pick the cream of the brains of their organizations for the purpose of building the greatest circus machine in history.”

A century later, we can evaluate from a historical perspective the operational challenges facing the Ringling brothers, along with the financial landscape that existed at the end of the 1918 season. Receipts, now in the Pfening Archives and analyzed by Fred D. Pfening III, show that in 1918 the Ringling Bros. circus generated $1,385,703 in revenue while Barnum & Bailey generated $1,925.306. Together the two shows grossed $3,311,009.

Although only one circus toured in 1919, the decision to merge the two shows was clearly the right financial strategy. Additional records in the Pfening Archives indicate that in 1919, the first year of the Combined Shows, the circus generated gross revenues of $3,499,959.

Not only was that slightly more than the two shows had generated the previous year, but expenses for the enterprise had been reduced by nearly 50-percent as there were no longer two winter quarters, two trains or two big tops, and only half as many employees on payroll.

As the New York Clipper reported at the end of the year, 1918 was one of the most challenging seasons in circus history, yet it all ended very quickly. By Thanksgiving all of the circuses were in winter quarters, there were virtually no cases of the flu reported and American soldiers were beginning to plan for their voyage home. Although the nation’s railroads remained under control of the federal government until the spring of 1920, the future looked bright.

With few exception, each of the circus owners who completed the 1918 season returned in 1919. As labor shortages faded, circuses became bigger and audiences responded. The Ringling brothers were now firmly in place as the circus kings, but others such as Al G. Barnes, Charles Sparks, Jerry Mugivan, Bert Bowers, George Christy and Andrew Downie were the crown princes, and each of them would excel in the coming years, no doubt because of the challenges they faced and overcame in 1918.

To paraphrase a future President, each of them had been tempered by war, disciplined by labor shortages, proud of their role in providing entertainment, and unwilling to allow train wrecks, epidemics or fierce competition undo the profession that they had chosen.

Chris Berry

“In Days of Old”
BANDWAGON – 2018 Issue 4