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I’m Mary Kay, and I’m looking for information on one of my ancestors, but I have very few facts to begin. Here’s what I know: his Anglicized name was George Jabaley, but some alternative spellings of his last name are Jbeily, Jabaly, and Jabal. He would have immigrated from Lebanon or Syria (although maybe not a direct route), and it would have been some time between 1890 and 1910. When he arrived (I think through Ellis Island, but I’m not sure), he joined the Sells Brothers Circus. He was joined a few years later by his elder brother, Solomon.

Basically, I want to know everything: how would he have gotten into the circus? How long was he there? What did he do? What was that circus like? Would he have been the only one who didn’t speak English? Would anyone else have spoken Arabic? What acts were involved (at all), in that circus or its competitors/contemporaries? What was their route? And anything else that I don’t know to ask – I’ll appreciate any leads at all!

Thanks so much! Mary Kay

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Sells Bros. Circus existed 1872-1895 and became Forepaugh-Sells for 1896-1907 and 1910-1911, out of Columbus ,OH [and Baraboo, WI 1910-1911]. It was a big operation. There’s much documentation about them. Be aware, there’s also Sells & Rentfrow; Sells & Downs; Sells-Floto; all of which had a name originating with an adopted nephew of the Sells brothers, Willie Sells. Usually, but not always, the ‘Sells show’ meant the Columbus organization, which was in the top five outfits through the 1880s and into the 1900s. You’ll find routes in the virtual library on this website.

Your ancestor may have been recruited to come to the US as a member of an acrobatic troupe. If you do some searching you’ll find posters and perhaps photos of Middle Eastern men doing acrobatic acts with traveling shows. You can also check for him, by name and with acrobatic troupes, in pages of the New York Clipper, free and online with key word searching at Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.

Daily life rituals on shows can be ascertained by perusing material in the virtual library on this website. I’d recommend Thompson’s ‘On the Road with a Circus’. It provide s a general overview. You can locate many other period articles in magazines published in the period in question. I would recommend that you read George A. Hamid Sr.’s autobiography, ‘Circus’ (1950). He came from the Middle East, was an acrobat with shows, etc., at the turn of the century. It will provide you with some insights on challenges and opportunities facing anyone arriving in the US at the time. Travelers picked up needed language very quickly; old ways were maintained, but assimilation was pretty much inevitable. Some troupes may have been accompanied by a manager, who was bilingual; or perhaps one member was able to speak English.

The name finding aid at Circus World Museum might list him, but the variations in spellings may prove challenging. Check with Pete Shrake at the library and ask about conducting a search. I would encourage you to explore his life record, including his arrival in the USA. That would provide a specific anchor for his earliest employment with a circus. Perhaps his brother Solomon’s arrival would provide some clues in ascertaining it?

It’s not part of circus history, but there was a George Jabour who was the owner and operator of a large traveling carnival. He also had Middle Eastern heritage, as I recall. The DeKrekos may have shared a similar heritage. You might into their story. Joe McKennon’s ‘Pictorial History of the American Carnival’ has a tertiary biography of Jabour and perhaps others.

Fred Dahlinger Jr., Curator of Circus History, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL

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