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A couple years ago I bought an original 1885 circus broadside from a flea market. The advertisement is visually interesting and made a great decoration. Once home and installed on the wall in my family room, I started researching the circus and was stunned to uncover a treasure trove of lost history of a criminal enterprise and a network of con men. Even the circus it self was stolen and the ‘proprietor ‘ had a history that was so outlandish that it is amazing it is not documented. I even uncovered evidence that the gang was connected with a detective that would come in to town after the circus departed to fleece the victims a second time. Anyone working on this type of history and interested in the full story? The dirty underbelly of the circus trade and the cavalier nature of including organized crime as part of the business model is fascinating.

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The Ringling Bros were often considered to be a “Sunday School Show” that wouldn’t allow games of chance, etc. Nevertheless there were often circuses and carnivals that would frequently pay off local law enforcement to allow for shell games, etc. It was risky, and especially in the early days there were frequently fights – known as a “Hey Rube” where sometimes show personnel and townsfolk would be injured or even killed.

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There are several circus historians who have explored the nature of “grift” on circuses.  Nefarious activity is often documented in news reports published after the circus left town.  “Fixers” were employed by the shows to attempt to circumvent legal action by offering cash to victims.

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So what is the name of the show on the broadside? In 1885 I know of at least three shows that were on the road and they had a number of grifters who were following their shows, or were being transported by the show. It was common for pickpockets to follow shows, as well as those who provided dice and card games to fleece the public. In some cases the grifters would steal  from houses while the occupants were watching the parade. The newspapers of the day would have stories about thefts on the circus lot, or thefts that were done while the circus was in town. Go to almost any digital newspaper collection and you will find circus/theft stories for that year following the Wallace, Sells, and Barrett Circuses. JFP

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