The Circus You Never Knew

“In the 1850s, the circus overlapped with theater, minstrelsy, and lectures in a bubbling stew of adult fare, full of near-nudity and racy jokes, of violence, and public affairs,” writes David Carlyon, author of the book Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of. Carlyon’s lecture regarding the issue, given via his Speakers Bureau for the New York Council for the Humanities, reveals the shady sub-par circus of the 19th century.


“Violence was one of America’s favorite sports,” Carlyon writes, as was the circus among the most popular places. Local ruffians waited in line to cook the latest trouble in every town while the eyes of spectators watched with awe and suspicion. There was gambling in the tents as well as plenty of alcohol. It was not often that there was no fighting. “A circus had to be,” says Carlyon in the words of a circus veteran, “an efficient fighting unit.” Circus performers were selected because of their talents and ability to fight. A particularly violent incident occurred during the Hippodrome War in 1853, when a circus troupe could not depart Somerset, Ohio, for two days due to continuous battles with locals. Many were severely injured, and many were killed.

The audience could be a part of the show however they wanted. Similar to different forms of entertainment at that period, audiences had “the right to hiss” to shout out that a monolog should be repeated, to enter the ring, and even wholly drown out a performance with their roar. “Audiences considered themselves a partner with performers,” Carlyon states. The audience could determine the performance’s success or failure every show, and performers needed to understand how to manage them effectively.

It’s a stark contrast to the circus we’re familiar with today. It is also one that Carlyon had firsthand experience of when performing as a clown in Barnum & Bailey Circus. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The version of the nineteenth century was a show geared towards adults and was extremely loved. This was a famous American tradition, according to Carlyon: “Everyone saw the circus.” It was also a spectacle brimming with sexual sex. Performers and acrobats were dressed in skin-colored, tight clothing known as fleshings. You could visit the circus, observe naked women and men, and then claim that you admired the human shape. In addition to off-color jokes and sexy bodies, there were tales and songs of those who had escaped with circus performers. These stories were the subject newspapers were able to comment on. Although there aren’t documents to prove it, allegations of prostitution during this circus “must have some basis in fact,” Carlyon says. Carlyon. “For all its cotton-candy image,” Carlyon adds, “the circus has always peddled sexual allure.”

Anyone who was a part of the show (and this was pretty much everyone) was able to see Dan Rice, one of the most well-known men in America during the late nineteenth century–” a talking clown, who squats spontaniously, blasting out Shakespeare making fun of bloomers arguing with Horace Greeley and running for the presidency.” He traveled the nation addressing politics, popular issues, and the most famous stars of the day. Rice is a character surrounded by myths, such as the one that claims he is Uncle Sam. Rice struck a substantial similarity while wearing an elongated top hat and goatee. It was said that Zachary Taylor had named him “Colonel” Rice and that the two of them Abraham Lincoln were good friends were myths Rice made up.

The first circus he performed was one to be called “the greatest show on earth.” Rice was known as the “Great American Humorist” before Mark Twain, whose circus scene from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was likely due to Rice’s visit to Hannibal, Missouri. Rice was even a serious contender for political positions, including one for presidential nomination 1867. Carlyon says Rice’s success is due to his ability to communicate with his fans, “to boom out words and ideas and jokes and songs, while thousands of human imaginations bounced them back.”

The circus was seen as crude and low entertainment in the latter half of the century. It began to alter its image and offer entertainment to the needs of children. The same was true of Rice’s image, softened when the actor was referred to by the name”Old Uncle Dan. His shows lost their grit within the public memory of his time, with his disputes and fights viewed as mere fights. In the lecture of Carlyon, “19th-Century Circus: Sex, Violence, and Politics,” Carlyon takes the circus away from its “rosy glow” it has been able to acquire in the last few times and exposes the audience to the real story behind what it was–“a mixture with Rodeo, burlesque, and Jon Stewart.” In a re-creation of the audience-performer bond in the antebellum period of America, Carlyon declares that in his speeches, “I’m not simply a talking head spouting facts, but rather I’m engaged in conversation with my fellow New Yorkers.”

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