The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Circuses have lost much of the allure they once had for the young, and indeed for people of all ages.
The popular image of the circus today immediately conjures up, after the images of exotic animals and aerialists, the name of P.T. Barnum. Appearing twice in Guelph in the 1880s, Barnum’s arrival here signified that Wellington County had become a scheduled stop on the mainline of North American entertainment.
By the 1880s, smaller circuses, and acts which were often featured with circuses, had been working in Wellington County for more than 30 years. Occasionally in the tumultuous decades of the 1850s and 1860s a sideshow performance featuring some “freaks” of human physiognomy toured the monthly cattle fairs in Wellington, competing with snake oil hucksters, phrenologists and pea-and-three-shells artists for the attention of farmers from the fringes of the fair grounds.
More legitimate were the small touring menageries, exhibiting exotic animals known to most people only through descriptions and infrequent woodcut illustrations in books. There were also a few circuses on the Ontario circuit, but these were small affairs, travelling from one small town to another in caravans of a half-dozen wagons. Most had tents to set up in a fair grounds or park, but by later standards of Barnum, these were dismal displays.
The modern concept of the circus owes much to the American showman P.T. Barnum. He had gained his fame as the operator of Barnum’s Museum in New York City, where he exhibited wonders and curiosities from around the world commencing in 1842. From this he branched out by taking his better acts on national tours.
Looking for ever larger audiences, he established a huge circus entourage after the American Civil War. To cope with the logistics of moving from one place to the next, he took to the railways in 1872, requiring a full train to accommodate his immense troupe.
Barnum’s Circus eventually toured parts of Canada, appearing twice in Guelph, in 1883 and 1885. On both occasions the company included “Jumbo,” the 12-foot high, 6-ton elephant ranking as the largest animal in captivity. Barnum’s purchase of the behemoth from the London Zoo in 1882 had nearly precipitated an international incident. Subsequently, Barnum did everything possible to maintain the flow of publicity.
Those who witnessed both Guelph appearances of “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Circus, Menagerie and Caravan” (to use the full title), considered the first one superior. In 1881 Barnum had formed his first association with circus entrepreneur James Bailey, but the arrangement fell apart in early 1885, leaving Barnum with a smaller troupe. Even so, Barnum’s second Guelph appearance was a day to remember for the thousands of people who were there.
Barnum never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He did utter a more telling phrase: “Advertising is like education: a little is a dangerous thing.” He had his publicity machine tuned like a Swiss watch when his show hit Guelph in 1885.
On Aug. 26, 1885, a locomotive shunted Barnum’s famed “advertising coach” onto a siding at the Grand Trunk Railway’s Guelph passenger station. Within hours the publicity machine for the circus’s Sept. 11 performance was running flat out.
Barnum had perfected the technique of using the advertising coach a decade earlier. In essence, it was a refitted baggage car. Inside were stocks of posters, lithographs and banners. There was office space for a press agent and the manager of the corps of 12 bill posters. Full length colour murals of Barnum’s attractions covered both sides of the railway car. As well, the car carried a few displays to entice potential customers and generate stories in the local press. It offered musical selections on a calliope when it stopped at Guelph in August 1885, and an army of 12 workers used it as a base to paper Wellington County with advertising posters.
A fire destroyed Barnum’s first advertising coach in 1877. He replaced it with a bigger one, some 78 feet in length. When it pulled into Guelph the car had a calliope on board. For three days a Barnum functionary serenaded the city’s downtown with periodic concerts. “The music was superb to the untrained ear,” the Guelph Mercury reporter commented sarcastically.
Barnum considered the potential drawing area for a performance to be 50 miles. The bill posters would fan out over the area, especially to towns along railway lines, and his team tacked up gaudy ads everywhere. The well-trained army had much of Wellington County plastered in two days.
Interestingly, Barnum relied on his posters, rather than advertisements in local newspapers, to promote his circus. The function of the press agent was to issue interesting tidbits, such as details of Jumbo’s 500-pounds-per-day diet, and to stage publicity events of one sort or another and trick editors into covering them as news stories. This didn’t work well in Wellington: the wary and tight-fisted editors here, slighted by the lack of paid column-inches, largely ignored the Barnum circus until the week after the Guelph performance.
Barnum’s advance men (he never toured with the circus personally) rented a large field on York Road, near the then-new Guelph waterworks pumping station. It was not the most convenient site for loading and unloading the train, but the traffic-stopping parade of circus animals, including 28 elephants; exotic performers and circus paraphernalia through the streets served to bolster the final publicity efforts.
Even though the Barnum circus needed huge numbers of out-of-town people to make a profit on the Guelph performances, the advance men did not arrange for any special trains to Guelph. They left it to the Grand Trunk to estimate the crowd size, to provide appropriate accommodation for the multitudes, and to bear the wrath of those displeased with the service.
The Sept. 11 morning train from Palmerston and the north, though carrying extra coaches, was fully occupied after the stop at Fergus. Several hundred more people at Elora had to be wedged into the aisles of the cars, with the overflow penned in the baggage car and standing on the open platforms of the wooden coaches. The evacuation to Guelph brought business to a virtual standstill in Elora and other towns. Many shopkeepers closed for the day so they might themselves attend the performance.
At this time in its life the Barnum circus used three main tents. Two outer ones contained displays of curiosities and animals. Behind them a much larger tent contained an oval ring, with seating arranged on three sides. The total capacity of the three tents topped 10,000 people, equal to the entire population of Guelph in 1885.
There were afternoon and evening performances in the main tent. With so many coming from out of town, the afternoon show attracted the largest crowd, some 12,000, with about 4,000 for the evening.
The main show began with a brass band, clad in pseudo-military uniforms of brilliant hue, leading a parade of the performers in a choreographed promenade around the oval ring. Jumbo, the star of the show, followed, stately and dignified, seemingly aware of his exalted position among the performers.
Then the performances started, following one another at Gatling-gun speed. First there was Nola the snake charmer, then trick bareback riders, gymnasts, trapeze acts, a contortionist, followed by high wire performers.
Then there was a near disaster. The wire broke as aerialist Juan Caicedo had just begun his routine. He hurtled to the ground, landing on his back. Remarkably, he was able to get to his feet and stagger out of the tent. The elephants followed, parading in formations and performing various tricks. The finale was a series of races around the oval, set up to resemble the Roman hippodrome. After racing on horseback, the riders returned on cattle, then camels, and finally on elephants, and concluding with four-horse chariots.
Barnum liked to offer more than any one person could see. This was a method of drawing in people on the return engagement a year or two in the future, and it ensured that those who attended would exchange stories for months after the troupe had moved on.
The accident at Guelph to Juan Caicedo was a portend of worse to come. Four nights after appearing in Guelph, another aerialist sustained major injuries during a performance at St. Thomas.
A couple of hours after that, Jumbo was being led to his railway car by his trainer after the evening show. As they walked along the track, an unscheduled freight train bore down on them. Frightened by the light and noise, Jumbo froze in his footsteps. He suffered massive internal injuries in the ensuing crash, and died a short time later.
The black cloud followed Barnum’s circus for the rest of the season. There were more mishaps to performers, and at Oil City, Pennsylvania on Sept. 28 a tornado knocked down the main tent during a show, resulting in dozens of injuries.
Despite the misfortunes, Barnum survived the 1885 season. He formed a second agreement with James Bailey in 1888, resulting in the well-known Barnum and Bailey name. This circus eventually merged with the Ringling Brothers outfit after the first World War.
They would come to Guelph again in later years, but it is unlikely that they created quite the excitement they did in 1885, when more than 16,000 people turned out, and Jumbo made his penultimate appearance.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 30, 2001.