Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hachaliah Bailey

Hachaliah (or Hackaliah as it is often seen) Bailey was born in New York in 1775. A farmer in Stephentown (later called Sommers), in upstate New York, he purchased his first and most notable menagerie animal from his brother, a sea captain, the second elephant ever to come to the United States which he named Old Bet due to the profits she immediately began making him. Hachaliah's original intention was to use the elephant as a work animal on his farm. Bailey quickly realized, however, that there was far more money in the curiosity of his neighbors than would ever be in farm work, he began exhibiting Old Bet in the surrounding community and eventually started to travel New England showing off his elephant. This became one of the first menagerie shows and inspired Bailey's neighbors to begin doing the same. Within a day's ride of Sommers, no less than seven new touring animal exhibits cropped up.

Bailey eventually licensed the touring of Old Bet, first to neighbors Andrew Brown and Benjamin Lent, then to Nathan Howes who would later go on to his own circus fame. In one famous incident, after Howes had withheld Bailey's portion of Old Bet's earnings, Hachaliah tracked Howes and the elephant to New Bedford Massachusetts. When Howes refused to pay Bailey what he was owed, Bailey threatened to shoot "his half" of Old Bet, forcing Howes to relent or lose his cash cow as well. This would, unfortunately, turn out to be an eerily prescient incident.

In 1816, Old Bet was indeed shot to death, not by either of her owners, but by a farmer in Berwick, Maine. Reports vary as to his reasons but the supposed cause was, according to Rev. William Bentley of Salem that "he took money from those who could not afford to spend it."

Old Bet was buried in Somers after being briefly exhibited in New York City in 1817. Many of the artifacts associated with Bailey and the elephant are on exhibit at the Elephant Hotel which Bailey built with the profits from his exhibition as well as the memorial pillar outside the hotel that Bailey had commissioned. In later years, Bailey's former partner, Howes and several other menagerie owners would use the Elephant Hotel as their meeting place for the formation of the Zoological Society in an attempt to build a monopoly on the menagerie business.

We'll hear more about Howes and the Zoological Society next week. Till then, check out the Sommers Historical Society website below.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Philip Astley, Father of the Modern Circus

The history of what we commonly think of as the modern American circus really starts out with two key figures, Philip Astley, a sergeant major in the British light dragoons who parleyed his natural talents as a rider and horse trainer into a touring equestrian show, and Hachaliah Bailey, a farmer in upstate New York who purchased and exhibited the second elephant to come to the United States. Bailey's successors, Nathan Howe and Aaron Turner would eventually turn his menagerie exhibitions into a union of animal exhibitors that monopolized the industry in the U.S. We'll get to Bailey, Turner, and Howe in the coming weeks. Today is all about Astley. 

The son of a cabinet maker from Newcastle-under-Lyme born in 1742, Astley, a natural born rider, discovered that by riding in a tight circle and maintaining a constant speed, he could more easily stand on the back of a horse due to the centrifugal force created. This practice lead Astley to design the first ring and setting the standard for the circus performance space even today. Astley's performance space, an open air amphitheater was known as Astley's Riding School, and later, after being enclosed as the Astley Royral Amphitheater of Arts. 

As his show grew, Astley began adding other, non-equestrian acts, introducing a strong man, rope walker, acrobats (though the trapeze and other aerial acts were still quite a way off), and a clown act, "The Tailor's Ride to Brentford" which would later be copied or adapted by numerous other circus performers, most notably John Bill Ricketts who would first bring an Astley style show to America. 

In addition to his London amphitheater shows, Astley also toured through France and eastern Europe, building nineteen permanent performance structures. While touring in Paris, Astley was confronted by another showman who used an antiquated French law prohibiting two permanent stage shows from performing at the same time in Paris. In response, Astley had a flat platform built and mounted on several of his horses, atop which his acrobats could perform. As it was now a mobile performance space instead of a permanent one, the show was allowed to go on. 

Astley inspired numerous equestrian shows during the years that followed and several riding schools opened in his stead, leading to the first equestrian showmen of the Astley model to make their way to the rest of Europe and eventually to the United States with the arrival of John Ricketts who we'll be coming back to in a later entry. 

Next week, Hachaliah Bailey, the father of the menagerie!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Welcome to the Big Top

I can remember the first time I encountered the mystique of the circus. It was because of my grandfather. When I was young, maybe 8 years old, he told me about a show that he had seen when he was my age, which would have put it squarely during the golden age of the circus in the 1920's or early '30's, and what he remembered wasn't the animal acts or the aerialists, the elephants or the clowns. It was a sideshow act, one that I've since learned comes from Barnum and Bailey's "Black Tent" attraction in 1903, later picked up by the Ringling Bros. when the two shows combined later in the decade. The black tent featured various stage illusions framed as human oddities and that one that had caught my grandfather's imagination was "the headless girl," a woman's torso with an array of fluid filled tubes sticking out from the neck, apparently keeping her alive.

Now, my grandfather and I both had early flirtations with stage magic. He taught me the first card trick I ever learned. So when, for a small added fee, he could go behind the scenes and see how the trick was done, he jumped at the chance. That's what has, in the years that followed, stayed with me. Not the spectacle, the grand performance of the thing, but what goes on behind the scenes, the seemingly impossible feat of mounting a show over night featuring hundreds or thousands of performers, animals, elaborate equipment and then packing it all up and appearing a new town the next day.

Join me each and every Thursday as I delve into the history and the mystery of the circus.

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman.