OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
24 July 1895
The late nineteenth century marked the golden age of the American circus.
Travelling the railroads that had just been laid down during the great railway boom, as many as fifty circuses crisscrossed the continent, bringing excitement, diversion, and sometimes education, to towns and cities throughout North America. With popular entertainment in short supply in those days before television, radio, and motion pictures, the arrival of the circus each summer was a much anticipated event.
Of all the circuses of that era, the greatest of them was probably the Barnum & Bailey circus, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth. For once, the hyperbole so loved by circus promoters was accurate.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Barnum’s came six times to Ottawa, with each show arguably more fantastic than the previous one.
The Barnum & Bailey circus was brought to the world by two of the greatest showmen and circus impresarios of all times—Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum and James Anthony Bailey. Barnum, who was born in 1810, got his start his start in New York where he acquired Scudder’s American Museum in 1841. Modestly renaming it after himself, the museum, which was a mixture of menagerie, aquarium, museum, lecture hall and freak show, became famous for its display of the FeeJee (Fiji) mermaid. The mermaid, which was much hyped by Barnum as the mummified remains of a mermaid supposedly discovered in the Pacific, captured people’s imagination and drew tens of thousands to Barnum’s American Museum. In actuality, it had been created by stitching together the head and upper body of an ape with the lower body and tail of a fish. Human “curiosities” were also showcased, including “General” Tom Thumb, a 25-inch tall dwarf (who appeared in Ottawa at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1861), a “man-monkey”, who was in reality a microcephalic black man, and the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Originally from Siam (Thailand), they were the source of the term “Siamese twins.” After his New York museum burnt down, Barnum went into the circus business, establishing P.T. Barnum’s Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1871. He is credited for being the first to use the railway for transporting his circus from city to city. He also began to call his circus “the Greatest Show on Earth.”
James A. Bailey was born James A. McGinniss in 1847. Orphaned as a child, he adopted the last name Bailey to honour the man who got him started in the circus business. In the early 1870s, he was a partner in a travelling circus known as the Cooper & Bailey Circus, and was in competition with Barnum. Bailey linked up with Barnum in 1881. The merged company retained the advertising slogan of “the Greatest Show on Earth,” though it wasn’t to use the joint Barnum & Bailey name until 1888, sticking until then with the better-known Barnum name.
The newly merged company quickly gained international notoriety for buying Jumbo, an African elephant, from the London zoo for £2,000, then equivalent to almost $10,000.
Jumbo was a sensation wherever it went. The huge elephant, billed as the largest outside of Africa, came to Ottawa in 1883 and 1885 as the prime exhibit of the grandly named “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and Howes Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie.” The 1885 Ottawa performance occurred just days before Jumbo died in an accident in a rail yard in St Thomas, Ontario.
While accounts vary, it appears that Jumbo and another small elephant called Tom Thumb were struck by a freight train. Jumbo was killed instantly, while Tom Thumb sustained a fractured leg. While viewed as an “irreplaceable loss” by the circus, Barnum, the perennial showman, had Jumbo’s skeleton and skin preserved and put on display in the circus.
Jumbo’s remains came back to Ottawa when Barnum’s returned to the capital in 1887. The circus’s advertised that JUMBO was “as Large as Life and Quite as Natural,” and was the “Only Elephant Skeleton on Exhibition Anywhere.” He was accompanied by Alice his “Affectionate and Distressed Companion.”
Of the six Barnum circuses that came to Ottawa during the late nineteenth century, the greatest was probably the 1895 edition that arrived in town in the early morning of Wednesday, 24 July. With Barnum’s death in 1891, the circus was now run solely by James Bailey who had bought out his partner’s share from Barnum’s widow. The show remained, however, Barnum & Bailey’s Great Show on Earth, giving the famous dead showman top billing. It advertised that its capital was $3.5 million, with daily expenses of $7,000.
So huge was the Barnum & Bailey circus that it took four specially-equipped trains of 68 cars to transport performers and other personnel, animals, including a “monster” herd of twenty-four elephants, sideshows, and tents and other equipment from Montreal to Ottawa on the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR), pulling in at the Elgin Street station (Catherine Street at Metcalfe Street).
But so organized were the roadies responsible for setting up the circus that the tents were raised and made ready for the day’s performances in under ninety minutes at the old race track opposite the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park on Bank Street. The Ottawa Evening Journal commented that the “easy way” that the workers put up the big tents “demonstrated that they have the thing down to a science.”
In preparation for the thousands of spectators that would be heading to the temporary circus grounds, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company “watered” Bank Street (still a dirt road at that time) from the CAR tracks to the circus venue at its own expense to ensure that the street was in good condition. It also put on extra trams on the Bank Street route from downtown.
At 9.30 a.m., the circus paraded through Ottawa as was customary at that time, in front of thousands of excited onlookers, including many drawn into the city from surrounding villages by advertising posters that said “It is worth coming miles to see and once seen never forgotten.” One newspaper story only half-jokingly commented that there was a high demand for children that morning by usually “sedate” citizens who wouldn’t otherwise appear alone at a circus.
The parade’s Order of March gives a sense of the awesome scale of the circus:
Gentlemen Fox Hunters and Cavaliers
Lady Performers and Side-Saddle Experts
Band Chariot drawn by ten horses
Open Den of five tigers and trainer
Open Den of four lions and trainer
Open Den of six leopards and trainer
Open Den of six panthers and trainer
Open Den of six hyenas and trainer
Open Den of four bears and trainer
Open Den of six wolves and trainer
Band Chariot drawn by ten horses carrying Euterpe (muse of music)
Mounted Ladies of the Hippodrome
Mounted Gentlemen of the Hippodrome
Three teams of Standing Roman racers
Three four-horse Roman chariots
Twelve performing elephants
Twelve dromedaries with Asiatic riders
Dragon chariot with harnessed camels
Chariot of India drawn by ten horses
Cinderella’s Fairy Coach
Old Woman who lived in a Shoe
Little Red Riding Hood
Sinbad the Sailor
A Steam Calliope [a very loud musical instrument that uses steam to power large whistles]
The Crowned Heads of the World accompanied by correctly uniformed military retinues
Emperor of China
King Thibaw of Siam
Khedive of Egypt
Mikado of Japan
Sultan of Turkey
Infant Queen of Holland
King Leopold of Belgium
King Oscar of Sweden
Infant Queen of Spain
King Humbert of Italy
Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany
American Allegorical Chariot with representatives of the Army, Navy, Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam and the Goddess of Liberty.
The parade route took the band wagon, floats, animals and performers from its grounds down Bank Street to Albert Street, turning onto Lyon Street, and then along Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings before crossing Sappers’ Bridge into Lower Town, passing down Cumberland, Clarence, Sussex and Rideau Streets, before retracing their steps along Wellington and Bank Streets back to the circus grounds. The procession through the streets received a rapturous applause from onlookers, though the Journal noted some casting problems, wryly commenting that it’s impossible to make an Irishman into a Chinese dragoon.
Later that day, the circus put on two performances. Tickets were 50 cents, 25 cents for children under nine years of age. Reserved seats could be purchased at Rosenthal & Company’s Jewellery Store at 89 Sparks Street. There were 110 acts performed in three rings and two stages used simultaneously. Barnum’s advertised that their circus was the only one to have a lady ringmaster and a lady clown.
The Journal reported that the performance was a “kaleidoscopic display of leapers, tumblers, gymnasts, equestrian, hurdle riders, aerialist, trapezists and clowns.”
If there was any complaint it was that here was too much to see. Among the aerialist performers were The Three Dunbars and The 3 Flying Dillons. The Meer sisters, Marie and Ouika, billed as Europe’s greatest lady equestrians, also performed. They were reputedly hired at an enormous salary of $100 per day. Swimming exhibits were held in a large tank in the middle of the main tent. Louis Golden dove into a five foot deep tank of water from the top of the tent, fifty-one feet in the air. The wild beasts performed in a special steel-barred arena. Other acts included Johanna, the only giantess gorilla in captivity, chariot races, and champion log rolling.
The featured sideshow was a great Ethnological Congress displaying representatives of “strange and savage tribes arranged in their barbaric clothes.” The people gave exhibitions of war dances, and religious ceremonies using “their own peculiar musical instruments.” Among the peoples exhibited were “Hindoos, Pagans, Cannibals, Idolaters, Vishnus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Fire and Sun Worshippers.” The Journal highly commended the show as “educational and instructive.” Typically degrading and racist, such “human zoos” were very popular in North America and Europe during the late nineteenth century.
While the circus was only in Ottawa for one day. The food bill for the performers and animals was gargantuan. It was reported that Barnum’s ordered twelve tons of hay, four loads of straw for bedding, fifty bushels, large quantities of vegetables, and 1,400 pounds of meat for the lions and other carnivores. Meanwhile, Ottawa butchers Slattery and Terrance supplied 800 pounds of beef, pork, lamb and other meats for circus members. Twelve cooks made the troupe’s dinner, with sixty waiters serving more than 300 people.
The Barnum & Bailey circus, which went on a five-year tour of Europe, did not return to Ottawa until 1906. Following Bailey’s death in 1906, the Ringling Brothers, who operated the Ringling Brothers Circus, bought Barnum’s. The two circuses were merged in 1919. In mid-January 2017, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that owing to declining attendance and rising costs it would close in May, bringing an end to the Greatest Show on Earthafter 146 years.