Off With the Circus!

A circus rider comes to town, Lewis Miller Sketchbook, courtesy of the York County History Center

The circus began in America with such elements as animal acts at fairs or taverns, the figure of Clown in harlequinades, and the showy maneuvers of military horsemen.

While equestrian trick riders such as Mr. Foulkes, Jacob Bates, and Thomas Poole preceded him, it was John Bill Ricketts who brought the first full circus experience to American shores in 1792. Ricketts had worked with Charles Hughes at the Royal Circus in London; he opened his circus and riding school at Twelfth and Market Streets in Philadelphia, serving such high-class clientele as George Washington, whose riding Ricketts greatly admired.

A lion on display at Mr. Sheffer’s tavern, Lewis Miller Sketchbook. Courtesy of the York County History Center

Above: a circus rider in York; below: a lion on display at a tavern; Lewis Miller Sketchbook. Courtesy of the York County History Center

At Ricketts’s “Art Pantheon,” equestrian acts and clowning  alternated with harlequinades and other “Stage Performances.” Ricketts built his luxurious amphitheatre, which could seat up to 1400 spectators, right across the street from the new Chestnut St. Theatre, making their competitive seasons even more intense.

Court House, Ricketts’ Circus, and Oeller’s Hotel, Philadelphia, 1797. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

Court House, Ricketts’ Circus, and Oeller’s Hotel, Philadelphia, 1797. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

After playing Philadelphia, Ricketts and a small troupe including members of the famous theatrical Sully family of Charleston toured South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, after which they headed north through New England. In the summer of 1793, Ricketts and company first played New York, where they opened the fine “New Amphitheatre” on Greenwich Street in 1797. By then, John Durang was a member of the troupe.

Ricketts’ Circus, interior view, pasted into John Durang’s Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

Ricketts’ Circus, interior view, pasted into John Durang’s Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

Durang began appearing with Ricketts in October of 1796, after practicing his horseback skills intensively in preparation for the circus. With Ricketts’s focus on ballets and pantomimes, Durang’s stage-time increased dramatically, frequently in leading roles in such works as The Two Philosophers, Poor Jack, and Don Juan. Ricketts also encouraged new works: Durang created the ballet, The Country Frolic; or, the Merry Haymakers, and added such new works to his repertory as Vulcan’s Gift, The Valiant Soldier, and Harlequin Everywhere.

Ricketts' acts. Popular Entertainment, Circus Bills and Broadsides, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Ricketts' acts. Popular Entertainment, Circus Bills and Broadsides, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

“Spectator,” commenting severely in a Philadelphia newspaper, compared the circus’s performances with those of the recently opened Chestnut Street Theatre, finding the theatre’s works “stale” compared to “the exertions made by the Manager of the Amphitheatre, Mr. Rickets, who has unquestionably exhibited some of the most beautiful Pantomime ever seen in America.”

Mr. Ricketts, Equestrian Hero, c. 1795. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Mr. Ricketts, Equestrian Hero, c. 1795. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Ricketts’s staging spared no extravagance. The pantomime, The Death of Captain Cook, in which Durang played both “Perea” and a Priest, featured battle scenes, ships arriving, war dances, a funeral, and “The Whole to conclude with An Awful Representation of A Burning Mountain.” The following New York season saw the opening of Ricketts’s amphitheatre on Greenwich Street, with similar bills to those shown in Philadelphia. For almost the entire season, the circus played alternate nights with the OAC.

Yet the mixture of stage and ring acts was less successful than Ricketts had hoped, perhaps because his managerial skills for theatre works did not equal those of a professional director and the dramatic abilities of the circus personnel were less developed than they were for circus acts. In addition, the costs for the new building, the lavish staging, and the large troupe pressed upon Ricketts. As Durang wrote, these expenses “would have proved his ruin if he had keep them long.”

Theater bill. Diary; or, Loudon’s Register, New York City, 4 April 1797

Theatre bill. Diary; or, Loudon’s Register, New York City, 4 April 1797

Circus bill. Diary; or, Loudon’s Register, New York City, 5 April 1797

Circus bill. Diary; or, Loudon’s Register, New York City, 5 April 1797

So, when the New York summer season closed in  1797, Ricketts arranged a tour to Canada with a small troupe focusing on ring entertainments. He sent another circus contingent, under his brother’s management, to tour Lancaster, York, Baltimore, and Annapolis, while John Bill himself led a troupe that included John Durang northward toward Canada. But Francis proved a poor manager, and John Bill had to send one of his trusted performers from the northern tour to rescue his brother’s troupe in Baltimore.

Durang wrote extensively of his tour with Ricketts. They left New York on 19 July 1797, traveling by sloop, along with a musician, Mr. Lullier  (Leulier); a groom, Mr. Bird; “Master Hutchins” as general assistant; and six horses, including Ricketts’s favorite charger, Cornplanter. Each horse had a role: one was the vaulter, another did The Tailor, a third ran pony races, and there were also “two blacks.”  As they passed West Point on the sail up the Hudson toward Albany, the circus personnel responded to the fifes and drums they heard wafting over the waters from the fort by playing their rendition of “Washington’s March” and giving a fireworks display.

John Durang as a stilt walker.  Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang as a stilt walker. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

By 24 July, the company arrived at the important upstate town of Albany. Durang wrote: “The people of those country towns are very inquisitive; the news of an equestrian company soon spread thro’ the town. After Mr. Ricketts and myself dress’d ourselves in a neat street riding dress, we went on shore…. The people eyed us from top to toe. I judged by their sociable politeness to us that we would meet with good success here; besides the novelty of a circus for the first time could not fail.” The many inhabitants of Dutch descent spoke “broken English,” Durang noted. In the course of a week, Ricketts and company had “made a temporary construction of a circus.” It was “divided half for the boxes, seats elevated with a roof, the other half for the pit, open and seats low, an orchestra, a moveable stage to dance on, a dressing room, and stable (to dress the horses), a low fense round the ring on which I painted posts with a chain runing round.”

Ricketts in Albany. Albany Centinel, 4 August 1797

Ricketts in Albany. Albany Centinel, 4 August 1797

The first performance was so crowded that there were “about twice the number of people out side of the building [as within] some boreing holes thro’ the board to get a peep.”

The program for Friday, 4 August, advertised Ricketts’s elaborate equestrian broadsword act, with Durang as clown. But that night, a conflagration broke out, near to the circus stable, rapidly destroying much of the city. Durang wrote, “It was with the utmost exertion and difficulty we got our horses out of the stable and put them in the ring of the circus in charge of the groom. Then we return’d and assisted the citizen to remove their goods.” But many in the city were left destitute. Ricketts gave a benefit for “the relief of the Unfortunate Sufferers by the FIRE.”

The circus benefit after the fire. Albany Chronicle, 7 August 1797

The circus benefit after the fire. Albany Chronicle, 7 August 1797

After leaving Albany on 14 August, Durang tracked a fascinating travel narrative through the early American wilderness, a testament to the pioneering efforts of players to open new territories. The troupe traveled north to the village of Fort Ann, putting up “at the stage house keep’d by one Griffin, and indeed a poor house of entertainment, both for man or horse.” On a side trip from there to visit the iron forges of one Mr. Cain they encountered a broken bridge they would later have to cross with the horses, so Ricketts and Durang “got some boards and rails which lay in an ajoining lot, [and] put the bridge in some good order.” On the difficult roads through Vermont, Durang wrote of “22 of the longest miles I ever travelet,” as the party was “benighted in the mountainous desert of Vermont,” until at last they reached an inn whose host and wife reluctantly admitted the troupe. They had better luck at Chimney Point on Lake Champlain, where the pipe-smoking mistress of the inn politely welcomed them while the rest of the family chased down geese to cook for dinner. The lake crossing was followed by miles of “a difficult dismal swampy woods.” After putting up, at last, at a decent tavern, the troupe marched on, encountering huge black flies that “tortured our horses in swarms.” Durang drew one of the monster flies to size in his journal, with a wingspan of two inches. Arriving in Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, the players watched night fishermen harpooning salmon by torchlight.

John Durang as circus performer.  Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang as circus performer. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Then, they had to cross more swamps, mountains, woods, and sand, accompanied by flies and scorching sun. But on the approach to Montreal, Durang was so moved by the crosses and religious symbols marking each mile, evidence of the Catholic faith predominant in French Canada, that he depicted one in his journal.

Roadside cross in Canada, John Durang, watercolor from his Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

Roadside cross in Canada, John Durang, watercolor from his Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

After crossing the St. Lawrence River on 25 August, Ricketts found a spot for the circus near the Récollets Gate of the ramparts. The troupe erected a roofless circus building with ring, stage, dressing areas, stables, boxes and pit seating, and a coffee room. The townspeople were eager, since no professional entertainers had come their way since some of the Hallam Company and other players appeared in winter 1785-86.  On Tuesday, 5 September, the circus opened, giving shows every day but Sunday, with music supplied by the Royal American Grenadiers. Durang’s versatility was fully exercised; he played Clown, rode The Tailor to Brentford, did acrobatics, and delivered all jokes and dialogue “in French, German, and English (the principle inhabitants are French, a great many Germans, a few merchants, and British soldiers English).” He also kept track of receipts and bills, created mechanical effects, and did the necessary design-and-build work for the circus. The Canadians, wrote Durang, “thought our horses where supernatural, that it was impossible horses could dance and keep time to music;” indeed, Durang revealed, “we always adapted our music to keep time with the horses,” rather than the other way around.

John Durang as an acrobatic Harlequin. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang as an acrobatic Harlequin. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

The circus’s success led Ricketts to extend his stay, requiring the building of a sturdier winter edifice. Bills were varied and demanding, especially for so small a troupe: Durang recalls presenting The Death of Captain Cook, Robinson Crusoe, harlequinades, and ballets. He mined the repertory he knew so well from the Old American Company: “a Scotch Pastoral Ballad [ballet] Dance, Called the Caledonian Frolic, ending with an Allegorical Reel”; the “Grand Procession of Neptune and Amphitrite in their Chariot and Sea Horses” [from Shakespeare’s The Tempest]; the ballet The Bird Catcher; the pantomime Don Juan; or, the Libertine Destroyed; and “A Comic Scene Call’d The Devil upon Two Sticks.” Durang also contributed several new works, including “a Comic Piece, in One Act, called The Physical Snob”; the familiar “Dwarf Metamorphosed”; “A Pantomime Balet called the Indian Frolic, or their Return from Shooting”; and The Voyageurs; or, Harlequin in Montreal. Ricketts performed heroically: “A Summerset over 20 Mens Heads”; a leap “from two Horses in full Speed Over a Bar ten feet high” (later twelve feet, topped with spikes); and racing “through a Representation of a Blazing Sun suspended Ten Feet High, Horses in full Speed.” Somehow, the circus folks found time to train horses for the public and to teach riding.

John Durang as an Indian.  Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang as an Indian. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

At Durang’s benefit, he “jumpt thro’ a barrel of fire,” set off fireworks, and presented “an Indian characteristic dance” in his own costume, “purchased from an Indian for rum.”  He claimed to have “learned from some Chipeway and Naudowessie chiefs of the West” the authentic native dances, although when he encountered these tribes—actually, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and the Dakota (Naudawissee)—who were far west of the Canadian tribes Durang visited near Montreal, he does not explain. He performed “the Pipe Dance; the manner is gracefull and pleasing in the nature of savage harmony. Next, the Eagle Tail Dance. I concluded with the War Dance, descriptive of their exploits, throwing myself in different postures with firm steps with hatchet and knife, representing the manner they kill and scalp and take prisoners with the yells and war hoops.  I was told by the officer that I excel’d as their native Indian dances where [were] more simple.” He also admired the young girls of the Caughnawaga village, who danced “With a most reserved modesty, by couples behind each other. … They did not fling their arms and legs about as I have seen ladies do at our balls.”

Catholic Church in Canada, John Durang, watercolor from  his Memoir. York County History Center

Catholic Church in Canada, John Durang, watercolor from his Memoir. York County History Center

Being in a Catholic country, Durang “never neglected going to chapple of a Sunday. The chapples in this country are very grand.” When the troupe traveled to Quebec in May, he was inspired to paint a lovely roadside church.

By 31 May 1798, Ricketts could advertise that his Quebec circus was ready to welcome “a large Company of Spectators,” to whom they played through August. The repertory was similar to that in Montreal, although new acts were added: Ricketts rode on Cornplanter in full Roman armor; he also performed “a fling of Flip-Flaps across the Circus, with Fire Works fastened to the bottom of his feet.” Durang’s new acts included The Drunken Tinker’s Ramble and The French Post Boy’s Journey to London, and carrying “a Little Horse on his shoulders across the Circus.” Cornplanter, too, showed new tricks: leaping “over a table, and a Party of People sitting taking refreshment at the same time”; leaping over another horse “near his own Size”; and unfastening his own saddle. Durang had the opportunity to create fireworks with British army engineers in their laboratory, an experience he described as “a great treat.”

The Dutch Fisherman, John Durang, watercolor from  his Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

The Dutch Fisherman, John Durang, watercolor from his Memoir. Courtesy of the York County History Center

Returning to Montreal in October, the circus folks had only “middling” successes. Still, Durang “bid adue to Canada” with warmth, calling it “a fine country,” particularly noting the “noble River St. Lawrence,” the fine churches, and the “large display of beautifull objects for the pencil of the limner.” The troupe retraced much of its route in returning to the United States. Traveling again through Albany, the players put up at an inn where, Durang wrote, he “advised Mr. Ricketts to give an entertainment in the ball room … for one night only,” featuring “recitations, songs, dances, and ground and lofty tumbling.” Their motivation was “more out of frolic than the want of money,” but this “frolic” saw two debuts, according to Durang: Mr. Ricketts recited and sang in public for the first time, and did it “with judgment,” and Durang became “the first that ever sung ‘The Dutch Fisherman’ in America—November 1798.”

Circus in New York City again. Weekly Museum, New York City, 8 Dec. 1798

Circus in New York City again. Weekly Museum, New York City, 8 Dec. 1798

The circus then traveled overland to New York City where they performed familiar bills for three shows before heading home to Philadelphia in late December. The tour to Canada had taken seventeen months. Durang had not seen his family in all that time.

Back in Philadelphia, Durang helped prepare Ricketts Pantheon for the new season. He recalled works the troupe performed: “We got up the poney races which was repeated in great stile for a number of nights. We got up The Siege of Oxetrace with great splendour and applause. The siege was performed on the stage, and the triumphal entry of Alexander the Great was lead round the ring with prisoners tied to horses’ tails.” Among Durang’s new roles were Major André in The Death of Major André (Placide), the Valiant Soldier in the work of that name, and Harlequin in Harlequin’s Vagaries.

Ricketts in Baltimore. Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, 17 May 1799

Ricketts in Baltimore. Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, 17 May 1799

From Philadelphia, the circus moved to Baltimore on 15 and 17 May 1799. The circus then traveled throughout the summer to Annapolis and Easton in Maryland, Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, District of Columbia. In each location, the players had to erect circuses; improvising came in handy, as Durang noted, when he once had to paint the circus using “a substitute with charcoal and hard red chalk.” The reception was warm, and the troupe returned for a three-week autumn run in Baltimore.

Ricketts reopened the Philadelphia Amphitheatre on 21 November 1799, presenting ring and stage entertainments. The season played well until 17 December when, Durang recalled, “This winter through the carlessness of a drunken carpenter who was in the employ of the circus, who let a candle stand under the roof of a room above the stable where he keep his bottle, set fire to the back part of the circus while yet the horsemanship was going on.” Durang was “dressing for Don Juan when the fire was discovered. We had the good fortune to save all the horses, the scenery and wardrobe and every moveable article, even the doors, windows, and pillows of the front[ispiece]. The circus was entirely burnt to the ground to the great loss of Mr. Ricketts and company, and deprived me of a benefit.” No one was hurt, but Charles Durang assessed Ricketts’s loss at $20,000. This had been a period of sorrow, for only three days earlier George Washington had died, a tragedy felt by the entire nation, and by the players especially, for he had been a warm supporter.

With their building destroyed, Durang arranged for the circus to tour. In Lancaster on 2 January 1800, the troupe appeared “By desire of Governor McKean, Who means to honor the Theatre with his presence.” The show, performed indoors and thus necessarily missing the ring acts, included pantomimes, songs, dances, acrobatics, and “in particular an Indian War and Scalp Dance, by Mr. Durang and Mr. F. Ricketts.” Ricketts remained in Philadelphia to deal with the fire’s aftermath, soon assembling some players to open in the ruined amphitheatre of a former competitor, Lailson, whose lavish circus had lasted only for the 1797 season before his building’s huge dome caved inward.

Lailson’s Circus.  Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Lailson’s Circus. Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

But the front of the house and stables were still usable, and the audience area remained roofed. Ricketts and company played there in mid-April 1800, presenting stage and ring acts. But the shows in this make-shift setting had little success and, as Durang wrote, “Mr. Ricketts began to get out of heart with doing business in this bodge way. His mind wandering unreconciled, he resolved to leave America.” Despite Ricketts’s urging, Durang noted, “he could not persuade me to go with him….  It became necessary to stay at home and take care of a growing family.”

Ricketts departed for the West Indies, then a profitable theatrical territory, taking horses, lumber for a new circus, and several members of his company. After his goods were stolen by a French privateer, then restored to him by an enterprising merchant, Ricketts and troupe performed on several West Indian islands, where Durang notes that two members of the company died, perhaps of disease. Ricketts sold off his goods “to great advantage,” then sailed for England; alas, the ship foundered and he drowned.

Durang's Thespian Panorama. Philadelphia Gazette, 1 May 1800

Durang's Thespian Panorama. Philadelphia Gazette, 1 May 1800

During this period, Durang assembled a troupe that he called “the Thespian Panorama”—defending that name against others who claimed it. They played the Southwark through spring 1800, presenting circus acts, but without the benefit of horses—rope dancing, acrobatics, dancing, singing, pantomime, and recitations.

The young Charles Durang remembered the season vividly. In his History, he remarked on an act by Mrs. Rowson, dancing “a hornpipe in Irons, bound hand and foot” in character of a sailor. He added, “Such exhibitions are not pleasant at any time; and as the figure of Mrs. R. was rather short and somewhat inclining to the rounded contour, she did not make much sensation.” Despite such exertions, the shows this season drew poor business. For his benefit night, John Durang put on his specialty act—flying “from the gallery to the back part of the stage thro’ a bust of firework,” which drew in a respectable sum of $300.

Durang's benefit bill. Philadelphia Gazette, 14 June 1800

Durang's benefit bill. Philadelphia Gazette, 14 June 1800

In late July, Durang and riding master Mr. DeGraff opened an equestrian show at Lailson’s, featuring Durang’s newly trained and memorably named horse, Cornplanter: “he would go on his knees or lay down, leap over the bars, run after the Tailor, and a handsome saddle horse for the street.” Yet these circus shows left a trail of doom: “One night as I was riding Cornplanter in a suit of armour with a visor on my face and in full speed with a shower of fireworks on the top of my helmet ending with an explosion, the explosion frightened the horse. He jump’d over three benches of the pit, tore a way a patition with his hind legs and landed in the passage of the stable door, and flung me over the orchestra on the stage without any hurt to myself or horse.” This, and the poor profits, caused Durang to close the show. His circus career was over.