Time for a summer circus story.
As I was reading some old newspapers, I found an entry that caught my eye. In a report about a flood, the newspaper mentioned that it was hard to believe that the flooded field by the Whetstone was the same place that had been host to P.T. Barnum and Jumbo just a year prior.
I’m a big circus fan, but didn’t know that P.T. Barnum had come to town, let alone that his world famous Jumbo walked about our streets. I dug around some more and found that this circus story began much earlier and was more interesting than I imagined.
Step Right Up
Brattleboro’s fascination with P.T. Barnum began in the middle of the 1800’s. Reports of his tour through Europe with General Tom Thumb with his diminutive and elegant carriage were front page news here and around the world. The town later followed with interest the tour of “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind that he brought to America, and was intrigued by his $20,000 offer for Lake Champlain’s Champ.
Biggest of all his attractions, though, was Jumbo the elephant.
It was quite a thrill, then, each time he brought his travelling shows to town.
General Tom Thumb Visits Brattleboro
On August 9, 1851, Barnum brought his American Museum and Menagerie to Brattleboro.
According to an ad for the program in the Windham County Democrat, one feature of the show would be the Lilliputian General Tom Thumb, in person, being carried on a small elephant with a cortege of 110 horses and 90 men. The 28 inch, 15 pound General would give performances as he did in Europe for the crowned heads, including songs, dances, Grecian statues, and impressions of Napoleon and Frederick the Great.
Mr. Nellis, the man without arms, would be there to load and fire a pistol with his toes, cut profile likenesses, shoot with a bow and arrow, and play musical instruments.
Mr. Pierce would also be there to enter the Dens of the Wild Beasts, giving his “illustrations of Hercules struggling with his Numidian Lion; Daniel in the Lion’s Den; Samson destroying the Lion, etc.”
Also on the bill were six beautiful lions, a Burmese bull worshiped by pagan natives, ten elephants, and a “magnificent Brass Band.” The elephants would pull the “car of juggernaut,” followed by a long procession of costly cages and carriages of “more than Oriental splendor.”
A display of wax statues of all the Presidents and other noted characters, plus displays of wonderful objects of nature and art, and a procession into town were all part of the program.
Admission was 25 cents for a nearly three hour performance.
Another Visit in the 1870’s
P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome, visited in 1871 on July 14, according to records of their tours.
Jumbo Visits Brattleboro
P.T. Barnum had joined forces with J.A. Bailey and J. L. Hutchison to form the Barnum & London circus, and they advertised “moral shows.” While they were officially known as P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth & Howes' Great London Circus & Sanger's Royal British Menagerie, it was Barnum and Jumbo that people taked about.
Tuesday July 25, 1882 was a big circus day in Brattleboro. The “mastodon elephant” Jumbo, greatest living showman Barnum, and the Biggest Show On Earth were in town, promising larger tents, three circuses in three rings,and two enormous menageries.
Jumbo was a world famous African elephant. He had spent almost his entire life in captivity, being captured as a calf after his mother was killed by hunters in 1861. He came by way of Paris and London zoos. Barnum bought and brought him to America in April of 1882, another tale in itself, just a few months prior to his Brattleboro visit.
“His trunk reaches 26 feet! He weighs 10 tons! His height is beyond belief! Jumbo, Pet of Royalty, Pride of America, Friend of Children, etc.” Everyone was interested in seeing this mighty beast.
Jumbo would join 22 elephants, a 3 month old baby elephant, 10 giraffes, the Norway Giant, 4-legged girl, She-Mab, Chinese Rebel Dwarf, Fat Beauties, Skeleton Men, and two wild men of Borneo, all arriving by railroad cars and heading over to Frost fields by the Whetstone to perform under enormous tents with “seating for 20,000.”
There were two performances, one at 1 p.m. and one at 8 p.m.
In the days before the show, local stores took advantage of the Jumbo-mania that was building, Hawley’s was advertising Jumbo-Day sales, and Starkey & Wellman’s was offering a ticket to see Jumbo to everyone spending at least $8 on their summer suits, dusters, thin coats or white vests.
Advance men would come to town ahead of the show and erect large billboards advertising the many wonders to come.
The Phoenix reported that it was a busy day for the railroads bringing upwards of 1600 passengers to town for the shows.
“At daylight or before, the crowd began to come in by private conveyance or on foot, and at the time of the street parade the streets were one dense mass of humanity. As early as 2 o’clock a.m., a curious crowd began to gather to see the circus train, and when the unloading took place between 4 and 5 o’clock, from 500 to 1000 people were on hand to see the sight. A moderate estimate places the number of people in the great tent at the afternoon exhibition at upward of 8000 and at the evening exhibition at about half that number.
The show itself was all that it was advertised to be, and the only thing that can be alleged against it is that in the several rings there were more attractions than the spectators could fully take in. We remember no similar show which has comprised so many fine horses. The maneuvering of the group of 10 or 12 trained black horses with which the ring performance opened was one of the most remarkable and attractive features of the entertainment. The maneuvering of two groups of eight or ten elephants, in separate rings, was a well-executed novelty which one is not likely to see elsewhere. The riding, vaulting, tumbling, the wonderful feats of Zazel and Lulu, and all the features of the ring performances, were excellent and left nothing to be desired. It was especially noticeable that the whole entertainment, including the jokes and antics of the clowns, was entirely free from anything verging on coarseness or vulgarity. The menagerie is excellent, comprising an unusual number of rare animals.”
Jumbo in the Whetstone Brook
The Phoenix report of the show also has a really touching story about Jumbo. (Emphasis added).
“The elephants were given the full benefit of the waters of the Whetstone brook. In the morning the baby was given his first bath, and he took very kindly to the novel experience. After the crowd had been seated in the large tent for the afternoon exhibition, Jumbo was taken to the brook and allowed to have his first bath since leaving England. At first he showed some hesitation about entering the water, but, being urged on by his keeper, soon caught the spirit of the occasion, and began rolling and plunging about, repeatedly dipping himself entirely under the water and seeming to enjoy himself to his heart’s content. This was probably the first time the mammoth old fellow had ever bathed in a stream of running water, or otherwise than in a tank.”
This is likely to be true. He had been in zoos since childhood, and while there are stories of him being taken for walks in the gardens, giving rides to children, and being fed fruits, there are no stories that I could find of him playing in water. I found a few mentions of Barnum's elephants getting washed by fire hose.
Jumbo was also new to the circus, having joined only three months prior. He had been on display and tour since his arrival. It could be that his trainer felt that Jumbo had finally adapted, relaxed, and could be trusted to play in the brook by the time they reached Brattleboro and were away from some of the larger towns they had travelled to that summer.
Other 1882 Details
The papers say there were few crimes. Government detectives travelling with the show arrested some travelling gamblers and pickpockets, and one local man was fined $5 for being drunk.
The local baker furnished the circus people with 400 pound of bread, “the Brooks House fed 400 people, the Brattleboro and American Houses 300 each, Bliss and Salisbury 400 each, Cooper a large number, and still the cry was for more.” Local stores found it a good day for trade and were kept busy until the performances began.
For true circus nuts, here is a link to the complete circus route book for the 1882 season. It is a detailed account of everyone on tour including management, performers, canvas men, railroad men, animal trainers, side show staff, advance men, and more. It includes a complete list of the show's program and notes from the tour.
1883 Flood of Frost Meadows
Phoenix, May 5, 1883 - “The Frost meadow would never have been recognized as the place there the greatest show on earth had pitched its tents, where Jumbo had disported himself, the wild man from Borneo gazed upon the ginger-bread eaters, or where the Brattleboro ball team had walloped and been walloped....”
Disport, by the way, means “to enjoy oneself unrestrainedly; frolic.”
Barnum didn’t bring the show to Brattleboro in 1883 or 1884, but locals were able to travel to places like Keene and Greenfield to get their fill.
Barnum and Jumbo Return - For a Farewell Tour
The ad for the July 21, 1885 performances in Brattleboro were billed as a farewell tour. Barnum planned to end the American tour with Jum
bo and take him to Europe for a few seasons..
Brattleboro’s old friend Jumbo was back, then, for what might be the last time. He was joined by Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy for top billing.
Also featured that day: "Arads, the Wild man, Tattooed Hindoo Dwarfs, Acrobatic, Athletic and Special Acts, Wonderful Roller Skating, Miss Zammomoto, Mounting the Ladder of Naked Swords, Japanese Slack Wire Performers, Ascensionists, Aerialists, Wrestlers, &c. 100 Marvelous Acts. 1000 Features, Myriads of Living Human Wonders, Special Stage Performances, Royal and Elegant Costumes, Giants, Midgets, Dwarfs, Skeletons, Gymnasts, Fencers, Boxers, Graceful Female Athletics, Sensational Artists, Lovely Birds, Herd of Educated Elephants, Baby Elephant, Kangaroos, Lions, &c."
A special “Mirimba Band” would perform, and there would be an appearance by Barnum’s new and is-it-for-real attraction, the Sacred White Elephant.
The day would, of course, begin with a free circus parade “with $1,500,000 worth of rare and costly objects” on the morning of the show.
Admission had doubled to 50 cents, but children under 9 could attend for a quarter.
Here is the account in the July 24 Phoenix:
“It is doubtful if any circus has ever attracted a larger crowd of people to Brattleboro than did Barnum’s on Tuesday. The throng began to peer in early in the morning, and by the time the street parade took place at half-past 9 the sidewalks were practically one solid mass of people along Canal street and all the way from the main street bridge up to the common. The procession was a long one and contained many excellent features. The Flat-street lot was found too small to accomodate the big spread of canvas and the show was given the old campground. A large number of teams found constant employment day and evening in carrying people back and forth between the street and the grounds. The heat was intense and the dust and dirt indescribable.
For the tent show and circus performance it must be freely said that they were the best ever given in Brattleboro. In the “museum” tent there were a good many rare species of animal life - human and otherwise - which were well worth seeing. These included the “ethnological congress,” the white elephant, Jumbo, and the baby elephant. The menagerie was exceptionally good. Many of the animals were notably fine specimens, as in the case of the white bear, lions and tigers. All of them were cleanly and well kept. With the ring performance the obvious and only fault to be found was that there was quite too much going on at one time. The trained black stallions were remarkably fine and their graceful feats a real delight. The riding by both men and women was uniformly excellent, and the same is true of the lofty tumbling and trapeze performances, and the pleasure of the audience was not less because no especially dangerous feats were attempted. Caicedo’s performance on a single wire was a wonder of trained skill and possessed a peculiar fascination, while a genuinely artistic feature was found in the Gilport Brothers’s act in posing, with instantaneous transformations, as “heroic classic statues.” To the baby elephant the palm for merry-making, in his very funny act, must be cheerfully awarded. It is to Barnum’s credit that he has eliminated everything vulgar or broad from his ring performances and has put his clowns in the background, not using them for “padding” in any instance.
A special narrow gauge train, reaching here at 9 o’clock, brought between 400 and 500 to the show. A special on the Vermont Valley road also brought in a large number of people.
In spite of the large crowd there was little drunkenness or disorder. The circus employees were all quiet, well-behaved men who attended strictly to business and showed that they were under good discipline. Citizens who watched the unloading and loading of the circus plant observed that everything was done with perfect method and there was no talk, noise, or confusion of any sort. The company had its own police to preserve order and look out for pickpockets. On Wednesday at Rutland the men were paid off, and they bought over $1000 worth of money orders to send away.”
Brattleboro bid ado to Barnum and Jumbo, fully expecting to read reports of their travels in Europe in the coming years.
Jumbo Hit and Killed By Train
Only seven weeks after the Brattleboro performance, on September 15, 1885, newspapers began reporting the shocking and tragic story of Jumbo’s death. He had been struck by a train in Canada and killed. Another young elephant was injured in the accident.
From official circus notes of the tour:
Tuesday, 15th, St. Thomas, Ont., 61 miles. Hotel: Grand Central.
The death of Jumbo. Shortly after 8 o'clock in the evening the elephants accompanied by their keepers started for the cars located only a few hundred yards from the lot. The road bed was narrow with only two tracks, one occupied by the show train and the other, the main track, in use. Byron Rose, master of transportation, made himself certain by information from the railroad authorities that no train was due until 9:30. But unfortunately this proved incorrect as at the moment the elephants were gathered together on the track an extra freight train came rushing down at a terrific speed. The head light was plainly visible and orders were promptly given to flag the train but too late. A hasty retreat with the elephants was attempted and all were got safely out of the way excepting Jumbo and the Dwarf. The former seeing the coming engine became unmanageable and instead of following down the embankment where Scott vainly attempted to lead him madly flew down the track at lightning speed. Quicker than it takes to tell it the train rushed upon the huge beast, throwing him to the ground and crushing him against the standing train. The Dwarf was also hurled in the air, sustaining a fracture of the leg. The engine was badly wrecked and thrown completely off the track. Jumbo lived by a few minutes; his skull was found to have been badly broken and several internal injuries sustained. All hands were called and with heavy hawsers quickly dragged his body from the wreck. A guard composed of Henry Barnum, John Stacks, and Matthew Scott, the old keeper, were left in charge until the disposal of the remains was decided upon by consultation with the absent partners. The show then left town mourning the irreparable loss of the greatest attraction ever known in show business. “
Barnum quickly adapted the story to a heroic tale of Jumbo saving the young elephant by picking him up and hurling him to safety. Barnum ended up donating remains of Jumbo to various institutions, but not before showing them off to everyone he could.
Jumbo’s Widow and Remains Come To Town
Barnum’s combined shows returned on July 6, 1887 with Jumbo’s remains and Alice, his former “wife” (now widow). She was a companion of Jumbo’s while at the zoo in London and Barnum made successful arrangements to bring her on tour.
Also on the bill were King Theebaw’s Remarkable Hairy Family, Captain Paul Boyton, the unrivaled Aquanaut, and “the flying gymnasium, performing on the Trapeze while riding at the rate of thirty miles an hour.” There was a 50 cent admission, 25 cents for kids under nine.
Jumbo’s display was actually known as the double Jumbo, as both his skeleton and a stuffed skin version would be on display. Morbid and fascinating, the public has their chance to see Jumbo one final time.
Death of P.T. Barnum, On With The Show
The Phoenix, in a special news supplement published April 10, 1891 announced the death of P.T. Barnum, noting his many accomplishments and wonders.
It wasn’t the end of the show, however. Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth came to Brattleboro July 10, 1896. And more circuses have come since.
Circus Smirkus visits us each summer now, and we have the New England Center for Circus Arts aerialists flying through the air above Putney Road. Brattleboro's love of the circus continues.