Thursday, August 26, 2021 7:58 AM
Grab some peanuts and popcorn — this week we’re going to the circus!
When I was researching the last two columns, I couldn’t help noticing a humongous advertisement in the August 26, 1869 Hamilton County Register. It starts out “THE BOSS IS COMING!”
No, Bruce Springsteen didn’t jump into a time machine and travel back to 1869.
The “Boss” in this ad was a man named James Robinson. His “Champion Circus” was scheduled to visit Noblesville on September 1, along with Gardner & Kenyon’s Menagerie.
That made me curious to see if that was the first circus to perform here.
The April 8, 1858 Hoosier Patriot advertised an appearance by the part-circus/part-theatrical troupe of Fayette Lodawick “Yankee” Robinson.
Other circuses probably also played here between 1858 and 1869, and maybe even before that, but so many newspapers from those early years are missing, it’s nearly impossible to dig up any details about them.
James Robinson’s circus stands out in any case. It was a huge affair, centered around Robinson himself, a man billed as “The Only Great Rider in the World.”
Robinson began life as Michael James Fitzgerald. Orphaned at an early age, he ran away from his orphanage to join the circus and eventually became apprenticed to well-known circus showman, John Robinson.
John Robinson renamed the boy “James Robinson” and taught him the ropes of circus life, especially bareback riding, at which James proved to be unusually talented.
In 1851 James Robinson became the second rider ever to perform a somersault while riding bareback. He went on to win riding championships — and some big money — in America and Europe. In Cuba he was presented with a pure gold, diamond-studded “Champion Belt.”
Robinson was so confident of being the “world’s greatest horseman” that he offered $10,000 to anyone who could equal him as a bareback rider. ($10,000! . . . in 1869!)
By the time Robinson’s circus hit Noblesville, he’d adopted his own apprentice, a young lad named Clarence. Clarence performed both with Robinson and in an act of his own on his “pearly pigmy pony.”
Other attractions in the Robinson circus included a female equestrienne, Miss Eliza Kenyon; gymnasts Hunting and Matthews; acrobat and contortionist Frank Robinson; “the renowned Cloud Swing” (aerialist,) Charles Matthews; and “the Popular Mirth-provoking Son of Momus,” Dan Gardner, just to name a few.
(Momus was the Greek god or spirit of ridicule. In other words, Gardner was a clown.)
A ticket for the circus was also good for admittance to Gardner & Kenyon’s Menagerie. This was essentially a traveling zoo filled with all kinds of animals, most of them exotic.
Among the animals in Gardner & Kenyon’s collection were a small African elephant named Baby Annie, a Bactrian (two-humped) camel, a Bengal tiger, a zebra, a polar bear, African lions, an Asiatic lioness, spotted axis deer and Brazilian tigers — and those are just the ones given top billing in the ad. Many more were listed.
Children were especially fond of Baby Annie, probably because they were apparently allowed to pet and feed her. (Baby Annie was said to have an “immense capacity for nuts and sweetmeats.”)
On the morning of their Noblesville engagement, Robinson’s troupe, accompanied by a cornet band, paraded into the city and set up their enormous tent at “the usual show ground, near the river.” (That was probably the area west of North Elementary.)
Two performances were scheduled — one in the afternoon and another that evening.
The Register anticipated a huge turnout and advised those wanting to avoid the crowds to attend the afternoon show, when they could “enjoy the additional privilege of seeing the ‘varmints’ fed.”
All that for a mere 50 cents! (Twenty-five cents for children under ten.)
Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at [email protected]
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