Reflections on researching the American circus

Perhaps you still imagine a circus to be solely a place of spangles and tinsel and gold and lace; of blaring bands and funny clowns; of beautiful equestriennes and sleek, graceful “rosinbacks”; of swirling, fairylike aerialists, and shimmering beauty everywhere?  That’s only the veneer!  A circus is a fighting machine of grueling work, of long, hard hours which begin in the grey of dawn and do not cease until the last torch has been extinguished down at the railroad yards late at night; a thing which fights constantly for its very life against the demons of adversity, of accident, of fire and flood and storm; a great, primitive, determined organization that meets defeat every day, yet will not recognize it; that faces disaster time and again during its season, and yet refuses to countenance it; a place where death stalks for those who paint the bright hues of that veneer which is shown to the public,–a driving, dogged, almost desperate thing which forces its way forward, through the sheer grit and determination of the men and women who can laugh in the face of fatigue, bodily discomfort, and sometimes in the leering features of Death itself!  That’s a circus!

This quote from the 1923 book Under the Big Top by Courtney Riley Cooper, while demonstrating its own form of romanticism, describes part of what makes the early twentieth century circus so fascinating to me.  The “great, primitive, determined organization” that balanced along the ever-shrinking fringes of society while using cutting-edge corporate techniques of organization formed a complex dichotomy representative of American society at that time.  While most circus antiquarians focus on the managers and performers under canvas, it is the laborers and confidence men associated with the shows that draw me in.

Hobos and other migrant laborers, along with experienced bosses (and hordes of local boys eager for free passes) made up the labor force that made the traveling railroad circus possible.  I anticipate that the hunt for the cultural ins and outs of these folks will be a lifelong interest of mine.  That’s fortunate, since recollections from this slice of society are hard to come by.  Many were illiterate and left no written evidence, and most probably never thought of their time on the circus as worthy of preserving.  Circus work was but one of the many temporary jobs taken on their way to a harvest somewhere or a factory job in the city.  The memoirs of hobos Jim Tully (Beggars of Life [1924]) and Jack Black (You Can’t Win [1927]), both republished by anarchist publishers AK Press, are currently at the top of my to-read list.  I’m similarly optimistic about Frank Tobias Higbie’s book Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930 (2003).  The thought that I’ve already written my Master’s thesis, partially on circus labor, without ever thinking of, letalone consulting any literature on hobos seems cause for embarrassment now.  Google books tells me that Tully mentions the circus specifically, and I look forward to the interpretive possibilities advanced by Higbie.  I am particularly interested in possible hobo involvement in the IWW, since Joe McKennon states that many circus workers were wobblies in his book, Horse Dung Trail.

Another book that has recently pushed me deeper into my circus analysis is Karen Halttunen’s Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982).  This book, particularly the chapters about middle class fears of the sly and well-dressed confidence men in an increasingly urbanized nation, lend another seemingly vital aspect to the work I’ve already done.  Unfortunately I came across this book too late to obtain it and use it in my thesis.  Confidence Men describes the way in which these tricksters had to remain mobile and had no permanent homes, no families.  In other words, it describes the circus without specifically mentioning it.  The book also explains how nineteenth century fears eventually gave way to the acceptance and even promotion of dishonesty and hypocrisy in business.  Halttunen’s interpretation therefore forms the perfect preface to the study of my favorite research subjects, Benjamin Wallace and Jerry Mugivan–two grifters who made fortunes in the circus business by applying long-established swindling practices to a large-scale corporate enterprise.

Admittedly, I’ve done very little archival research for this project.  I imagine most historians always wish that they could do more.  Most of my primary source material for my thesis came from Billboard or the Sutherland papers that were sent to me.  I very much look forward to doing more archival digging on these subjects and the possibilities that await me.


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