Historic Photographs of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ and other Fascinating Circuses

By Jacob Miller

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” began in 1871.

Hachaliah Bailey is believed to have established the first circus in the United States after purchasing an elephant named Old Bet around 1806. Bailey and Old Bet formed the Bailey Circus, which included a trained dog, pigs, a horse, and for wagons.

P.T Barnum originally sold tickets for Bailey and wound up running Barnum’s American Museum in New York City form 1841-1865, which displayed both the educational and unusual. One of Barnum’s most famous attractions was General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch tall dwarf, who grew to be so famous that Abraham Lincoln personally congratulated Thumb on his wedding. He also had the Fiji Mermaid, which was really just the torso of a monkey sewed to the back half of a fish, a bearded lady named Josephine Boisdenchen, and others. After a fire burned down Barnum’s museum, he found himself persuaded to join the circus business and merged his circus with Barnum’s in the 1860s.

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers started a small circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringlings were eventually able to purchase the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907 and became Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows

The circus was wildly successful until on July 6, 1944, a fire broke out during a show in Hartford Connecticut. It was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. At least 167 people were killed in the fire. Circus management was found to be negligent because they did not take the requisite steps to fireproof the tent and several executives were sentenced to jail.

After 1956, the circus no longer performed under their own ‘big top’ tents but rather used permanent venues such as stadiums and arenas.

After years of performance, the circus became mired by high operating costs, weak attendance, and poor public image as a result of animal rights abuses. The show closed on May 21, 2017, after 146 years of performances.

Prince, the 6-year-old star of Michel Van Been’s lion group, performs a balancing act on two ropes under the watchful eye of his French trainer in Frankfurt, Germany. Van Been’s lions were one of the main attractions of the German circus Franz “Tuffi” Althoff, 1950. (Hanns J. Jaeger/AP)
Preparing for Circus Week at Madison Square Garden in 1913. (Library of Congress)
Dolly, a 2-year-old elephant, rehearsing her “song” before the microphone in Madison Square Garden for the broadcasting of the Big Circus (Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey) to be sent out by WJZ in 1925. Library of Congress
Trapeze artist Lillian Leitzel, one of the most famous acrobats of her time, helped fellow performer Dolly Jahn celebrate her birthday backstage. (Library of Congress)
A Ringling circus show in 1964 featuring elephants. (Library of Congress)

 

A blind child in Chicago sits on the back of a kneeling elephant from the Ringling Brothers Circus in April 1917. CNN
Detective Inspector Frank Story, right, euthanized this circus elephant after it was badly burned in a fire at the Ringling Bros. showgrounds in Cleveland in August 1942. CNN
Three women stand near a circus elephant during a rehearsal in Sarasota, Florida, 1949. CNN
Famed actress and model Marilyn Monroe rides on the back of an elephant to mark the opening night of the circus at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March 1955. CNN
Elephants perform in New York in March 1964. CNN

 

An elephant training for his act in 1971. CNN
Children in Denver reacting happily to Charlie the elephant in 1978. CNN
An elephant walks out of a boxcar new the show’s famous animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams, in 1979. CNN
Trainer Walter McClain works with his elephants at the Ringling Circus stop in Sarasota, Florida. 1940. Wikimedia Commons
Two of Barnum & Bailey’s most popular performers, circus giant George Anger and Pygmie Klik-Ko, pose for a photo. 1918. Getty Images
As people watch from a nearby rooftop, the family members of the Otaris aerial troupe balance upside down on a high-wire, Sarasota, Florida. 1930. Getty Images
Contortionist Salm the elastic wonder of the world sits atop a flower vase. Circa early 1900s. Getty Images
Circus life wasn’t easy for the animals. Here men gather around the body of Barnum & Bailey’s deceased elephant. Fritz, France. 1902. Wikimedia Commons
Spectators gather on the sidewalks of New York City to watch the circus parade down the street. Circa 1920s. New York Public Library
A brave daredevil in the spotlight walks the tightrope for an audience of circus attendees. Circa early 1900s. Getty Images
Olga the lion tamer, armed with only a chair and a stick, tests the patience of three male lions. Date unspecified. Getty Images
Ringling Bros Circus clown Emmett Kelly puts the finishing touches on his makeup while getting ready for the show. Sarasota, Florida. 1945. Wikimedia Commons
One of the posters used by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circa 1920s. Library of Congress
A trainer works with a leopard to perform tricks for circus audiences. 1906. Wikimedia Commons
A clown in the Cole Bros Circus chats with actor Spencer Tracy during one of the circus’ performances in Hollywood, California. Date unspecified. Getty Images
Four performers from Hannaford’s Canadian Circus pose for the camera. 1910. Wikimedia Commons
A poster advertising the feats of acrobatics and wild animals that await visitors to the Forepaugh & Sells Circus. 1899. Wikimedia Commons
The area directly behind the circus tent where performers prepared for and staged their entrances through the “back door” came to be known as the “backyard. 1928. Wikimedia Commons
A female lion tamer works with a group of lions from the Bertram Mills Touring Circus. Date unspecified. Wikimedia Commons
Because of the large number of animals as well as the physical components of the circus tent itself, many circuses used their own train cars to travel. Florida. Early 1907. Wikimedia Commons
Men pose beside one of Barnum & Bailey’s train cars before leaving for their show in the next town. Circa early 1900s. Wikimedia Commons
A woman brushes the teeth of a circus hippo while on a break in Berlin. 1921. Getty Images
Children watch as Ringling Circus clown Lou Jacobs applies his makeup in Tallahassee, Florida. 1941. Wikimedia Commons
A trainer lunges at a lion in Brisbane, Australia. 1903. Wikimedia Commons
A poster advertising the allure of Barnum & Bailey’s first female elephant trainer. 1915. New York Public Library
A crowd makes its way to the entrance of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. 1935. Wikimedia Commons
1930- A horse troupe prepares to balance in a line around the ring. Getty Images
Charles Sherwood Stratton, General Tom Thumb, and Lavinia Warren wedding photo. From left to right- George Washington Morrison Nutt (1844–81), Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838–83), Lavinia Warren Stratton (1842–1919), Minnie Warren (1849–78).
Feejee mermaid in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Wikipedia
Emmett Kelly Carrying a Bucket of Water at the Hartford Circus Fire. Museum Syndicate