The Historin by Robert Wood: The Story of the ‘Mud Shows'

Circuses had their heyday at the end of the 19th and first half of the twentieth century when they traveled by train. As many as three trains of thirty cars each transported a circus to new locations. It’s hard for us to imagine the excitement and anticipation that the word “CIRCUS” conjured up in the old days to folks who had not been desensitized into ironic detachment by the modern media. The 19th century New Hanover villager who parted with 50 cents for a ticket would have been awestruck by the exotic novelty, color, and splendor of aerialists, elephants, daredevils, and clowns.

It appears that the modern circus resulted from the flowing together of three separate types of traveling wagon shows: the equestrian performances, the menagerie, and finally the wild animal acts. Traveling from town to town on unpaved roads in all weather with caravans of wagons, the performances were commonly known as “mud shows,” no doubt from the muddy roads and muddy circus lots.

The first circus performance in America was in Philadelphia on April 3, 1793, and it was a demonstration of equestrian skill and horsemanship. It was put on by John Bill Ricketts as an adjunct to his riding school. Ricketts gave riding and dressage lessons to Philadelphia high society. Since horses and horsemanship in those days were as important as motor vehicles are for us today, there would have been keen interest in trick riding and such. Ricketts’ performance was given in an uncovered arena that seated 800 with sawdust spread to protect the horse’s hooves. President Washington attended. This first circus did not travel, but did contain the two elements of all later shows: horses and a ring. The person whom we know as the “Ringmaster” was then called “the Equestrian Director.”

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During the 1820’s traveling shows started appearing under canvas. The 1830’s and ‘40’s were the heyday of the traveling menagerie. Typical of the many advertisements is the following from a Norristown newspaper, August of 1840:

“June, Titus, Angevine & Co.’s New and Splendid Menagerie of Beasts, Birds and Reptiles---Will be exhibited in Norristown at or near TWINING’S hotel on Thursday the first day of September next. Hours of exhibition from 2 to 6 o’clock P.M. In the collection will be found the following: The Majestic Male Elephant, Virginius, whose enormous size and apparently unwieldy form renders him at once an object of wonder and amazement; the African lioness; the Rhinoceros or unicorn. This animal was unfortunately killed by the elephant during the last winter, but has been beautifully preserved and looks about as well as when living; the African lion; the Striped Hyena; the Ocolet, or tiger cat; the royal Bengal tiger; Coati, or Brazilian Weasel; the ravenous Gray Wolf; the Egyptian Giraffe, or Camelopard. This animal was brought to this country alive, but the change of climate being too sudden and severe, it died shortly after its arrival, but has been elegantly put up and looks equally as well as when living. The Zebra, the Jaguar; a pair of South American Tigers; Arabian Camel; Peruvian Lama; Black Bear; Condor and Ostrich.

“The pony and monkey will be introduced in the circle and go through a variety of extremely diverting tricks. Also a pair of living anaconda serpents from Java.

“A splendid collection of Cosmoramic Views is also attached to the caravan, without any additional charge, presenting a variety of new and interesting subjects, which cannot fail to please the visitors, and in order to render the exhibition as attractive as possible, the entertainments will also be varied by the introduction of Comic songs and Negro Extravaganzas. A first rate band of music will also accompany the exhibition.

“Admittance 25 cents-children under ten years of age half price. The above will also be exhibited at the Trappe on Monday the 31st of August.”

The day before the show was set up in Norristown, it was at Trappe, and probably the day before that in Pottstown. Typically, the mud shows traveled at night, ten or fifteen miles maximum distance, to the next town, set up in the morning, had the show, and traveled on during the next night. An advance man made arrangements.

Newspapers of the day carried advertisements like the following, also from Norristown:

“Raymond and Waring’s unrivaled and long established menagerie! Recently fitted and embellished with entirely new decorations, trappings, equipage, etc. for 1848. Containing an extensive and varied collection of the most rare and interesting productions of Nature which affords to all an ample source of study and reflection on the science of Natural History. This Menagerie on entering each town forms a most imposing train or procession, preceded by a gorgeous Roman chariot, literally covered with gold. The splendor and magnificence of this gorgeous and colossal carriage baffles description. …It has required the constant labor of twenty men for nine months to complete it at a cost of five thousand dollars. Length of chariot---30 feet…height to summit of canopy---20 feet…weight in full 8000 pounds. The chariot will be followed by thirty carriages, containing the various animals in this immense exhibit, drawn by upwards of ninety horses. The animals in the collection are confidentially offered for public inspection as being the choicest and most perfect specimens ever exhibited in this country….”

Finally, some mud shows featured the lion tamer: “Van Amburgh & Co’s collection of wild animals will exhibit in Norristown, Oct. 30, Saturday for one day only…. The cavalcade will enter the town from Pottstown… the procession of carriages (containing the animals) are all new, painted and gilded in superior style, drawn by dappled gray horses, (purchased regardless of expense), and will pass through the streets to the spacious pavilion erected for the exhibition of this collection of animals where the public may have an opportunity of witnessing the thrilling performance of Mr. Van Amburgh whose dominion over lions, tigers, and leopards has been acknowledged in Europe and America. For further particulars see bills at the principal hotels. This same exhibit will be at Pottstown Oct. 28, Reading on the 29th.”

As time went by, various types of mud shows combined their unique features to form what is now understood as the circus. The larger ones traveled on their own trains. By 1887 the official title of Ringling Brothers’ show was Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals. The description was later shortened to “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Township Historical Society. Call Robert Wood 610-326-4165 with comments and story ideas.

March Historical Society Events

All programs are free and open to the public.

Limerick: Monday, March 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Township Building. “Covered Bridges.” Bill Brunner of Spring-Ford Historical Society will share and discuss his many pictures of covered bridges.

Pottstown: Monday, March 17, 7:00 p.m. at the society building, 568 East High Street. Robert Evans, local train enthusiast, will speak on “The Golden Age of Passenger Trains.”

Goschenhoppen Historians: Thursday, March 20, 7:30 p.m. Redmen’s Hall, Green Lane. The Rev. Bob Gerhart will present “Letters to Barbara,” a what might have been presentation portraying the life and times of farmer and pastor Christian Clemmer from the Butter Valley.

New Hanover: Wednesday, March 26, 7:00 p.m. at the New Hanover Township Building (note, not the schoolhouse). Local researcher and author Bob Wood will present “The Trip Over,” an illustrated narrative of the six month ordeal endured by 18th century German immigrants when the cast off their homeland and headed for Pennsylvania.

Also of interest: at Studio B, 39A East Phil. Ave., Boyertown

Friday, March 7, 7:00-8:00 p.m. Author Erik Ammon will share his writing journey—“From Being Lost to Found…” He will talk about how developing ideas for stories, setting goals both short and long term, and his thoughts on self publishing.

Friday, March 14, 7:00-8:00 p.m. Jane Ammon, photographer. In order to honor her adopted daughter’s story, in January 2012, Jane Ammon photographed “The Clothes She Came To Us In.” Subsequently, she photographed over 20 children who were internationally adopted with the clothes they came in. Her story, their stories, and the photos will be the subject of her forthcoming book.