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It’s a Circus Out There! Part 1

17 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 8,839 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: This big top is too gigantic to fit in one Monkey Goggles article! Read part two of Kobi Shaw’s tales of circuses past here.

Imagine, if you can, living a puritanical lifestyle with a community of like-minded individuals. You have found an idyllic setting in a remote area, surrounded by trees, lakes and lush green grass. It’s a perfect place to be sequestered away from the wicked elements of society.

And then the circus arrives.

That’s right. Puritans and circus folk. The same Wisconsin landscape of the 1800s that attracted puritans was exactly what the circus needed as a home for their menagerie of animals. Before Wisconsin even became an official state, these two groups had to find a way to exist together not far from what we now know as Milwaukee.

As you can imagine, puritans didn’t exactly welcome the circus folk. People in entertainment were considered sinful and many religious groups deemed circuses decadent or immoral. Some colonists even believed circus performers to be witches.

However, the one part of the circus that was deemed acceptable was the animals. The exotic animals that made up circus menageries were considered educational, as people could catch their very first glimpse of a live elephant or giraffe or hippopotamus. Since only a handful of zoos existed in our country at this time, traveling circuses made unusual animal sightings accessible to people even in remote areas. In fact, one circus featured eight camels that were originally brought to the states to be part of the Pony Express. Apparently the camels were rejected from the program as they spooked the horses and were lax on the job. Who knew we almost had our mail delivered by camel express?

Circus elephants, always a favorite attraction, played an important part in the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Being the first suspension bridge in the world, there was no other structure like it and people were unsure of its safety. P.T. Barnum seized the opportunity to have 21 of his finest pachyderms cross the bridge from New York City to Brooklyn. A true showman, Barnum used this publicity stunt to alleviate public fears about the bridge while simultaneously entertaining crowds of people.

Exotic animals were often headliners at the circus. A pair of elephants named Romeo and Juliet is a memorable part circus history. Romeo was the largest Indian Elephant exhibited in America back in the mid 1800s, and he was referred to as “The Killer Elephant.” The sight of horses threw him into fits; supposedly, he killed 25 horses and multiple handlers.

He was also known to escape from his home circus grounds. One time, locals refused to leave their homes, living in fear for ten days as the wild elephant roamed the rural wilds of Wisconsin.

Juliet had a gentler disposition, but was most famous for her demise. She had the misfortune of passing away during the winter. With the Wisconsin ground frozen solid, handlers needed a way to dispose of her massive body. They used circus horses to drag her out to the middle of a frozen lake and sawed a hole in the ice around her body, letting her sink to the bottom.

Years later, the lake was dredged and an immense leg bone was discovered. Archeologists were called in and speculated they had found a mastodon bone. However, when the bone was shipped to Chicago for testing, it was discovered to be the remains of an Indian Elephant. Yep, you guessed it. It was Juliet.

Kobi Shaw


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  1. […] NOTE: In part one of this two-part series on the circuses of the 1800s, Kobi Shaw wrote about how the uphill battle […]

  2. Kobi ; Love your Circus history , very informative . Plain @ pink lemonade , very interesting . The religious aspect regarding the circus is something I would have never thought of . Like you work , it’s very readable .

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