Skip to content

The Circus Comes to Town

The traveling circus braved rough, muddy roads bringing fierce beasts and special acts to Texans.

Eldrid’s Great Circus and Menagerie actually traveled to Texas towns in the late 1850s. In this episode, a reading from Laurie’s novel, GONE TO DALLAS, recreates an historically-accurate circus experience for fictional characters in her book.

Today’s topic is The Circus comes to town, or Under the “BigTop” in the 1850s. Can you imagine the excitement when a circus came to a small Texas town in the 1800s? To give you an idea, here’s a reading from my novel GONE TO DALLAS, The Storekeeper 1856-1861.

“The circus is coming to town!” Daniel burst into the store one spring morning, waving a copy of the Herald newspaper. “It says right here that Edrid’s Great Circus and Menagerie is coming to Dallas next week. There will be lions, tigers, hyenas, and other wild beasts. Can you believe it? Right here in Dallas?” It was all Daniel could talk about that day. In fact, the circus and menagerie provided positive conversation and anticipation for the entire town.

The very next day, an advance agent of the circus rode into town on his horse, blowing his bugle to gather a crowd. He handed out promotional bills to those who had gathered at the sound of his horn. Stepping into Sara’s store, he said, “Let me post a promotional broadside at your entrance, and I’ll give you two free passes to Edrid’s Circus. You’ll see amazing things and fierce beasts.”

Sara laughed. “We certainly don’t want to miss the fierce beasts. Post your broadside.” He handed her two tickets, and Sara passed one to Daniel, who was all but jumping up and down. According to the broadside, the circus would be in town for two days only. The promotional piece promised, “In addition to the exotic, wild beasts, Dandy John and his trick ponies, acrobats, lion tamers, and clowns will thrill and amaze you. All performing under the Big Top circus tent. Seats will be available for ladies and children. Music provided by the famous Menagerie Band. Hours for the two days: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tickets twenty-five cents.”

“How on earth do you think the circus got here?” Sara asked Ira Webster, as they were both reading the circus broadsides while posting them outside their businesses.

“That’s exactly what I asked the circus agent,” Webster replied. “He told me they came up the stagecoach road to Austin after successful performances in Galveston and Houston. They performed in Austin, then followed the Preston Road to Waco, where he said they received glowing reviews.” Webster laughed. “Guess the agent couldn’t resist adding a bit of promotion to his answer.”

Sara said, “I suppose that makes him good at his job.”

“Anyway, from Waco they followed the road north to Dallas. After leaving here, he told me, they plan to head to Shreveport on the freighters’ road and then float down the Red River on barges to New Orleans. Said they’ve slogged through a lot of mud. With the spring rains, I reckon the roads must be mostly mud and potholes.”

The day of the circus, Dallas woke early to find a white-faced, red-nosed clown in a baggy, striped costume performing in front of the courthouse. He made silly faces and performed somersaults, flips, and handstands to the cheers of the crowd. When a large-enough crowd had collected around him, he added silly jokes. “Why did the lion spit out the clown? Because he tasted funny.” The crowd groaned. “What do you call a stinky elephant? A smelly-phant.” More groans and laughter.

Clutching a roll from Mr. Baker’s shop, Sara had stopped to join in the fun. .Reminding everyone that the show would start at ten o’clock that morning, the clown made several silly efforts to mount his horse, the last of which left him sitting on it backwards. He rode away waving the horse’s tail and shouting, “See you at ten!”. . . Turning away from the square, Sara hurried to open the store. She had promised Daniel he could have the day off to attend the circus. They had agreed Sara would mind the store today, then she would attend the performance the next morning while he covered the store. Sara had thought about closing but decided to stay open, believing the circus would draw people from outside town who would be likely shoppers before and after the big event.

The next morning, Sara, Ellie, and Ellie’s beau, carpenter Gerard Favre, stopped at the store on the way to the circus. Daniel was still so excited about all he had seen that he was hardly coherent. “Wait ’til you see the animals! Fierce . . . .and the man put his head in its mouth, and it ate raw meat. But I never saw the egress . . ..”

The three laughed after leaving the store. Gerard, whose English was quickly improving, asked, “Was he speaking English? I only understood a few words.”

Ellie said, “I think he was telling us something about a lion tamer putting his head in a lion’s mouth. And then something about raw meat. Could that be?”

“Let’s just hope the head in the mouth didn’t result in the raw meat.” Sara raised her eyebrows. “If it did, there may not be much of a wild-beast show this afternoon. I think he also said he never did see the egress.”

“I don’t know about an egress, but did you hear that this circus may be getting an elephant?” As usual, Ellie was eager to share the news she’d heard.

They arrived at an open area on the edge of town to find a line of people already waiting to enter. In front of them was a large, wooden screen painted with snarling lions, exotic cats, and other wild animals. This served as both barricade and entrance. Once they reached the front of the line, their tickets were collected by the clown Sara had watched earlier. They then stepped through the doorway in the screen and into a dusty field with a large, canvas tent. Curving in a semicircle in front of the tent were the circus’s wild beasts in their caged wagons. The air had a musky smell of animal dung. Sara read the descriptive signs out loud. “African Lion – the King of Beasts, Man-Eating Asian Tiger, Ethiopian Bone-Eating Hyenas.”

Ellie said, “I had no idea lions were so big, but somehow the hyenas are even more frightening.”

“I think it’s the snarling and slobbering that makes them so scary,” Sara said. “Plus, I think their cage smells the worst.”

After Sara and her friends had made the rounds, peering into the cages along with a growing crowd, the circus’ ringmaster walked out of the tent in his top hat and tails. He had gray hair, a receding chin, and a booming voice. “Ladies, gentlemen, and children, prepare to be amazed as the fierce Asian tiger is fed ten, yes ten, pounds of raw meat. See how quickly this massive, meat-eating monster gobbles his food and imagine how quickly he could eat you, young man. Yes, you!” He pointed at a boy of about six who was getting a bit too close to the cage. The ringmaster snapped his fingers. “Gone before you know it!” The boy’s eyes widened, and he scurried several steps back to his mother. “Here comes our tiger tamer now. Please step back, everyone.” Sara quickly took three steps back.

The tiger tamer, a slim man wearing tight pants and a fringed shirt, came out of the tent with a bucket of red meat and a long-handled fork. Plunging the fork into the bucket, he speared a large, bloody chunk of meat. A shiver went down Sara’s spine. The caged tiger leapt from the bale of hay on which he’d been resting and began snarling and reaching a paw through the cage’s bars. Ellie let out a shriek. The crowd stepped farther back. Teasing the animal with the meat, the trainer waved the fork just out of reach. The cat went mad, snarling and reaching through the bars of the cage. Daniel was right about fierce animals! The hyenas in the next cage began to howl and dash about with foaming mouths. Sara’s eyes shifted to the bloody piece of meat on the end of the fork. Finally, the trainer deftly dropped it through the bars and into the cage. The tiger was on it in a flash and it was gone. The trainer repeated this nine more times. Each time the tiger devoured the food almost before it hit the floor of the cage. Amazing. Imagine them in the wild. The hyenas were still howling as the last morsel disappeared behind the frightening teeth of the tiger. Sara looked at the door of the tiger’s cage to be sure it was padlocked.

“The thrills are just beginning,” promised the ringmaster. “Place your attention on our mighty lion, the King of Beasts, straight from the African continent on the other side of the world. You’ve seen how fierce tigers are—imagine the force and fury inside this wild creature. Don’t let his beauty fool you. He is ferocious. Our world-famous lion tamer is among the bravest men on Earth. Why do I say that? Because he is about to put his head inside this beast’s mouth.” So this is what Daniel was trying to tell us. “Yes, you heard me right. I’m going to ask you to be totally still and silent, so we don’t startle the beast. Not long ago we had a man who thought he’d shout at the most dramatic moment. If you wonder where we get our raw meat . . . well . . .” What a gruesome thought.

At this point the bare-chested lion tamer arrived in spangled tights. His chest was covered with colorful tattoos. He posed for the crowd, showing off the animals inked on his chest. “I think he might be the tiger tamer with a new mustache and a sharp pole,” Sara whispered to Ellie.

The man stepped onto a short stair at the end of the wagon, opened the door to the cage, and stepped in, leading with the sharp pole. The lion roared. Children began to cry. Mothers shushed them. Slowly the trainer moved toward the roaring lion. Sara realized she was holding her breath. The trainer raised the pole to the lion’s mouth and gently pushed it open. The lion’s teeth were huge, and Sara gasped with the rest of the crowd. Sara saw Ellie grab Gerard’s hand. The trainer continued to tease the lion’s mouth open with the pole as he slowly stepped forward. The crowd was silent. When the opening was large enough, the trainer slipped his head inside the lion’s mouth, paused to a long count of three, and removed it. He backed out of the cage with the pole pointed at the lion, closed the door, and bowed. The crowd cheered and applauded. Sara joined the applause. Ellie said, “We’ve already gotten our money’s worth.”

The excitement continued. They stepped into the tent where a small set of bleachers had been set up for ladies and children. Ellie and Sara took seats, and Gerard stood nearby with the other men. Dandy John, a small man in a blue leotard, stood on prancing horses and did various and sundry tricks. “Amazing,” Gerard said when Dandy John swung down and extended himself along the side of the horse as it trotted. “That’s what John Henry told me the Comanches do.” Sara said, “They actually shoot their arrows from that position.” The clowns made Ellie, Gerard, and Sara laugh until they cried. They held their breaths, watching the daredevil acrobats build human towers and somersault through the air.”

There’s a bit more about the circus in the book GONE TO Dallas, but I wanted to give you a flavor of a “mud and muck” traveling circus in the very early days of Texas. Why mud and muck? The circus wagons had to slog along muddy roads and the wagons of the fierce beasts required constant mucking out. Mud and muck!

This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast. Tidbits of Texas History you never learned in school. . . It’s the best little podcast in Texas!  Ya’ll come back.