The Death of One of the Oldest Shows on Earth

Amidst animal welfare controversies and a rapidly evolving entertainment industry, what will become of the American circus?

The circus is nearly as old as civilisation itself. Paintings of twirling acrobats adorned the walls of Egyptian tombs dating to 1250 B.C.E., the blood of man and beast drenched the sands of the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome, and the feats of ropewalkers in medieval Europe were believed to be acts of sorcery and banned by the Church.

The circus as it’s known today can be traced to 1768, when trick rider Philip Astley discovered that when his horse galloped in a circle, the centrifugal and centripetal forces allowed him to balance on its back. He built a ring, hired a clown, and the modern circus was born.

“I knew that there were a handful of small one-ring circuses still running in the [United States] and I had a gut feeling that they were kind of at the end of an era,” says photographer Brian Lehmann, who captured the remnants of a place seemingly frozen in time.

Over the past two decades, traditional circuses have rapidly disappeared amidst reports of widespread animal abuse, but in the dusty corridors of the Midwest, their legacy remains intact. “It’s very old school. When you walk into one of these things its takes back to an era that’s highly unique … it takes you back to the 1950s,” Lehmann says.

Rebecca Ostroff of the Kelly Miller Circus is one of the few aerialists who can perform “iron jaw” today, a painful and dangerous art. Acrobatics and balancing acts have been recorded as early as 2500 B.C.E in Egypt.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Clowns entertain children on their way into the Cole Bros. Circus in Forked River, New Jersey. Clowns were a hallmark of 19th-century one-ring circuses and often excited spectators with songs, monologues, and even the occasional Shakespearean quote. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the show several times for failure to meet federal standards established in the Animal Welfare Act. In January 2017, the USDA deleted its database of animal abuse records.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Each morning dozens of locals watch one of three elephants at the Kelly Miller Circus hoist up the big top's tent. Most one-ring circuses change cities each day, rarely staying in town more than 24 hours. Animal welfare experts agree that the methods used to capture and train elephants are inhumane.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

A cotton candy-colored poodle is ready to perform at the Cole Bros. Circus in Forked River, New Jersey. Dogs were one of the earliest animals to be featured in the circus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the show several times for failure to meet federal standards established in the Animal Welfare Act. In January 2017, the USDA deleted its database of animal abuse records.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Workers from the Cole Bros. Circus rush to take down the big top as a storm hits in Forked River, New Jersey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the show several times for failure to meet federal standards established in the Animal Welfare Act. In January 2017, the USDA deleted its database of animal abuse records.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Spectators stand in rapt attention as a pitchman touts the oddities offered inside the World of Wonders Sideshow at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. Sideshows became a popular part of the U.S. circus in the late 19th century and often featured so-called “human abnormalities,” such as “giants,” “armless wonders,” and “four-legged girls”. A sideshow talker would attract customers by loudly announcing the strange displays held within.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

A group of performers at the World of Wonders sideshow attracts a crowd by offering a taste of the spectacles inside. Eryn Skye-Dewey "The Valkyrie" eats fire and Tomahawk Tassels charms a snake while Tommy Breen rouses the crowd.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Aaron Wollin, known as Short E. Dangerously, performs a handstand on a bowling ball during the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue in Sioux City, Iowa. According to his website, Wollin is regarded as "The Greatest Half Man Sideshow Performer in the World".
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

For an extra dollar, spectators can watch "human pin cushion" John Red Stuart pass a needle through his cheek at the World of Wonders Sideshow at the Kansas State Fair. Most famous for sword swallowing, Stuart holds multiple Guinness World records.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Francis, a 500-pound male lion (left) sits while lion and tiger trainer Trey Key performs with his golden tabby tiger, Delilah, on the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus in Hartington, Nebraska. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the show several times for failure to meet federal standards established in the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to provide animals with proper shelter, space, and veterinary care. In January 2017, the USDA deleted its database of animal abuse records.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Jay Braggart balances a sword on his nose backstage at the World of Wonders Sideshow at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Steve Copeland is enveloped in a dusty cloud of clown makeup outside his camper while performing with the Kelly Miller Circus in Canfield, Ohio. Different variations of the clown have existed in nearly every civilisation throughout history.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

While only about 30 travelling shows remain today, during the circus’s heyday in the mid-19th century, massive caravans of ornate waggons and painted performers regularly paraded through towns across the U.S., becoming a national hallmark. Crowds came to bear witness to the strange and impossible—captivated by gaudy costumes, men who could swallow fire, women who could twist into shapes that defied reason, and the cinnamon smell of crackerjacks that sweetened the air.

But between the world wars, as the country experienced economic depression so did the circus. New passport laws, customs regulations, and currency caps significantly limited the freedom of movement they enjoyed in the century prior. Simultaneously, the demise of train travel and the arrival of the motor vehicle forced many circuses to abandon the railroad and move back into truck shows. By the time the country finally recovered from the Great Depression, the advent of motion pictures and television posed a new threat, as the public was faced with ever expanding entertainment options.

Though travelling shows continued to flourish throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, controversy simmered beneath. The earliest circuses were built on the backs of horses, monkeys, and dogs, but beginning in the 18th century, lions, elephants, bears, hippos, and giraffes—animals never before seen in the streets of London and New York—were shipped across oceans and ticket sales skyrocketed. Phineas T. Barnum, considered one of the greatest showmen in U.S. history, famously said, “Elephants and clowns are pegs on which to hang a circus.”

"Majesty goes into the parade led by buffoonery. Even these ridiculous grooms cannot destroy the age-old dignity of the stately dromedaries, and the girl riders laugh at the contrast. No two clowns look exactly alike. Once a man "makes up" in a peculiar manner, he has a moral copyright on that type of appearance." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"This old fellow from India had to be taught to dance, but he learned for himself the art of begging tidbits with his trunk. His larger African cousin, whose ancestors marched with Hannibal against Rome, is seldom trained for the circus, being considered less intelligent." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"Dainty equestrienne and grotesque clown may come from opposite ends of the earth. Offstage they fraternise like a happy family. Many of them have friends outside the show, but those who marry usually find mates among their fellow performers." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"A walk around the menagerie tent affords a world zoological tour. Giraffes, the only animals foreign exporters do not guarantee to deliver safe, must be carried in padded waggons, for they cost $10,000 each and are delicate. Camels, dromedaries, and zebras are 'led stock,' brought from train to show ground on foot." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY W. ROBERT MOORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"The little dogs laugh because their performance is sport and even big white Pegasus wears a pleased expression. Like the human members of the circus family, they love the petite trainer. She and her husband, who directs equestrian acts, are among the brightest personalities under the big top." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY ORREN R. LOUDEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"Dromedaries scorn frivolity. Not a glance does the fat clown draw from these surely chariot pullers. Whether one- or two-humped, members of the camel family have double-barreled tempers, swivel joints permitting kicking in any direction, and no sense of humour." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY ORREN R. LOUDEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"Two stilt performers pose outside the entrance to the Big Top." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"Siberia furnishes the giants of the cat family. Bengal and Sumatra tigers are fully as savage but smaller. Circus folk consider these striped demons much more dangerous than lions." National Geographic, 1931
PHOTOGRAPH BY W. ROBERT MOORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

By the late 20th century, a new generation of animal welfare activists challenged circus owners across Britain and the United States to ban animal acts, citing the cruelty involved in their capture and training. Awareness took root in the public consciousness and business dwindled, eventually culminating in the closure of Ringling Bros., one of the oldest and largest American circuses.

“Ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Feld said in a statement. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.” The circus will hold its final show on May 21, 2017, the grand finale in a tumultuous past.

The fate of the remaining travelling circuses and sideshows in the U.S.—relics of a bygone era—remains to be seen. “I would be shocked if those small one-ringed circuses totally go away because the fewer and fewer that there are, the more interesting it will become and more of a niche,” Lehmann says. “The truth is most of these guys have routes that have been built up over many many years.”

Others contend that the closure of Ringling Bros. is a sign of the times for one of the oldest tourist attractions on Earth. “We’ve been through world wars, and it’s been through every kind of economic cycle and it’s been through a lot of change,” Feld told the Associated Press. “In the past decade, there’s been more change in the world than in the 50 or 75 years prior to that. And I think it isn’t relevant to people in the same way.”

Elephants parade through a neighbourhood during the annual International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana. Preshow parades featuring trained animals can be traced to ancient Rome when the circus—Latin for “circle”—held gladiatorial combats, races, and other blood sports. Animal welfare experts now agree that methods used to capture and train elephants are inhumane.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

Header Image: Cathalina Liebel, descendant of a 16th-century circus family, dangles from the mouth of her family's African elephant, Nosey, during a performance at the Great American Family Circus in Mattoon, Illinois. Nosey is at the centre of a growing campaign against the Liebels' circus, at which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found numerous animal welfare violations. Many of those violations relate to poor treatment of Nosey, including a lack of veterinary care, tight confines, and poor feeding. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

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