It’s July 6th, 1944, and the circus has come to Hartford, Connecticut.
Inside a big top tent, trapeze artists, lion tamers, and fire eaters dazzle the people of Hartford with astonishing feats. Thousands of people have flocked to the circus today and there’s not an open seat in the house.
Backstage, a 45-year-old clown named Emmett Kelly waits for his cue to enter. As he stands behind the curtain, Emmett wipes his brow, taking care not to smudge his white face paint. It’s a swelteringly hot day in Connecticut, and beneath his heavy costume, Emmett is sweating buckets.
But soon Emmett becomes aware of a noxious odor that's not just him. It smells like something’s burning. And before he has time to react, someone in the audience shouts: “fire!”
As the audience panics, Emmet leaps into action.
He runs backstage, grabs a bucket, and sprints to a nearby horse trough. After filling it with water, he hurries back into the big top.
But the fire is spreading fast. As flames crawl their way up the canvas walls of the tent, frightened audience members swarm the exits. Emmett spots a group of frightened children trapped in the bottleneck of the panicked crowd.
Emmett runs in the direction of the children. He groans as he lifts up the heavy canvas wall. Holding it up, he ushers the children to safety outside. He’s desperate to help more people. But there’s only so much he can do.
As the fire continues to consume the tent, his lungs fill with acrid smoke. Emmett staggers outside. And seconds later… the tent collapses in a fiery inferno.
The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 resulted in 167 deaths and 700 injuries. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
At the time of the incident, the golden age of the American circus is coming to an end. With movie theaters luring audiences away from the big top, the time of trapeze artists and exotic animal parades is now a relic of the past. The incident at Hartford is tragic punctuation on the slow decline of the circus industry, and the company who put on this ill-fated show, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus; a company built on ambition, rivalry, and ultimately, two giants of entertainment - P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey – who went into business and launched their first show together on March 28th, 1881.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 28th: Barnum & Bailey Launch the “Greatest Show on Earth”.
Act One: P.T. Barnum
It’s 1835, forty-six years before Barnum and Bailey meet.
In a dingy theater in Philadelphia, an old woman sits onstage before an enraptured audience. According to the advertisements hanging above the theater’s entrance, Joice Heth is 161 years old, and a former nurse of America’s first president: George Washington.
Heth, a toothless African American woman, and she regales the audience with tales of “dear little George”. Most of the onlookers gasp and titter at Heth’s far-fetched anecdotes – but one member of the audience watches in silence, his mind whirring.
After the show, the man approaches Heth’s promoters. He introduces himself as Phineas Taylor Barnum and offers to purchase Heth from them. In 1835, slavery is technically illegal in Pennsylvania, but the trade of enslaved African American people is still widespread. After lengthy negotiations, P.T. Barnum buys Heth for $1,000, or about $32,000 today.
As Barnum travels back to New York City, he hopes his acquisition of Heth will mark a turning point in his fortunes, starting his career in show business. Though only 25, Barnum has already embarked on several failed ventures, including printing his own newspaper and purchasing a general store in Danbury, in his home state of Connecticut.
From a young age, Barnum has been convinced that he is destined for greatness. He will later reflect on his early life, stating “I had long fancied that I could succeed if I could only get hold of a public exhibition.”
On the train back to New York, Barnum looks at his new star – her face lined and leathery with age. Barnum knows she isn’t really George Washington’s former nurse; nor is she 161 years old. But he also knows that doesn’t matter. People believe what they want to believe, and P.T. Barnum is prepared to exploit that.
He plasters the city of New York with advertisements, and just as expected, the city's residents flock to see her. Barnum quickly recoups his $1,000. And when ticket sales in New York start to waver, he takes Heth on a grueling tour of New England.
But the demanding schedule proves too much for Heth. And soon, the old woman passes away, at an estimated age of eighty. But Barnum exploits her death, too. He stages a public autopsy in a Broadway theater before a shocked audience.
The grizzly spectacle sparks controversy, and the newspapers the following day are splashed with outraged headlines. But Barnum only relishes the attention. Still, for all his bluster and pomp, now without Heth, Barnum has nothing. Soon, he falls on hard times.
So, in 1841, Barnum takes out a loan to purchase a museum in downtown Manhattan. He calls it “Barnum’s American Museum”, and begins filling it with “wonders and marvels” from around the world. These include human beings: albinos, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, people of abnormal height or weight; all “artifacts” in Barnum’s Museum, to be ogled by the public.
His prize exhibit is a five-year-old boy named Charles Stratton – better known by his stage name, “General Tom Thumb”. Stratton has dwarfism and stands at just over two feet tall. Barnum struck a deal with Stratton’s parents, monetizing their son’s condition by teaching him how to sing, dance and act.
Fortunately for Barnum, Stratton proves to be what many call “a theatrical prodigy.” People come from miles around to watch his shows. And in 1844, Barnum takes his young star on a grand European tour, performing for Queen Victoria in London, and the Russian Tsar in St. Petersburg.
It’s during this tour that Barnum discovers a Swedish opera singer, called Jenny Lind, nicknamed “the Swedish Nightingale.” Recognizing another opportunity, Barnum persuades Lind to return with him to the States, where he organizes a singing tour that rakes in some $500,000, or 15 million today.
By 1860, P.T. Barnum is rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. Soon, however, disaster will strike, forcing the showman to shut the doors of "Barnum's American Museum", and to turn his hand to another form of popular entertainment.
It’s July 13th, 1865.
An employee inside P.T. Barnum’s American Museum runs from his office, crying out “fire!”
Within minutes, the entire building is ablaze. Flames and smoke billow from the windows, and the live creatures trapped inside – monkeys, snakes, hippos, even kangaroos – are burned alive.
The fire is a catastrophe for Barnum. But he’s never one to stay down for long. With his building burned to the ground, Barnum takes his show on the road. In 1870, he establishes “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”. In a few years' time, this new endeavor will bring P.T. Barnum into contact with a fellow circus impresario, a man thirty-seven years his junior, in a fateful encounter that will change American entertainment forever.
Act Two: The Greatest Show on Earth
It’s August 1880, a year before Barnum and Bailey meet.
Inside a big top tent, just outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus is about to put on a show.
Tonight, P.T. Barnum stands behind the curtain, peeking out at the excited audience members as they file in. At seventy years old, Barnum is beginning to fray at the edges. He looks his age, with his gray hair and jowly skin. But when he emerges from behind the curtain, dressed in a sleek top hat and tails, the aging showman lights up and commands the room.
The audience watches with delight as the show unfolds before their eyes. It’s an enchanting evening filled with trapeze artists and acrobats; scantily-clad women fired from cannons; fire-eaters, lion-tamers, and an entire menagerie of exotic beasts and human curiosities. By now, P.T. Barnum has started billing his attraction as “The Greatest Show on Earth” – and few would dispute that claim.
And yet, despite his success, Barnum is still not satisfied. While his circus is the most famous in America, his competitors are catching up. Barnum will later write that “prior to 1880, no traveling show in the world bore any comparison.” All but one; a traveling roadshow managed by a man named James Anthony Bailey.
Born James McGinnis in Detroit in 1847, Bailey was orphaned at a young age, before running away to join the circus at twelve where he soon came into the employ of a man named Frederic Bailey, the proprietor of the Bailey Circus – believed to be the oldest in America. Before long, James McGinnis assumed the name of his new employer, and by the age of 22, James Bailey was managing the Bailey Circus alongside his business partner, Mr. James E. Cooper. The Cooper & Bailey Circus quickly emerged as the main rival to P.T. Barnum’s show.
But Barnum wasn't worried by Bailey's growing success. In fact, Barnum attributes it to his own creative genius, later writing, “Bailey’s show adopted my manner of dealing with the public, and consequently… it grew in popularity.”
But in 1880, Bailey’s circus does have one unique advantage. In March of that year, one of Bailey’s elephants gives birth to a calf known as “Little Columbia”, the first elephant born on U.S. soil.
Barnum is green with envy. He wants the baby elephant in his show, so he writes a telegram to James Bailey, offering to purchase “Little Columbia” for the extravagant sum of $100,000 dollars, over three million today.
When Bailey receives the telegram, he doesn’t take Barnum’s offer. But he does use it to his advantage. Bailey re-prints the telegram on posters for his circus, beneath the caption: “What Barnum Thinks of the Baby Elephant!”
Outsmarted, Barnum isn’t angry. He’s impressed by Bailey’s gumption and his business acumen. He declares Bailey “a foeman worthy of my steel”. But instead of going to war with his rival, he decides to try and join forces. Before long, P.T. Barnum proposes to James Bailey that they merge their shows, forming one giant circus.
As Bailey considers Barnum’s offer, he’s aware that the two men are polar opposites. Barnum is tall, flamboyant and expansive. Bailey is short, reserved, and meticulous. But Bailey realizes that with his own business acumen, and Barnum’s flare for showbiz, they will make a formidable duo. So Bailey buys out his former partner, Mr. Cooper, and goes into business with P.T. Barnum.
Before long, the pair announces a series of performances to take place in the Spring of 1881 in New York, followed by a US tour. But in the months to come, Barnum falls ill. Wracked with abdominal pain and unable to eat, he loses over 70 pounds. Luckily, Barnum recovers, but his doctors send him to Florida to rest and recuperate.
With Barnum convalescing, the task of getting the new venture off the ground falls to the ever-meticulous James Bailey. Bailey conducts countless interviews promoting the show. He tells one reporter that the circus will be the best in history, complete with electric light and even brighter talent.
Most significantly, he says the circus will be big; so big that for the first time ever, it will be performed on three stages. Bailey promises that this new “Three ring circus” will be one of “the greatest artistic successes of all time.”
Just in time for the opening performance, Barnum returns to his Hippodrome in New York on March 28th, 1881. In advance of the spectacle, Barnum and Bailey invited hundreds of newspaper editors from across the country and paid them to bring them to New York. As Barnum will later write, “it was a very costly piece of advertising… which… yielded us a magnificent return.”
With three hundred and seventy performers, a brass band, steam-powered pipe organs, and a coterie of exotic animals, all magnificently arrayed in fine silk costumes – Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” truly lives up to its name. After performing in New York, the show goes on tour, traveling from town to town, attracting audiences in the tens of thousands.
The tour is a triumph, but it is also the last chapter in the story of P.T. Barnum. In 1891, after a long and controversial career in show business, P.T. Barnum passes away. But even after his partner’s death, James Bailey continues to grow the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Between 1897 and 1902, Bailey tours the show around Europe, delighting crowds from Paris to Berlin.
But meanwhile, back in America, a new outfit is growing in popularity; a rival circus run by five brothers from Wisconsin who go by the now-famous name: “Ringling.”
Act Three: Circus Kings
It’s April 11th, 1905, in Mount Vernon, New York.
As James Anthony Bailey, proprietor of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, lies on his deathbed. The cause of his illness is unknown – the doctors believe it’s exacerbated by stress.
When Bailey returned from Europe in 1902, he was faced with a new rival: a circus run by the so-called Ringling Brothers, five siblings from Wisconsin. The Ringling Brothers started off as a small variety show, touring the Midwestern prairies in horse-drawn wagons. But during Bailey’s absence, the Ringling Brothers’ circus took off; and in no small part because they took advantage of advances in locomotion, using steam trains to facilitate their tours.
Bailey’s known about the Ringling Brothers for some time. In 1884, he met with their leader, John Ringling, to agree to a division of territory: their circus would stay in the west, while Bailey’s would perform in the east.
But while Bailey was in Europe, the Ringling Brothers broke those terms, establishing their show on the Eastern seaboard, growing in wealth and influence, and forcing Bailey out of the market.
But by 1905, Bailey is too ill to fight back. Before long, the aging showman passes away at his home in Mount Vernon.
With Bailey gone, the Ringling Brothers set out to monopolize the circus market. Two years after Bailey’s death, they approach his widow to purchase the Barnum & Bailey Circus. And for several years, the Ringling Brothers operate the two circuses separately, but then on March 29th, 1919, thirty-one years and one day after Barnum and Baily first debuted their combined act, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus debuts in New York.
The poster depicts the five Ringling Brothers – Otto, Charles, Alfred, John, and Albert – alongside Barnum and Bailey, beneath the caption:
“The Circus Kings of All Time.”
Under its new title, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus dominate American popular entertainment for decades, employing hundreds of performers and bringing delight to millions whenever “the circus comes to town.”
But as the 20th century wears on, movies and television gradually replace the circus as America’s favorite form of live entertainment. The golden age of the circus begins to dwindle and fade. In 1956, the Ringling Brothers perform their final show under a big top tent. Their circus will remain operational until 2017, performing live in sports stadiums and music venues across the country. Then in 2021, it’s announced that the Ringling Brothers Circus will return in 2023.
In 1919, John Ringling was asked how the circus would adapt to the changing times. He replied, “it will never be changed to any great extent because men and women will always long to be young again.” But there have been few times in which the circus was more popular than when P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey merged their acts to become the Greatest Show on Earth, on March 28th, 1881.
Next onHistory Daily.March 29, 1865. General Ulysses S. Grant launches the Appomattox Campaign, which will ultimately force the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Derek Behrens.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.