Book Review: Battle for the Big Top

Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus
By Les Standiford
Hachette Book Group, 272 pages.
Review by Rob Weir

If you are under the age of 40 and have never lived in New York City, you may have never seen the “Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was dubbed. It folded its tents in 2017, and that’s a misnomer. You’d have to be pushing 70 to have seen it under canvas, a practice that ended in 1956.

Les Standiford - Battle for the Big Top Bookcover

These days, the only mammals in most circuses are homo sapiens the likes of the aerial artists, clowns, contortionists, jugglers, musicians, and power track antics associated with Cirque du Soleil. Once, a circus meant most of those things plus lions, tigers, and bears, oh my—and elephants. It simply wasn’t a circus without elephants and hadn’t been since 1816, when Hechaliah Bailey first displayed one in conjunction with horseback riders.

There are many good circus histories, thus Les Standiford fashioned his a bit differently. His approach is encapsulated in the book’s subtitle: “P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus.” Those three rivals whose shows eventually merged made the circus into an iconic part of American popular culture. To sharpen that statement, until the early 20th century, circuses, minstrelsy shows, professional baseball, and vaudeville were among the only forms of popular culture, if we mean spectacles shared in the same way by Americans in all parts of the country.

Circuses took initial inspiration from the admiration of skilled horseback riding, a logical outgrowth of pre-mechanical travel. Trick riding remained a circus staple and was joined by other acts that could be performed in a ring such as clowning, juggling, and tumbling. Standiford observes, “three other elements added color and vitality: the menagerie, the sideshow, and the parade.” Thus, the one-ring circus begat three rings, a dizzying sensory display. Money and a love of showmanship attracted Standiford’s principals. “The Greatest Show on Earth” evolved from cutthroat competition and trial and error. By the 1890s, the seven biggest circuses moved from town to town by rail—it took 65 cars to move Bailey’s show-­­–and were models of logistical efficiency. Overnight, tents arose, and a massed parade lured ticket-buyers to witness everything from caged wild animals and “freak shows” to recreations of Roman chariot races and the Great Chicago Fire. As the cost of such elaborate exhibitions soared, it invariably caused contraction and mergers.

When the ante upped, so too did the dangers. Death wasn’t always defied. Fire was a constant threat, which is why Standiford engages in the unorthodox organization of devoting his opening chapter to the July 6, 1944 big top fire in Hartford, Connecticut, that killed 167 patrons and scores of animals. Add lawsuits and liability insurance to the cost of doing business. Other challenges faced the circus, including competition from movies and, later, activists who drew attention to mistreatment of circus animals, not to mention the moral implications involved in trapping and removing them from native habitats. Standiford recounts many such heartbreaking tales.  

Readers may be surprised by the portraits he paints of Bailey, Barnum, and Ringling. Bailey, an orphan adopted by the nephew of Hechaliah Bailey, was akin to a top-hatted version of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Nor does he buy completely into the view that Barnum was a huckster. As he notes, chicanery was but a small part of a bag of tricks that in many ways was more educational. (Who, after all, had seen lions or bearded ladies in the hinterlands?) John Ringling outlasted both, but he and his brothers struggled as often as they prospered.

Standiford presents circus figures who admit that the circus was a product of a different age. It’s wrong to say that all good things must come to an end. Often, American circuses were little better than their blood-soaked ancient Roman progenitors. But Standiford also quotes Barnum biographer Robert Wilson who cautions we live in “an ahistorical age, one that is quick to condemn historical figures using the standards of the present.” Whatever its faults, Ringling was correct to note that “the circus appealed to children as well as the child in every person.”

There are still several old-style circuses around, but most are desultory affairs that often compare poorly with what might be seen at a county fair. They are a far cry from the days in which performers such as animal trainer Clyde Beatty, trapeze daredevil Lillian Leitzel, equestrienne Ella Bradna, diminutive Tom Thumb, and the high wire Flying Wallendas were household names. Not to mention elephants such as Babe, Jumbo, Old Bet, Romeo, and Juliette.

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