At 7 p.m., Sunday evening, July 22, 1883, the arrival of three trains from Toronto marked the beginning of circus fever in the city of Hamilton.
The arrival of the P. T. Barnum circus train had been anxiously awaited by Hamiltonians of all ages, many of whom watched as the trains were unloaded of their cargo consisting of 614 men, 400 horses, countless animals of varying descriptions, thousands of yards of canvas for tents as well as innumerable props for the performers of various acts.
It took over three hours to unload the trains and transport the cargo to a vacant lot on Wentworth street north, near Barton street where the circus was to set up shop.
As described in the following day’s Spectator, “while unloading, the crossings at different streets on the railway were crowded with curious citizens, toughs, loafers and small boys, all anxious to see whatever was to be seen. The dull rumble of the heavy wagons sounded strangely along the quiet streets on a Sunday evening. People in church would stop in the middle of their hymns, look at each other anxiously, and wonder if a big thunderstorm was coming up. But now and again the loud ‘ki-yis’ of the peripatetic small boy resounded outside, and the devotees knew that it was part and parcel of Barnum’s big show that made all the noise.”
The biggest individual item to be unloaded was the famous elephant Jumbo who had a railway car all of his own. The car, 14 feet in height, rode within 6 inches of the ground in order to accommodate the huge pachyderm. Jumbo had to enter his car from the side and stand all the way since there was not room enough for him to sit down. When the elephant moved from side, the whole car would rock.
On Monday morning, July 23, 1883, the downtown streets of Hamilton were alive with a huge concourse of humanity awaiting the street parade to be put on by the P. T. Barnum circus company. Unfortunately the morning began under cool and threatening skies. By the time of the parade, a drizzling rain somewhat dampened the enthusiasm of those present.
At 8 a.m., the gigantic procession moved out of the grounds on Wentworth street north, followed by a tremendous crowd of eager spectators, including an observant man from the Spectator who wrote ; “the route was straight along King, and at the corner of King and James, the crowds were so great and exited that they rushed into the road and it was with difficulty that the colossal chariot containing a brass band and drawn by six prancing horses could make its way through.
“The first band was followed by cages of lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, bears and other animals and in the dens with them were the keepers sitting as cool and unconcerned as if the animals were mere kittens.
“Following these were magnificent golden chariots surmounted with picturesque groups of Zulus, Nabians, Indians and Highlanders. Interspersed among the chariots were droves of camels and dromedaries, racing camels harnessed to glittering chariots and driven by female charioteers, thoroughbred horses, cowboys, and male and female equestrians on richly comparisoned horses.
“A clown dressed in his grotesque costume attracted the attention of a horde of small boys, while a richly gilded chariot representing Mother Goose and another of Santa Claus elicited exclamations of admiration from all sides.
“A herd of usually large elephants preceded a great number of very small ponies, some running loose, others harnessed to gilt chariots driven by ladies, and the whole paraphernalia of the gigantic procession was brought to a close by a chariot which was colossal in size and magnificent in appearance followed by the steam organ or calliope which was one of the wonders of the procession. The crowd on the street was the largest ever seen on an occasion of this kind.”
Shortly after the street parade, tragedy struck the camp of the P. T. Barnum circus. Prince, one of the circus’ large elephants and most popular performers, had been showing signs of illness, acting in a similar fashion as a horse with a severe stomach disorder.
Again, the Spectator man on hand eloquently described the painful episode of Prince’s passing : “upon arriving in this city, his sickness increased, and yesterday morning, his condition became very alarming. Rum and molasses, which is said to be an unfailing remedy for the ailments of these huge brutes, and copious doses of laudanum, were administered, but without the desired effect. Usually when an elephant is ill, he droops and presents a shriveled up appearance. Prince was not at all drowsy, but on the contrary was exceedingly active. He seemed to be suffering intense pain, and his grand form was shaken with mighty tremors. He would lie down and roll for a few minutes, and then jump up and roar with pain. In one of his paroxysms, he tore the stake to which he was attached from the ground. Fearing that he might become unruly, he was hobbled with heavy chains, and Gypsy, another elephant, was employed in helping to push him outside the tent, the canvas of which had been raised for the purpose. He was got partly out when he fell backward, his limbs shook as if with palsy, his trunk turned itself in the air, and with a mighty groan, he gave up his professional career.”
Prince’s death caused great sorrow among the performers and workers connected with Barnum’s show. Mr. Bailey, one of the show’s managers, was interviewed by the Spectator reporter about Prince.
Mr. Bailey had worked with the elephant since 1876 and had travelled all over the world with him.
He said: “when we were at sea and a storm came on, he would seize a stanchion and roll with the ship with all the grace of an old sailor. He was a highly intelligent animal. If he hadn’t a kind word for everyone, he had a kind caress. Why, I do not know what I would have done without him when I was travelling. He did the work of twenty men, loading, unloading, pushing and pulling. Prince could do everything but read the papers, and we didn’t want to teach him that until after the elections.”
Despite the disappointment over the death of Prince, the circus performers carried on nonetheless and gave two enthusiastically received performances.
The matinee attracted between twelve and fourteen thousand spectators who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the spectacle.
Before that afternoon performance, Mr. Thomas, one of the agents of Barnum’s circus, invited the local reporters and several ladies to accompany him on a tour of the circus facilities.
The description carried in the Spectator of that behind the scenes tour reflected his excitement: “by a mysterious short cut, the ‘clergy,’ as Mr. Thomas facetiously designated the party, found themselves in the dressing tent confronting a glittering cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen mounted on spiral steeds all ready for the grand entry.
“The discipline among the attaches of the show was perfect, not the slightest confusion occurred as the procession walked into their proper places, neither was there any rough talking or swearing. Indeed, as Mr. Thomas remarked, a lady might pass through every department of the circus without hearing any word that would cause her to blush.
“After the grand entry had taken place, in which bands of horsemen, elephants, camels, giraffes, llamas, zebras, scared cattle and other animals took part, the party entered the main tent and were shown to reserved seats in a spot that ensured a splendid view of the two larger rings and the elevated platform.”
The Spectator reporter was surprised that the spectators in the circus audience were so good-natured and orderly, despite the somewhat suspicious reputation of circuses.
After deciding that order was maintained because of the overwhelming number of performances going on at one time, the reporter then described in some detail what he next witnessed :
“Every spectator had an uninterrupted view of the various performances. Performances were held simultaneously, both on the stage and in the rings, so that the audience found themselves troubled by an embarrassment of riches, and in endeavoring to take in the varied attractions of really three circuses, failed to get a proper idea of even one.
“Among the acts on the programme were the various gymnastic and acrobatic exhibitions which were very clever, and were got through with lightning rapidity.
“Then there was the boxing bout between the Davenport brothers, and an assault between two fencers, Col. Albert Gaston and Capt. Armand Thiebault. The last two gave a very pretty exhibition of the various tricks of fence, showing also the different thrusts and parades, and closing with a brilliant example of the disarm.
“The three Girards did some capital high kicking and grotesque dancing. The bicycle riding of the Elliott children was much and deservedly admired and applauded, and their act was one of the features of the show.
“Then there was the lady with the iron jaw, Miss Emma Jutta, who was drawn along a 200 foot wire, while suspended by her teeth, and who, while hanging by her legs from a trapeze, supported by a 170 pound man by a sling which she held in her teeth.
“Then there were two men also with iron jaws who lifted heavy tables by their teeth and performed other feats of abnormal strength.
“There were also the tricks of the educated elephants, who did astonishing things, the bareback riding of a number of equestrienne artistes, some laughable scenes by their roller skaters, Rose, Harris and French, the funny business of a trio of clowns, some exhibition wrestling by a couple of Hindoos, and finally, the hippodrome races, the whole winding up with a representation of an Indian chase for a wife and a fight with cowboys.”
The hippodrome races were particularly admired by the Spectator’s young man : “the riders flew round the lengthy track at lightning speed, and the races were sufficiently closely contested to arouse the greatest enthusiasm.
“The finest display of skill in driving was certainly the chariot race, with four horses, abreast. The animals flew past at full gallop, the earth thundering under their tread, and it seemed a miracle that the charioteers were not hurled from their places during the sharp curves at either end of the track.
“A comical race of ponies with monkeys on their backs for jockeys excited much amusement.”
During the evening performance, it was announced that a special concert would be given after the main show. It was said that the large center platform would be transformed into a stage and some famous comedians and a minstrel troupe would entertain.
But, the promise was less than fulfilled : “several thousand purchased tickets and remained expecting to see something great, but as soon as the circus was over, the reserved seats and platform were taken away. A few boards were thrown out for a platform and an orchestra played a tune, and amid the clatter of boards and the hauling of posts, a bearded woman, four giants and a few other trifles were exhibited for a moment and then passed out, after which a little girl danced a jig, two girls sang and a number of darkies gave a chorus.
“Then the lights went out, preventing anyone seeing much, and the noise of the men working prevented hearing.”
It was a tawdry ending to an otherwise magnificent circus experience. The trick played by the circus managers to ring out a few extra dollars from the Hamilton audience was condemned by the Spectator man who wrote:
“This should not be done. If a concert is announced, a concert should be given. If it is not given, public confidence in the announcements will soon be shaken.’