Circus on the Frontier

ringling-bros

Over the weekend, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they will close after 146 years in business due to declining attendance and higher costs, coupled with protests by animal rights groups. Circuses have been around since Roman days, and these traveling shows were popular in America long before 1875, when P.T. Barnum began his “greatest show on earth.”

Unbelievable as it may seem, circuses were even popular on the frontier in the early 1800s. One such show stopped by Norwalk in late 1826 or early 1827, and when they left, they took with them Daniel Benedict, son of Platt and Sarah Benedict. In April, he wrote home.

 

Paris, Kentucky, April 24th, 1827

Dear Father,

I have not heard from you since I left “Cincinnati.” I have written to you several times since then. I wrote to you from Harrodsburg and from Lexington. My health is better than it was when I wrote last and I am in hopes that I shall get well again. You need not give yourself any uneasiness about me for I shall be well taken care of by the company if I am confined. I am able to travel now and it does not hurt me at all to travel.

camelThe camel is dead that was at Norwalk and it made a great hole in the Exhibition. It was worth two thousand dollars to the company, and some of the monkeys are dead. In all we are doing good business. At every place we stop at, the question is are you for Adams or for Jackson. As for myself, I say Adams and the rest of our company say the same. Adams will get as many friends in Kentucky as Jackson in my opinion.

The first thing we meet when we stop at a public house in this state is a negro with a boot jack and a pair of slips and wants to brush our boots and we are brushed from head to foot, and you insult a Kentuckian, he will draw his knife the first thing. There has been three men hanged and four more sentenced to the gallows since I’ve been in this state. They hang more in this state than any in the Union.

Pleased write to me and direct the letter to Maysville, Kentucky or to Lexington, for I shall be in Maysville in four or five weeks from this time, and in Lexington a few days.

                                      From your son, D. B. Benedict

When I shall be in Norwalk, I cannot tell. [1]

I find this letter fascinating–and poignant. Fascinating to imagine the menagerie of a circus, in those days before railroads in the west, traversing the rough roads of the time. Poignant because I know Daniel never made it home to Norwalk. He died of malaria in New Orleans on September 9 that same year.

[1] The original of this letter is in the collection of the Firelands Historical Society, Norwalk, Ohio.

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