barnum & bailey, circus fire, eleanor emily clark, feejee mermaid, feld entertainment, general tom thumb, jenny lind, jumbo, little miss 1565, pt barnum, ringling brothers bros
End of Uniquely Americana Entertainment: World-Famous Ringling Closing
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Feld Entertainment Inc., owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, will turn down the lights one last time this May, 2017. The circus had a robust 146 year run. Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO, cited several reasons for shuttering the iconic circus: high operating costs, declining ticket sales, changing public opinions, and protesting organizations. Ultimately, the circus industry has lost the battle with motion pictures, streaming services, and game systems. With Ringling closing, the era of uniquely Americana circus curiosities ends.
Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum hobbled together a traveling side show act. In 1841, he bought Scudder’s American Museum, a 500+ collection of curiosities. “The Feejee Mermaid” join in 1842 with “General Tom Thumb,” real name Charles Stratton, following shortly after. Barnum expanded the variety of the show by hiring Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” who hypnotized audiences with her liltingly songs. However, Barnum would soon find his big act.
In 1882 for $10,000, he purchased “Jumbo” an Asian elephant, and the audiences loved him. Since then elephants became the staple of circus routines. Ironically, it was animal protesters forcing the circus to agree to retire all the elephants by 2018 who killed the business. Circus-goers love the elephants; the elephants comprised the bulk of the show. As the elephants were relocated to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, the circus attempted to reignite the show by updating acts. Ultimately, this could not sustain the circus.
Five Ringling brothers founded their circus in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. By 1907, their circus had eclipsed Barnum & Bailey; therefore, the brothers purchased the remaining stocks for $400,000. They ran two separate circuses until 1919, when it became economically advantageous to operate as one. The Ringling family owned the circus until 1967, when they sold it to Feld Entertainment, Inc. It’s been quite a long history.
Feld Entertainment released a statement that the existing animals will be placed in “suitable homes.” The company has not stated where the costumes and other props and memorabilia will be housed or sold off. Established in 1948, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus is housed on the Ringling Estate, comprised of the Ringling Museum of Art, Ca’d’Zan, The Historic Asolo Theater, and the Bayfront Gardens. Hopefully, the Circus Museum has the resources to preserve, maintain, and display this uniquely Americana collection.
The circus industry has suffered tragedies and fatalities over the nearly 200 year history. Most notably for Ringling were 1) a horrendous train wreck on August 22, 1889; and 2) a great fire enveloping the Big Top on July 6, 1944. The fire haunts me to this day.
Hung on a wall, tucked in a corner inside the Circus Museum was an old newspaper article. As a middle school-age kid, I wandered around as the article caught my eye. I still don’t know why since it was in black and white, and yellowed with age. I remember standing in the corner reading about the fatal fire. On July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Conn., the hot, stale air caught fire beside the Big Top. The fire was fast, fierce, and deadly. One hundred and sixty-eight people died. Over 700 injured. At least 50 animals were killed. The article was sad, but it was history. The pictures fascinated me. I stood there staring at them. I continued reading the exhibit documents. Some children were victims of the fire. That made me very sad. I continued to read. There was one female child, a child with blonde hair—between the ages of 6-8 possibly—who sustained fatal burns. The bodies were laid out underneath a large tent for identification. No one came to positively identify this child. This broke my heart. She became known as “Little Miss 1565.” The number was assigned in numeric order to the unidentified bodies in the county. This story haunted me.
I dreamt of being under the Big Top when the fire starts. That blonde girl haunted my dreams. She visited for several years. In my dreams, amongst the flames, she stood before me. And we run, run toward the exit. We never made it out.
Some years passed; I grew up. At some point I remembered the girl and started researching. I was relieved when I located an article where on May 8, 1991, she was finally identified as Eleanor Emily Clark. Her remains were removed; she was interred with her family. Finally, she is at peace.
I never returned to a circus after reading the article. They didn’t interest me. I don’t like carnivals, either. However, I’m sad that Ringling is closing. It’s the end of an age where people were willing to open their minds and consider the impossible. To think, well, just maybe, this does exist.
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