The Spectacle of Subjugation: A Brief Overview of the Dark Histories Behind Circuses in the United States

by Stephanie Tom

When I say the word “circus” or “carnival,” I expect that most people have similar impressions that come to mind. We think of elephants and clowns, of death-defying acts by acrobats in glittering leotards. We imagine the smell of cotton candy and peanuts, popcorn machines buttering the air. We imagine wonders, perhaps even childhood nostalgia, for the whimsical fun and surrealism that happens within red and white striped canvas tents. If you went to certain public schools, you may recall the brief years in which we had “circus arts” as a phys ed unit, and the simultaneous excitement yet scrutiny of being forced to learn how to juggle, balance plates on sticks, and do a cartwheel, whether or not you had the physical capability or talent to do so. For those without specific memories, we may think of Britney Spears’ 2008 hit “Circus” or the film The Greatest Showman (2017), which gave us Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendaya singing a host of lovely musical numbers. 

No matter how you spin it, the circus aesthetic that we’ve had ingrained in our minds has been upheld and popularized by cultural media as well. The entire concept has been boiled down to flashy aesthetics, props, and nothing more. However, what you may not know is that the origins of the circus in the United States have a much darker past—behind all of the glitz and the glam lies a history of Western pseudoscientists and European explorers fetishizing the exotic by dehumanizing people of color. 

The Earliest European Circuses

The modern circus as we know it was a brainchild of English Cavalry sergeant major Philip Astley in the 1770s. A veteran of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and an avid horseman, Astley combined elements of acrobatics, riding, and clowning together at his riding school in London to establish the first one-ring circus in 1768. Rope dancers and jugglers took turns performing tricks alongside the most prominent acts by the horseback riders, all within a singular outdoor ring that the audience would crowd around.

Technically, none of the individual elements of the circus were anything particularly new. Acrobatic routines can be traced back to early African civilizations in Kenya that were known for their siricasi performances, which combined folkloric dance styles with acrobatics. The ancient Chinese juggled, which became such a well-established art form that it also made its way to the battlefield as early as 600 BC. Even in Europe, the Romans conceptualized the circus close to a millenium before, coining the term “bread and circuses” and popularizing the idea of wild animals doing tricks, which modern circuses were thought to have taken inspiration from. But Astley’s one-ring circus was the first of its kind to localize all of these elements within one stage and present them together in Europe. Soon after its popularity increased, the circus would soon fly across the Atlantic to the United States as well.

The Circus Goes American

The circus was first brought to America by John Bill Rocketts, who was trained by one of Astley’s students at the riding school. Rocketts brought the first open-air wooden ring circus to Philadelphia in April, 1793, featuring a clown, an acrobat, a rope-walker, and himself as a starring trick rider. It was a never-before-seen combination of athletic feats and verbal jousting—individual performers had toured North America for decades but this was the first time that a coordinated performance in a ring was encircled by an audience, which cemented the modern circus set-up we recognize today.

At first, circuses had to build their own rings whenever they visited a city, which was expensive and very risk-prone for fire hazards, given that they were all built out of wood. This construction also forced circuses to stay in one location for weeks at a time to recuperate finances. It wasn’t until after the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) in America that the mobile circus that we recognize was established. After public amusements were banned from cities, Joshua Purdy Brown revolutionized the circus once again by adopting the “pavilion circus,” held in an enclosed canvas tent outside of city limits in order to skirt the authorities. The Transcontinental Railroad (finished in 1869) also revolutionized the way that circuses moved and traveled, making it easier for them to travel to a greater number of cities in less time, and for shorter periods as well since it became much easier to construct and break down circus camps.

P.T. Barnum (the titular protagonist of The Greatest Showman, in case you’re not familiar with the name) entered the circus scene in 1871 with his 100-wagon “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus.” Barnum wanted to set apart his circus in many respects from the European model—one of them, which ended up being the most popular feature of his circus, being the introduction of the “freak show,” which “hired people who were born with unique features.” However, the question of how these people were recruited to be “freaks” for “sideshow” events reveals a darker perspective of how American and European imperialism was just beginning to reach new heights with the growth and aid of grotesque pseudoscience. 

Freak Shows and Human Zoos – the Fetishization and Spectacle of Being “Exotic”

In general, the circus has always been a cultural window through which we could examine questions of imperialism, exoticism, urbanity, body, and the performativity of the self. It has always been a capsule of juxtaposition, distinguishing and defining the difference between high and low culture, as well as the intersection of race and gender and the worst ways that society viewed the two separately or in conjunction with one another. 

Barnum’s introduction of “freak shows” was—put bluntly—made for white audience members to gawk at people of color in an act of festishization. Afong Moy, known in history as the first Chinese woman to immigrate to the United States, is recognized as one of the most prominent examples of this objectification. Moy was brought to the United States by two white merchants who took advantage of her perceived beauty and ‘exoticism’ that was linked to the “Orient” in order to market her alongside Chinese goods that were being sold for the first time in the country. The merchants played on her ‘exoticism’ and played on her image—her Chinese clothing, accessories, and particularly her small, bound feet—as a spectacle of the ‘exotic Orient.’ They paraded her around for years before abandoning her in poverty, during which time P.T. Barnum found her and became her manager, forcing her into his circus where she drew crowds of 20,000 onlookers in 6 days and became one of his most popular “acts.” All the while, Afong Moy had entered the public eye in the early to mid-1800s during a period of great upheaval in American culture and economics. With shifting tensions in the country, she went from being viewed as a foreign beauty of wonder to a backward and alien “oriental.” When Moy had just arrived in the country, China was still seen as a spectacle of wonder, admired for its otherness. But with the opening of several new trade ports to China as well as the influx of Chinese immigrants to America, that perception shifted, and American views on China became much more negative and derogatory, with public sentiment being that the Chinese were “backward,” “undemocratic,” and “cruel”—perceptions that have pervaded in American propaganda to this day, as evidenced in terms of rhetoric and news on China alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Human traffickers often deceived people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas in order to trick them into coming back to the United States, where they were showcased around the country as “specimens” in circus “freak shows.” The Ringling Brothers as well as the Barnum and Bailey Circus both had acts featuring “Giraffe-Necked Women,” better known as the Kayan, a Burmese ethnic minority that practiced neck-lengthening. Like many others that were from colonized countries and forcefully brought to the States, many of these women died young, often due to diseases they were not immune to, and their remains were then studied by prominent scientific people and institutions to promote eugenics research.

Another infamous case of human trafficking in the name of curating a “freak show” act was the story of George and Willie Muse, Black albino brothers who were kidnapped from the Jim Crow South in the early 1900s and forced to become displays in Barnum & Bailey’s “freak show.”  Kidnapped by bounty hunters from the Virginia field that their family sharecropped when they were six and nine years old, it took 13 years for their mother to find them again. When Harriett Muse found her sons, she was devastated to see the tragic dehumanization that had happened to them—the brothers were costumed in ridiculous outfits, were illiterate as they had been forbidden to learn to read and write, and were told by their captors that their mother had died. The circus had torn an entire family apart and had treated the Muse brothers essentially as animals, as if they were not human, all to parade them around for money as “proof” that Black people were “subhuman” and not worthy of being treated humanely. 

Too often were Black people kidnapped and forced into circuses as part of these “freak shows,” and the most insidious expansion of this was the concept of the “human zoo.” In the early 20th century, human traffickers found lucrative business in kidnapping indigenous people from around the world for display and showcase at events around the United States. At the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri for example, approximately 3,000 “savages” from Africa, Asia, and the Americas were held captive in model reproductions of their native villages and displayed before a crowd of over 20 million spectators. Their traditional lives and cultures were sensationalized through stereotypes and marketed as “savage” and “primitive” as shows to uphold the idea of white racial superiority, with no consideration whatsoever for the humanity of these people who were seen as “subhuman” simply because they weren’t white.

The American Act – Where Do We Go From Here?

The circus as it was revolutionized by P.T. Barnum truly was as American as it could be, from the racism and white supremacy that fueled its most popular attractions as well as the common origins of many ringmasters. Railroad circus showmen “embraced popular Horatio Alger ‘rags-to-riches’ mythologies of American upward mobility,” propped up as the perfect examples of American exceptionalism and what it means to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” through grit, hard-work, and self-sufficiency.

James A. Bailey (who eventually merged his circus with P.T. Barnum) was orphaned and ran away to a circus at 13 to escape his abusive older sister. Meanwhile, the five Ringling brothers (whose railroad circus skyrocketed to the world’s largest railroad circus in 1907) were born poor to an itinerant harness maker and spent their childhood in threadbare poverty “eking out a living throughout the Upper Midwest.” These self-made American entrepreneurs built America’s most popular family amusement through sheer determination and the exploitation of others in order to escape their own tragic origins. Barnum and Bailey’s big top grew to three rings, two stages, an outer hippodrome track for chariot races, and an audience of 10,000. New technologies such as electricity, safety bicycles, automobiles, film were included and incorporated as well, and they reenacted current events as part of their programs, such as the building of the Panama Canal.

In 2017, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey closed their curtains, citing a prolonged slump in ticket sales and persisting battles with animal rights organisations. As such, current circuses that are still touring tend to be smaller, if heard of at all, with the most prominent one being Cirque du Soleil. Born in Quebec, Canada in 1984, Cirque du Soleil’s concept delineates from prior circuses that involved freak shows, exotic animals, and shocking life or death spectacles. Rather, they turned the circus into a sort of dance performance instead. Their performances highlight the acrobatics and dazzling capabilities of the human form via colorful light displays and effects and costuming. Strikingly unlike their fellow North American predecessors, Cirque du Soleil spotlights the beauties of human artistic and physical abilities rather than pointing out the spectacle of their oddities.

Examining the history of the modern circus as we know it today, it’s interesting to trace its evolution in our memory. What started out as an industry inherently rooted in the exploitation and dehumanization of people of color became known as a jovial show of family fun. Beneath the Big Top of our youth and the veneer of a glittering cornerstone of childhood whimsy lie a blood-stained path that was dragged halfway across the world to bring foreigners to America as an act of fascinating fetishization. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is to be careful of romanticizing history; while our individual memories may live on as nostalgic remnants of whimsy and wonders past, we cannot ignore the larger pattern of whitewashing history for palatable consumption.

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