Excerpt from “Walk N” in “St. Catharines A-Z” by Junius, originally published in the St. Catharines Journal on August 7th, 1856.
As long as I can remember circuses have always been one of those ethical hot topics up for debate, particularly about the use of animals in the performances. Is it humane to take animals out of their natural habitats, move them all over the country for financial and parade them around in costume for financial gain? Were such concerns always as commonplace as they are today? Perhaps not and perhaps it is those strong voices for the ethical treatment of animals that are the reason we rarely see big circus tents and pre-circus parades marching down our city streets anymore. As much as people may not have necessarily been as vocal about their concerns for the elephants, horses and dogs, Junius reveals in Walk N, that circuses were definitely judged heartily even back in the 1850’s, although it wasn’t necessarily for the maltreatment of animals:
“As well as the thousand and ten other roving travelling catch-penny sights of this age and day. If mono-mania ever raged it does now to a fearful extent among all classes and ages of our present race; and what is not a little singular, in this Town particularly, as well as elsewhere, that the very men and women who are the loudest in their awful denunciations of shows, and more especially of Circuses, are up and dressed, first and foremost, occupying the choice, reserved seats, and applauding vociferously the clowns and tumblers, the wire-dancers and equestrian performers at these very identical circuses! Have you not observed this fact? We have frequently to our no small visible merriment. They remind us of an old seedy rogue, who, fearing detection, used to roar out aloud thief! thief!! Oh consistency thou are indeed a rare and precious jewel! To see the country folks following and rushing into this town on the heels of the circuses is a sight worth more to behold than the most nimble monkey shines that ever Dan Rice accomplished! We believe that many a silver shiner, a musty quarter, or a ragged bill, has been released from its long confinement, prison house, iron chest, buried hole or buckskin purse tied up with a two yards string, wrung from the miserly grip, and exchanged for a circus ticket, which for the oftentimes perfect jam, and great crowd, is a no trifling matter to obtain, and expended on such an occasion, but for which, sun-light, nor day-light, nor men, nor banks, nor trade, nor community would scarce ever behold them, or ever be circulated, as they were originally designed and intended.”
As you can see, Junius along with other individuals were more concerned with being “taken” financially by these travelling shows. He also speaks of the hypocrisy of these social adjudicators…being the first ones in line for their ticket. Ironically enough, after a few tirades on other subjects, Junius goes on to speak of a hot summer’s day when the Welsh & Lent Circus was held on August 1st, 1856, which he quite obviously attended himself:
“With the thermometer from 90 to 100 in the shade, and with some 2, 000 persons crammed into Welsh & Lent’s Circus, 1st Aug., a real gala-day here, (which by the way was a good one) the grease and starch both started out of the human hide pretty freely, so much so, that we thought one countryman had been in bathing with his clothes on, for they were wringing wet, as was also all the garments of the multitude. … It was a bad day and a bad place, the Circus, for painted faces, painted people, tight lacers, small shoes, crying babies, nervous old maids, silk dresses, muslin collars, fancy flauntings, old men and women, young men and maidens, boys and babies, drunken men and sober men, pickpockets and honest ones, for they all had to take a welding heat under the canvas, and a sweater too! The side shows were also good, especially the one where they tripped the light fantastic toe, and where the three sisters went bobbing around, around, and the three or four gents sung to a charm Johnson’s original comic songs, viz., Nix cum arouse, Bobbing around, Mrs. Johnson, &c.”
Despite the ongoing concerns, it became commonplace for circuses to come through town. Also, it became tradition for parades to march through the city streets as a way to announce the arrival of the summertime circus. Elephant trains would be marched down the streets, thrilling the children who would run alongside the giant animals. In later years local citizens would ride atop the elephants in support of the circus. Even mayor Joseph Reid rode the elephant before the 1976 circus. Parades such as these continued until the mid 1980’s.
Circuses included more than just animal presentations of course, they also incorporated the classic sideshow. One advertisement from 1856 announces performances by Joe Pentland’s circus which included the “best clown in America” and the “best single rider in the world”. There were also acrobats, tumblers, a tight rope walker and “stupendous and gratuitous feats”! Companies also dared each other to put on better performances. Pentland announced prior to his St. Catharines visit: “Any Company denying the above statements is challenged to name time, place and amount not less than $5, 000 to decide the matter.” This sort of advertising would have been very intriguing and I can see why all the people in the town flocked to the fairgrounds to see the “never before seen, death defying” performances!
Circuses popped up at various locations over the years. They have been known to stop at the fairgrounds which were located on the corner of Welland Avenue and St. George Street. In later years circuses were held at the Pen Centre and Lincoln Mall parking lots as well as municipal arenas. In order for a circus to set up shop in St. Catharines they were required to apply and pay for a license each year. Circuses were once such popular visitors to St. Catharines that city council passed a by-law that stated no more than one circus per month could use municipal arenas. Circuses rarely ever visit St. Catharines or surrounding towns anymore. Animal rights activists began protesting the arrival of circuses in the 1990’s and rightfully so. Even though they were met by protesters, the Shrine Circus still visited St. Catharines in the 2000’s, and yes, they still featured trained animals such as elephants, horses and dogs.
Alicia Floyd is the Archival Collections Technician at the St. Catharines Museum.