The closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017 raised mixed sentiments. One might expect the end of something billed as the “Greatest Show on Earth” to warrant widespread reactions of disappointment, but years of animal abuse claims and ensuing legal skirmishes seems to have soured public opinion of the iconic American spectacle. Still, the loss of a circus culture mainstay stirs nostalgia among those reflecting on pleasant memories.
Barnum & Bailey’s touring circuses stood as a staple in American family entertainment, exotic animals included. And, as our magazine enjoys discovering, there’s a Westchester connection to be found through owner James Anthony Bailey, whom the New York Times credited as the creator of the modern circus in 1891. Before we go on: No, we are not referring to the fact that Bailey died at The Knolls, his 35-acre Mount Vernon estate, while the circus performed in the nearby Madison Square Garden. There’s a more intriguing relation hidden much further in the circus mogul’s dynamic past.
Born in Detroit, MI as James Anthony McGinnis, Bailey was orphaned at eight years old and sent to live with an appointed guardian, where he “was made to work like a dog,” Bailey told the Times.
“I was kept working so hard that I was always late at school, so I was continually being whipped by the teacher and kept after school,” he recalled. “Then, for being late in getting home, I was whipped again. I stood that until I was nearly thirteen years old.”
The young Bailey eventually ran away to Pontiac, MI in search of other work, where he met Frederic Harrison Bailey, general manager of Robinson & Lake’s “Circus & Menagerie” according to Bailey’s 1906 obituary in the Times. The older Bailey “immediately took a liking to the boy and employed him.”
Working regularly for Frederic Bailey, the soon-to-be circus magnate took on his boss’s surname and, when owner John Robinson died, a managerial role for Lake & Robinson’s show. The rest is quite literally history; Bailey purchased interest in several other circuses until he moved his act to Bridgeport, CT, the home of Phineas T. Barnum. After a short stint competing against each other, the two entertainers joined forces, giving birth to the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Here’s the kicker: Frederic Bailey just so happened to be the nephew of Hachaliah Bailey — the entrepreneur who opened Somers’ Elephant Hotel in 1825. As some of you may know, this Bailey became the owner of the second elephant to step foot in the United States, and the first circus elephant ever. His 15,000-pound gray friend, Old Bet, garnered considerable attention which encouraged Hachaliah to go on tour as the Bailey Circus and ignited the popularity of the 19th-century traveling menagerie. Hachaliah built the Elephant Hotel at the height of his tour’s popularity as a hub for circus lovers and tourists. Purchased by the Town of Somers in 1927, The Elephant Hotel stands today as a National Historic Landmark.
It wasn’t until 1882 that James Bailey purchased his first circus elephant, Jumbo, for $10,000 from the London Zoo, providing the Barnum & Bailey Circus with enough publicity to make back the money spent on him, and clearly, much more.
While it’s impossible to say whether the two Baileys had any idea of their existing relationship, let alone whether said relationship had any influence in the decision to purchase Jumbo the Elephant, both ringmasters ended up making a significant impact on entertainment culture, locally and nationally. Interestingly enough, the land on which the James Bailey Estate was built became the foundation for Mount Vernon’s Park Lane apartments, where American Bandstand pioneer Dick Clark grew up.
The end of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years very clearly exhibits changes in public taste over the past century. Feld Entertainment, the company that last owned the show along with Monster Jam, Disney on Ice, and Marvel Live, pointed to declining ticket sales coupled with high operating costs as key factors in the show’s demise, especially once elephants were phased out of the circus performances in 2016. The final performances for the Circus Extreme and the Out Of This World was held in Providence, Rhode Island and Uniondale, New York, respectively.