Rewind: July 15, 2021 – “Thrilling Attractions & Weird Wonders”
Thrilling Attractions & Weird Wonders
Adam Forepaugh’s All-Feature & Wild West Show Enthralls Glens Falls in 1890
By Dave Waite
Ask someone the name of a three-ring circus and their response would likely be Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, or a combination of the two. Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows was established in 1884 and P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome had opened in 1871. Predating both was the biggest, most successful, though also the least known of the traveling shows, Adam Forepaugh’s Great All-Feature Show and Wild West Combined, established in 1863.
For over thirty years the Forepaugh show performed 250 times or more each year, the majority of the stops a single day offering two full shows. One example of this exhausting schedule was the itinerary for the 1889 season given in their 26th Annual Tour report. That year the season opened in Philadelphia on April 22nd and closed in October at Alliance, Ohio. In between, they had given performances across thirteen states. The nearly 400 performers and workmen would almost daily assemble and disassemble what was nearly a complete village of massive tents to house not only the show but stables, dressing rooms, maintenance shops, cooking tents, and dining halls that covered 8 acres of ground.
A month before a show was to open posters advertising the event would begin to appear throughout the town. Traveling in a railroad car specially made for Forepaugh by the Pullman Company, a dozen or more men would arrive to post the brightly colored announcements in prominent places using a mixture of flour and water as a paste. This advertising blitz would be repeated twice more in each town at seven-day intervals so by the time of the show there would be few flat pieces of wall or fence in the town left uncovered.
It was on July 24, 1883, that Adam Forepaugh brought his show to Glens Falls for the first time. Though this was three years before he had added the Wild West Show to the program, the July 23, 1883, Washington County Advertiser still called it “one of the largest and best-ever organized” shows of the time. On the day of the event, thousands of people gathered downtown to see the street parade and then stayed to attend one of the two performances. Calling the vast amount of entertainment offered at each show “bewildering,” the reporter noted that the strong man and snake charmer especially thrilled the audience.
In Route Book of the Great Forepaugh Show, Circus Hippodrome and Menagerie: Season 1883 they reported having 478 employees, more than 300 horses, with the show and personnel transported in 64 railway cars.
As with any large organization moving from town to town, it was inevitable that problems would arise. While often it was issues around drunken brawls and minor property damage, in Saratoga it was a far different matter. It was there in 1883 that an organization promoting the protection of children sought the arrest of owner Adam Forepaugh for employing what they believed was an underage performer. The issue was quickly resolved when it was determined the young-looking Englishman Eddie Mylett, an aerial gymnast who went by the stage name of Eddie Silbon, was in fact, 16 years of age.
When Adam Forepaugh’s Great All-Feature Show and Wild West Combined came to Glens Falls in 1890 it was at the pinnacle of its success. It was good that the people who attended had a chance to see the troupe that year as decisions were already occurring behind the scenes that would soon change the very essence of the show. The foremost of these changes was the death of proprietor Adam Forepaugh, Sr. in January of that year. With the year’s schedule and performances already in place, this would be the last season to be organized by this master showman. Even without Forepaugh’s death, change was inevitable as the year before he had begun planning the sale of some of the acts to other circus owners. Also, after the next season where the show toured the western states, the Wild West show was dropped from the program, another reason that made the 1890 Saratoga performance truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The August 15, 1890 edition of the Mechanicville Mercury carried an advertisement for the Forepaugh show that spanned half a column. An equally large article highlighting the upcoming performance titled “A Mammoth Show,” was also included in that day’s paper. Here the show was proclaimed to be a “novel and dazzling pageant,” that would offer both a Wild West Show depicting Custer’s Last Stand and a performance by Eclipse the flying trapeze horse.
The Forepaugh show railcars were moved from show to show by as many as five locomotives, often leaving one town after midnight and arriving at their next stop by early the next morning. The first to leave the train each day were the hundreds of men and boys who would raise the tents, assemble the bleachers and get everything prepared for the show that would start only a few hours later.
Once everything was in place, a parade of the hundreds of performers, musicians, animals in cages, and chariots would move through the main streets of the town. Leading the way was a marching band and Adam Forepaugh’s personal carriage pulled by four black horses. This exhibit of all that the show had to offer was free to watch and hundreds, if not thousands would line the route taking in every detail of the exotic scenes and well-rehearsed acts of the showmen.
The two performances each day, starting at 1 and 7 P.M., were the same, the 1889 program giving the opening as an Overture by Prof. Geo. Ganweiler’s Military Band followed by an, Imposing Spectacular Entrée, In Two Rings, on the Central Stage and Hippodrome Track, exhibiting the principal professional features of the Combined Forepaugh and “Wild West” Shows. Realistic illustrations of life in the romantic wild West.
Immediately following this were 29 acts both in the air and on the ground, sometimes three performances going on at one time under the main tent. After this was a dozen races that included horses, donkeys, elephants, and men. The show concluded with music and dancing ranging from Irish Reels and bagpipes to cowboy bands and music played on hunting horns.
By 1896 the show had a new owner, James A. Bailey, who soon partnered with the Sells Brothers to form the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus. After Bailey’s death in 1905, the Ringling Brothers acquired the circus and continued operation until finally closing the show in 1911.
Much of the material for this article was taken from circushistory.org, Illinois State University Milner Library Digital Collections, the newspaper archives at nyshistoricnewpapers.org, and fultonsearch.org. The title is taken from a Forepaugh advertisement, August 15, 1888, Herkimer Democrat.
Mechanicville Mercury, August 15, 1890 – nyshistoricnewspapers.org
Diagram of Forepaugh Show Tent Layout, 1883 Route Book, circushisgtory.org
1889 Forepaugh Show Trade Card, worthpoint.com
This article was prepared by David Waite for the Warren County Historical Society. David’s exceptional research brings some interesting facts related to Warren County and the area.