The Circus is Coming to Washington County!
Popular Entertainment During the Late Antebellum Period, 1855 to 1859
During the Late Antebellum Period (1855-1859) prior to the Civil War, several prominent circus troupes toured in Washington County during the summer and fall months. As the newspaper advertisements from The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light suggest, the circus shows scheduled in Hagerstown, Boonsboro, Williamsport and Hancock proudly rivaled what audiences could expect from a Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth" big-tent extravaganza.
Joe Pentland (1816-1873), described in the press as "the Great American Clown," managed his own circus from 1852 to 1856. The afternoon and evening shows in Hagerstown on August 24, 1855 touted equestrian, gymnastic and pantomimic entertainment.
Seth Benedict Howes (1815-1901) and James M. Nixon (1820-1899) created a menagerie and circus troupe that toured in New York and Philadelphia before its exhibition opened in Hagerstown on October 8, 1855.
The Great Southern Circus was co-founded and managed by clown and showman Gilbert N. Eldred (1816-1885). He entered the circus life as a clown as early as 1834 while working for his brother Edward S. Eldred’s circus that was active from 1832 to 1836. In 1846, Eldred formed a partnership with John Robinson known as “The Great Southern Circus” that eventually disbanded on June 28, 1856 in Richmond, Virginia. The Great Southern Circus, under Eldred's sole ownership, exhibited in Williamsport and Hagerstown on July 25 & 26, 1856. Afterwards, the circus moved north through Pennsylvania and into Ohio until 1857. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Eldred moved to England and Europe where he exhibited trained horses as late as 1867.
Dan Rice (1823-1900) was an innovative circus impresario and an icon of 19th century popular culture. A talented clown and showman, Rice coined expressions for his shows appropriated by other circus troupes, such as "One Horse Show," "Greatest Show" and "Jumping on the Bandwagon." He would transform the American circus into well-crafted entertainment spectaculars with an array of animals, acrobats and clowns. Dan Rice's Great Show exhibited in Hagerstown and Hancock on October 2 & 3, 1856.
Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century Circus. Columbus, OH : Circus Historical Society Inc., c. 2005. http://www.circushistory.org/Olympians/OlympiansA.htm
The Great Southern Circus by Nick West (Xlibris Corporation, c. 2010): http://www.amazon.com/Great-Southern-Circus-Nick-West/dp/145003859X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Dan Rice. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Rice