140 years ago, Barnum brought his best show to town

The Springfield Daily Republic said ‘two hours and a 50-cent piece could not be put to better advantage.’

On July 17, 1873, the Springfield Daily Republic called that season’s P.T. Barnum touring exhibition — the one about to arrive in town — “the biggest thing in the show line ever seen, heard or thought of.”

By itself, that might be dismissed as small-town gush.

But in a 1940 article in “Bandwagon,” the journal of the circus industry, one-time circus owner and long time circus enthusiast Perley M. Silloway makes the same claim: “In extent of quality of exhibits … and all of its various departments” the Barnum shows of 1873 and 1874 “should be ranked as the biggest and best show of all time.”

And that was against the odds.

A “disastrous fire … almost totally destroyed the 65 (train) car show which toured the northern states east of the Mississippi in 1872,” he wrote. (The show had stopped in Springfield July 1 of that year.)

Given that he had just entered the circus business the year before the fire — a time by which he’d already amassed a personal fortune — Barnum could as easily have given up.

“Notwithstanding,” Silloway wrote, “the first week of April 1873, Barnum’s Traveling World’s Fair, Museum, Menageries and Circus opened with a bigger and better show, using 95 railroad cars. Such a miracle of enterprise has never since been duplicated.”

An advertisement for the 1873 show offered a $200,000 prize to anyone who could demonstrate they had one-fifth the number of “numerous, unique and marvelous combination of startling wonders.”

The same ad said “Who has spent $1 million to organize this great show? P.T. Barnum.”

The performance list from that summer includes Madame Bushnell’s slack wire and great impalement feat, the contortions of Monte Verde, “wonderful feats of tumbling and leaping over camels” and feats of strength by Mademoiselle Angela, “the Female Sampson.”

For those of different tastes, Barnum offered the champion Bohemian glass blowers, Fritz Hartman’s Silver Cornet Band and Admiral Dot “the famous California dwarf.”

In the Living Curiosities Side Show and Palace of Wonders, one could see Routh Goshe, Arabian Giant; Isaac W. Sprague, the Living Skeleton; Madame Clark, the fat lady; albinos Ella Mann and Etta Rogers; and Maximo and Bartola, Aztec children.

And that didn’t even include the menagerie of animals Barnum had paraded up to the home of an ailing boy, Little Trot, in East Cleveland the week his show came to Springfield.

“If you cannot come to the show, we must bring the show to you,” Barnum is reported to have said to the boy.

“Surely enough, in a short time, a caravan consisting of four elephants and all the camels and dromedaries drew up in the front of the house,” a log of the year’s shows reports.

“The trained elephants and camels went through numerous trick and performances, ‘Little Trot’ viewing the scene from an open window, almost wild with delight, while a large crowd gathered in the street to take in the free exhibition.”

As the show approached Springfield, the excitement grew.

“Thirty thousand people a day is said to be only a fair average of the number … attending, and all admit that this is the biggest show they ever saw,” the Daily Republic reported.

As it turned out, even ticket selling was part of the show.

“Among the wonders connected with Barnum’s ‘world’s fair,’” the paper reported … is Ben Lusbie, the unapproachable ticket seller.”

“The rapidity with which he sells tickets and makes change is marvelous. He has been known to disperse of 9,000 tickets in 45 minutes and yet he never makes a mistake …. Only the other day shouted to a man standing back in the crowd and pulling at $2 note from a roll of bills — ‘You needn’t bring that $2 bill here; it’s counterfeit.”

“It’s worth the price of the ticket to watch Ben Lusbie at his post when … it is about time for the show to open.”

According to the Republic, the show he sold tickets for didn’t disappoint.

“Perhaps the lovely weather has something to do with it, but certainly we never saw so great a crowd on the street as gathered to witness the grand procession, which moved from the grounds at the West End at 9 o’clock and passed over the customary route, extending about six squares on Main Street, with two bands of music and vans gorgeously decorated with banners and streamers. Three locomotives were required to draw the trains, bringing the show from Columbus, arriving here soon after daylight. All the morning trains were crowded with people from surrounding towns, coming to see the wonderful sight, and the streets presented the spectacle of a moving mass of humanity.”

“A ‘special’ reporter who visited the show this morning speaks as follows of what he saw: ‘We have seen it, that is, the Great Traveling World’s Fair, and was not disappointed even with our ‘great expectations.’ ”

“It has been said that Barnum’s show is a humbug,” the Daily Republic concluded, “but we say that it is many times better than those shows that are not considered humbugs … and say, in conclusion that (for) those persons who have the time and money to spare, two hours and a 50-cent piece could not be put to better advantage.”

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