Mapping Mishaps and Circus Contretemps at The Ringling Museum

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“Nothing pleases the average New Yorker better than an accident of some sort.”

So said the New York Herald on April 4, 1893, in reference to a Barnum & Bailey show in which two riders took a tumble mid-performance. No mention is made of serious injury, but the writer did go on to say that, thanks to the accident, the crowd “got their money’s worth.” A morbid sentiment, perhaps, but not an altogether uncommon one, and circus history certainly has its fair share of these moments—and those eager onlookers. Now, with a new digital history project from The Ringling Museum online and up-and-running, folks today can take a peek into the past at notable incidents and accidents from these traveling shows.

Entitled Slips, Falls, Mishaps and Tragedies: Mapping Circus Accidents, 1893, the project maps the course of five traveling circuses (including the Ringling Bros.) in the year 1893, marking every stop and each recorded accident along the way. Created by Joy Feagan, a public historian and summer intern at The Ringling, the end result is an interactive website that allows the user to take both a broad look at the paths taken by these railroad-hopping shows and zoom in on particular incidents.

The year 1893 was chosen due largely to availability of resources in the Ringling Archives, including a series of “route books”—written records kept by each circus of notable events on that season’s tour. These events are divided into a series of categories based on the nature of the mishap, including troubles mid-act, accidents while traveling, animal escapes, weather misfortune and even crime. Find stories of overzealous re-enactors hurting their fellow performers, trains derailing in the Allegheny Mountains, escaped jungle cats in the woods of Pennsylvania and even Pinkertons taking on pickpockets in the swelling crowds.

“The darker side of history is a little less explored for most subjects,” says Feagan, who not only conducted the research in the archives but also created the intricate website layout. She admits to a bit of morbid curiosity in the project’s DNA, but emphasizes a greater takeaway than mere time-traveling rubbernecking. “It really increased my appreciation for circus performances,” she says, “reading what they had to go through just to get to these towns every day.” And, importantly, viewers will note that circus professionals brought it all off without a hitch, more often than not, despite traveling at breakneck pace with practically an entire town’s-worth of people involved. “These people were incredible,” Feagan says. “They worked so hard and the scope is incomprehensible.”

Now online, explore Slips, Falls, Mishaps and Tragedies: Mapping Circus Accidents, 1893 at the website below.

Pictured: Joy Feagan searches The Ringling Archives for circus-related mishaps.

Slips, Falls, Mishaps and Tragedies: Mapping Circus Accidents, 1893

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