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The circus is coming to town!

During the mid-19th century through the Victorian age, scores of traveling circuses, Wild West shows, trapeze and aerial artists, minstrel shows, concerts, magic lantern slide shows, and other troupes of performers amused American audiences eager for entertainment. At times, newspapers would advertise multiple groups that would appear in rapid-fire procession in a particular town.

With the end of the Civil War looming in the spring of 1865, these traveling entertainers were out in full force, including several groups that visited York, Pennsylvania.

On April 18, 1865, York remained on mourning. The weekly York Gazette on that day included stories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the search for his killer and his conspirators. Plans were being made to transport the remains of the slain president back to Springfield, Illinois, for burial. The funeral train would pass through York on April 21.

The third page of the paper that day featured side-by-side advertisements for two circuses that were coming to town.

Here are some details of what our ancestors might have seen if they had visited those performances.

Advertisement from the York Gazette of April 18, 1865.


Thayer and Noyes’ United States Circus

Dr. James L. Thayer and Charles W. Noyes’ outfit was one of the largest touring troupes in the country during the Civil War years. Later, they married sisters and the families quarreled bitterly, leading to a breakup in 1869 and end of the partnership. For now, in April 1865, the business was still flourishing. Dr. Thayer had been drafted for the army in 1863 but paid for a substitute so he could remain in the circus business. The United States Circus would set up shop in York on April 19 on an empty lot behind the Motter House, a leading local hotel. They planned two shows, one in the afternoon and a second at 7:30 p.m.

Adult patrons paid 50 cents to see the array of exhibits and performances. Children were admitted at half-price.

Attractions included Van Amburgh & Company’s Menagerie and Egyptian Caravan, always popular in those long-ago days when zoos traveled to see you instead of the other way around. The proprietors prominently featured a two-hump Bactrian camel in their advertising, as well as other exotic creatures not native to south-central Pennsylvania. Folks flocked to see the show, which also featured “the war elephant, Hannibal,” a white Himalaya bear, a hippotamus, sloth bears, spotted axis deer, lions and tigers, colorful birds, and many other creatures. “Signer Victor,” a performing monkey that was “the sensation of New York last winter,” provided amusement. Dr. Thayer’s comic mules, Uncle Sam and Dick, closed out each performance to leave the audience laughing as they departed.

The show also featured gymnasts and performing horses (the latter under Charles Noyes’ personal direction), including Grey Eagle, Jr. billed as “the best trick horse in the world.” Famed clown and jester James Cooke (the stage name of Irish-born Patrick Hoy) warmed up the crowd. Professor Tom Canham’s band provided the musical accompaniment for the various performances. The entrance procession included a team of Arabian horses pulling a golden Egyptian chariot.

Stone and Rosston’s Combination Circus

Den W. Stone and Frank Rosston had combined their individual efforts into a large troupe that rivaled Thayer and Noyes’ efforts but with decidedly different types of entertainment. The two troupes often visited the same towns as they crisscrossed America (for example, they were both in Baltimore at the same time).  They would be in York on May 1, setting up behind the Motter House as had their competitor.

Admission was the same as the United States Circus, 50 cents for adults and a quarter for children. Performances would be at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

A live performance by Cullen’s Troupe of Iroquois Indians highlighted the show. The natives would exhibit “typical dances, ceremonial rites, unique customs, modes of sacrifice, forms of worship, and other intensely thrilling characteristics of aboriginal life, including the grand historical tableau of Indian princesses,” including Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith. The troupe had recently returned to the United States after a three-year tour of Europe including performances for royalty.

Professor Hutchison’s performing dogs would appear, with their “remarkable laughter- and applause-provoking tricks.”

Star performers included Le Jeune Burte (Sam Burt), one of the premier horsemen and bareback riders in the world, as well as humorist Den Stone, the Denzer family of acrobats, clown Charles Monroe, and the Sangrinee family of equestrian artists under the direction of Frank Rosston. Many other “foreign and native artists” would also be present in this “cycle of genius.”

Perhaps the most significant (and certainly the most heavily advertised) act was Signor Ferdinand, the “wonder of the world.” The pancratist would perform one show, free to the public, at 1 p.m. in a tent adjacent to the Stone & Rosston circus. His gymnastic ad trapeze show promised to be an “electrifying act” of aeronautic oscillation, filled with “unexampled daring and skill.”

The grand advertisement in the York Gazette included a special notice for “ladies and persons naturally nervous and timid.”