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Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

Review

Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

In BATTLE FOR THE BIG TOP, bestselling author Les Standiford turns his attention to the rise, glory days and eventual fadeout of the American circus.

Unlike the circus tradition rooted in ancient times that glorified the majesty and power of the state, America’s traveling shows took on the “rough-edged, sky’s-the-limit character of a developing nation,” becoming a phenomenon in the late 1800s and growing with the country. With a main tent known as the “big top” set up somewhere just outside of town, the circus brought excitement, wonder and dreamy thrills to children and any adult willing to be a child at heart. 

"...engaging, well-researched... [A]s Standiford makes clear, the underlying principal of circus entertainment persists: a hearty helping of wonderment and a frisson of fear, accompanied by a small dollop of droll, much-needed humor."

A handful of entrepreneurs came by the showman’s life gradually, even accidentally, creating the American circus business through competition and collaboration. The legendary P.T. Barnum got his start when offered a chance to “buy” a Black woman, Joice Heth, who was said to be 161 years old. The transaction took place at a time when “owning” African Americans was acceptable, though it went against Barnum’s actual principles. After the successful exhibition of Heth and other “freaks” like General Tom Thumb and Chang and Eng Bunker, Barnum sold his name and game to James Bailey, then operating a small, profitable traveling circus. When the Ringling boys (all five of them), who had been charmed by a traveling troupe as children, came into their own with a large, nationally known circus cavalcade, they were able to buy the Barnum and Bailey show and name.

By the mid-20th century, the circus simply was the Ringling Brothers. Featuring world-renowned acrobats the Flying Wallendas, beloved clowns like Emmett Kelly (aka Sad Sack), and exotic wild animals kept under control by “trainers” like the famed Clyde Beatty, the Ringling Brothers brought much-appreciated excitement to big cities and isolated American small towns. 

Until television. In 1956, the last big top folded, and the circus moved indoors to city arenas where it could perform year round and be captured on camera for homebound viewers. In 2017, even that form of circus show came to an end, as it is no longer an attraction to customers in the cyber age. 

Notably, Standiford’s engaging, well-researched story begins with a tragedy: a circus fire in 1944 that, like the Great Depression and two world wars, could have brought the business to its knees. But it survived those and many other challenges. Now it will be a memory, mixed perhaps, because of the sometimes questionable nature of its amusements. But there are still a few active shows extant, the best known being the oft-televised Cirque du Soleil. And, as Standiford makes clear, the underlying principal of circus entertainment persists: a hearty helping of wonderment and a frisson of fear, accompanied by a small dollop of droll, much-needed humor.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on June 18, 2021

Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus
by Les Standiford

  • Publication Date: June 15, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • ISBN-10: 1541762282
  • ISBN-13: 9781541762282