Carl Hagenbecks Wild Animal Circus, in Hamburg, United States
, was founded in 1905. The last elephant left in 1907. Carl Hagenbecks Wild Animal Circus closed down in 1907 in Hamburg, .
My secret wish, which was to turn to a mammoth circus tent and the life of the road, found responsive ears in my three American partners. But I knew that Father, through his own circus experience, was not in favour. 'No Gypsy life for yoi ! ' he had always preached. But back home , at Stellingen, we were in the throes of construction work, and for the. moment we simply had not got the housing space for all the groups of performing animals which we now had In America. So my brother Heinrich came out post-haste from Hamburg, and the upshot of it all was that altogether we two founded the first real travelling circus of the name of Carl Hagenbeck, to make a tour of the United States. With fiery enthusiasm, Al Bode, wagon builder, of Cincinnati, undertook to construct the necessary road wagons. Albert, as he was called, was one of the most painstaking wagon builders I have ever seen. Only the very best timber would do for him, and, after going through America, some of the pantechnicons he made, with all their carved and applied ornament in the taste of the day, found a place in a circus museum there, where they can be seen to this day. Dweller caravans, such as we were used to in Germany for the human personnel of the circus, were not customary in the U.S.A. That need was satis- fied by a railway company supplying us with old Pullman cars, which were transformed into mobile dormitories for our animal keepers, our drivers and our tent men. Tent makers, saddlers, costumiers and printing presses were all set to work, and I was able to slip away to Hamburg, where, as usual, Father was assembling as many of the family as he could round the Christmas tree. Three weeks later, I was back in St. Louis, for I needed to make haste to find and purchase the horses I needed before our start. In those days there was of course no motorised transport, for the newfangled machines were still not taken quite seriously when they tootled through St. Louis at 'fully twelve miles an hour* ! For our pur- pose the horse still had no rivals. So I went to Diamond Bill. Diamond Bill was one of America's richest horse-breeders, residing at Lancaster, Missouri. One saw the reason for his nickname the moment one saw him, for he was covered with diamonds, even having a couple in his two gold-crowned front teeth. After a long railway journey and a neck-breaking drive by night, we reached an isolated, poorly lighted ranch and I bargained for and bought a hundred horses. A team that is to say, a pair in harness together cost at that time three hundred and seventy-five dollars. While we were riding over Diamond Bill's ranch, I was struck by a lovely white horse, and acquired 'Prince' for myself, while with much demonstrative hand-gripping and okays I bought another fine animal for my personal buggy. Diamond Bill was a great character and delivered all the horses on time at St. Louis, where we had estab- lished winter quarters, still in the tram-car sheds, and from early to late our performing animals continued their training. We began our first United States tour at St. Louis in true American fashion with three simultaneous riding rings and two stages, all inside a tremendous marquee. I rather regret this today. Had we offered our audiences a first-class programme in one central ring, as for tens of years I did subsequently, everywhere in the world, with great results, we should have saved ourselves enormous outlay. Our cashier had to raise no less than twelve thousand gold marks, no small sum in those days, for our mere daily expenses. And though that sum, of course, covered all current outgoings, it did not cover wear and tear, which under the rapid transport conditions customary in America was also a very big item. Every single day we played in a fresh town. Every night our special trains rolled on. That is the American pace of doing things, still kept up by the biggest circus in the world, the RBBB Show. RBBB stands for Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey's Combined Shows. RBBB open their season every year with a special star show of several days in Madison Square Garden, New York. After that it is a rare town in which they stay longer than two days. Comfortable living quarters in caravans and all the romantic life of the road of the German circuses are totally unknown in the U.S.A. Circus life there is today, as it was then, extraordinarily exhausting, with a tremendous bill in wear and tear for men, animals and equip- ment alike. We packed no less than ninety-six men, two to a bed, in three layers, in our specially adapted Pullman cars. Tent workers, drivers and animal keepers alike flopped down on their bunks dead tired, sodden with perspiration, generally without even undressing, even with their boots on, oblivious to the world from lack of sleep. The tent builders were as a rule athletic negroes. One foreman and five men made a team, and each team had its precise work mapped out for it.
To give an idea what sort of men these were, let me tell a little story. In one of the teams whose job it was to wield eight-pound hammers and drive in the tent irons, we had two black fighting-cocks who were always at one another's throats. I gave them a talking to and said I wanted to see them do a bit of hammer-swinging too. Suddenly one of the pair started up the quarrel again, and instead of swinging his hammer on to a tent iron he swung it on to the crisp woolly skull of his rival. When I arrived on the scene, the victim was sitting on a stool inside the tent, while a doctor bandaged his blood-spattered cranium. The man was groaning and holding his temples. He complained of headache ! The doctor shook his head. 'One of us, 1 he said, 'could not have stood a quarter of the blow, but all it did to this beauty was bring him to his knees.' 'Say, doc,' moaned the negro, in his lovely Southern English, 'you don't think that blow's hurt my brain, do you?' I comforted him and gave him a dose of whisky, and his mood rapidly improved. The very same evening I saw the 'poor fellow' again. With his straw hat clapped on top of his well-bandaged head, with great II an he was dancing the cake-walk ! After a long night journey, we would reach the next town while it was still dark, when the first task was to set up the kitchen and a large dining marquee. By the time the flag was unfurled at the top of this rallying point, a mighty breakfast was ready to be served for every- body, and after that the reinforced hammer-boys got to work with double energy. The same custom is still observed today in American circuses. Next came raising the big top and the menagerie tents. One after another the wagons were drawn up and the unloading ramps put in place. Each team did the same road only twice, no matter how many horses were required. Finally, the animals were then fed, curried and decorated, everything being made ready for the great parade. There were brass bands in open wagons or on horse back, then magnificent menagerie wagons with lions and tigers, clowns, dancing girls, acrobats, stilt- walkers and dwarfs in a costumed procession. The American burghers would be most disappointed if there were not at least one veiled 'Indian Princess' peeping 'shyly' out through the curtains of the howdah on her elephant. Teams of zebras and camels always delighted farming folk. In front of all this I rode my dazzling white Prince. To this day I can hear the music of the band, for once the bandmaster had discovered my favourite tunes he played them all the way across America. This circus parade would last about two hours. By midday the animals were all back in their stalls, the horses fed a second time, and till seven in the evening there would be absolute peace, till the audience began to pour in through the main entrance or would it merely trickle in? Gates open! What countless times I have stood and watched the crowds pouring in yellow, black, red, white men. Gates open! There is the test, each time, whether publicity, place and time have been well chosen, or it was sheer stupidity to pitch the tents at all in that particular place. For you can do whatever you like and lay out unheard-of sums on publicity, yet see that incalculable creature, mass man, refuse to come out whereas go on to the next town and they storm the cash desk ! How familiar the consolatory words of one's assistants become! Monday is a bad day. Tuesday is never any good, either. Who thinks of going out anywhere on a Wednesday? Thursday? That is a wash-out too. Surely you know that Friday is payday? Yes, but the money is never spent till Saturday. (Sundays there was never any show in America anyway.) 'Surely, sir, you don't expect a full house in such rain, (heat, cold, storm)? But we're right at the end of the month! We're right at the time when people go away for their holidays! We're just a week after the annual fair ! Didn't you know that the folk are all out in the fields just now?' I am sure the director of the Circus Maximus in Rome knew this litany as well as I do, though perhaps he did not pay the losses out of his private purse, as I did! Against all this gloom I can only remark that we have on occasion played without any canvas, in the open air, in a sea of mud and in deep snow and had a full gate, turning all calculations upside down !
Circus shows are lotteries, and no blah, no lucky star, no talisman helps. I have put on the show on a Friday which was the thirteenth of the month and had an empty house, but I have done the same else- where and had it packed out. To this day nobody has the slightest idea of the secret recipe by which the owner of a travelling circus can be sure of becoming a millionaire. Talking of standing at the gate when folk were coming in, I re- member once in Pennsylvania seeing a youngster nearly six feet tall with a children's under-fourteen ticket, and as he pressed his way through the turnstile in my best English I asked him how old he was. He turned to a rather scraggy old farmer and in the best North German dialect inquired: 'Dad, how old am I?' 'Thirteen, you damn fool,' said the old man in the same language. I could not help wishing the couple the best of luck in their own tongue, adding that Papa was a lucky man to have such a fine boy of thirteen and I wished the boy the same good fortune some day. Scarlet to the ear-tips they made them- selves mighty scarce in the crowd.
Our performances lasted exactly one hour forty-five minutes. There was no detailed working out of separate items, as in Germany, with all the audience concentrating on the ring in a programme well planned and spaced out with music. Here there was just one continuous circus fireworks display in three rings and on two stages at once, and the moment any turn ended the performers made off to rest, flopping down in the grass or under a wagon to snatch a little more sleep. When the audience emerged, dizzy enough, from this wild kaleido- scope, they were the prey of the ready-lemonade sellers, who mixed the liquor they sold by dissolving a startling yellow powder in water. It was obligatory to have what were called floaters on top of this. These were slices of lemon and apple, apparently considered a sort of guarantee of the genuineness of the beverage.
After the evening shows, which ended a little before ten, a further 'night show* would be put on with angelic voices to boost it, for of course it was all a matter of more money, and the tickets for this dubious second house required all the arts of persuasion to sell them. A couple of snake-charmer girls or something of that price level usually sufficed to satisfy the suckers, while with record speed our negroes with thunderous clatter took down the seats and packed the circus up. This took literally seventy minutes, so that by one o'clock in the morning we were well on the road again. My personal coachman actually boasted the remarkable name Dczimblewsky. In the list of personnel, however, he was to be found under Z ; nobody thought of him as under D, or took any notice at all of the first two letters. And as we had taken him over from the Ringling circus, he was generally known quite simply as Ringling. He had one great maxim : 'Fear God and chew hard and you will always have plump cheeks.' And from morning to night one would see him endlessly chewing at his favourite cud, which produced a lovely supply of juice, for him to spit at intervals with highly trained pre- cision. In those days, of course, long-distance precision spitting was in America considered a great social accomplishment, and grand masters of the art, meeting in the lounge of an hotel or at a railway station or the barber's, would vie with one another, for there was always a big spittoon at hand. Greenhorns who missed the pot earned considerable scorn, and despite many good runners-up among the darkies Ringling held our circus long-distance record. That, however, was the end of his special accomplishments.
In every town, after the performance, Ringling used to be ready for me with the buggy, to drive to the bank to pay in our takings. I used to drive on such occasions, with our cashier, John Sheehy, at my side. In his coat pocket John had a Colt six-shooter ready with the safety catch up, and the cash-box was under the seat, protected by Ringling' s broad shoulders. We also had Tiger, which was the most loathsome hound I ever set eyes on, being a remarkable blend of bull- dog and terrier. The escort, of course, was a kind of insurance for our money.
Though most of these bank trips passed off without incident, on one occasion, in Arkansas, a fellow whose appearance inspired little confidence did leap out at us. But before Sheehy had had time to draw his famous Colt, Ringling had shot, and the juicy brown stream caught the fellow square in the eyes. That certainly halted him in his tracks, and he stood staring, speechless, and no doubt imagining it was a Tibetan lama who had passed. Elephants had of old been my pets, though during that American tour they often made me furious. Our staff was always leaving us, and so in the early days I was often obliged to load my elephants aboard myself. This happened at Buffalo, and there the animals suddenly took fright. I leapt between the leading pair, got a hand on the ear of each, and tried to stop them, but like a shot they were off, dragging me down the railway embankment, and I had to do some fine athletic work to keep my feet. Like a storm they raced straight through a drainpipe manufactory, with two younger elephants at their heels. It was not till we had gone some distance into the open country that I got the animals quietened down and brought them to a halt. Tails! 1 I then commanded, and at once they stood in Indian file, gripped each other's tails with their trunks, and cheerfully trotted back to the station. That was not too bad, but in Iowa we missed out a town because all my elephants ran away. Near the goods yard of the Des Moines station was a lake, and it was blazing hot that day, so I gladly took advantage of the patch of water to let the creatures enjoy a really good dip. That unusual show of course drew hundreds of spectators. To get a better view of the diving, splashing, water-squirting elephants the crowds clambered up on to the sheet-iron roofs of the disconnected wagons, as if about to cheer their own rugby team. But though five of my Indians had gone in with the larger elephants, suddenly ill sixteen trunks were raised high in the air and in a fit of panic the whole herd of them swam to the other side of the lake and with shrill trumpeting vanished into the woods on the far side. It was not till twenty-four hours later that we had reassembled them all, and in order not to upset the remainder of our tightly drawn schedule we had to miss out the next place altogether. The loss to me was a round twelve thousand dollars.
I now decided that the thing to do was to have a really strong man to look after those pachydermatous friends of ours, so I put the strongest American we had in charge. This fellow turned the scales at exactly fifteen stones, and it was whispered of him that in self- defence he had killed two men with his fists. They called him the Star Kid, and he certainly was a colossus. He would have gone through fire on my account, and I think the elephants saw in him a rather un- fortunate miscarriage of their own race. Whether that was really the reason or not, they were certainly very fond of him, while at the same time they held his whip in serious respect. Star Kid and a couple of stalwart Hamburger lads, on the payroll as animal keepers, formed the backbone of our motley staff.
It was somewhere in Pennsylvania that one night the men charged with loading suddenly went on strike and threatened to come to blows if we insisted on going on working. Star Kid and his two lads piped their warnings, and loading proceeded as per usual. But when the train was assembled, the strikers deliberately switched the points wrongly, and as they had also loosened the rails on the sleepers we had a box- wagon of twenty horses tip over. In a twinkling, axes were to hand, and in no time Star Kid and our Hamburg lads had smashed in the roof of that truck to free the animals, which were terrified, struggling in a tangled confusion. At that instant, up came one of the strikers to enter an energetic protest. He said that opening box- wagons on our own like that was an infringement of labour regulations. I could hear him kicking up a terrible noise. Then suddenly there was silence. Later on that evening I asked Star Kid what had happened. But Star Kid merely shrugged his shoulders. 'That man,' he said, 'was so tired he just lay down and fell asleep. ' The strike leader was still asleep when my staff loaded the horses into another truck. I shone a lantern in the man's face, to be struck by the look of the fellow's chin. One would have said that he had collided with some very hard obstacle. But yet he was breathing very peacefully, and he was in nobody's road where he had chosen to lie. So, stuffing a five-dollar bill into his pocket for his 'pains,' I left him alone, and was rather glad when the locomotive gave its moving-off whistle without the fellow's having bothered Star Kid and his mates again. After we had covered 7,918 miles, that night melody of the United States railways came to its end for me at last. We had put up our big top in something like thirty towns before, after a farewell performance at Lebanon, we retired into well-earned winter quarters at the Carthage, Ohio, racecourse. The riding hall and many stables served as quarters for the animals, and our basic staff made themselves busy with repairs. Freed now from the treadmill of incessant travel and performance, Charly, Reuben and I went to New York, where at the Liichau Restaurant, famous meeting-place of German sea captains, we astonished mine host and all the waiters by our prowess as apparently starving trenchermen.
Christmas was now at hand again, so in December 1905- I at last went back to Hamburg, taking with me Joe Stephan, son of old Sol of the Cincinnati Zoo, and Father welcomed us both, just in time for the Christmas celebrations.
In the fall of 1906 after the Carl Hagenbeck show folded in Mexico, Ben Wallace, the owner of the Great Wallace circus, bought the 15 elephants from Carl Hagenbeck. They were Moms, Topsy, Trilby, Jughead Nellie, Betty, Pinto, Nancy, Zeffa, Bedelia, Baby. These were all Female Asians. Monte, Satan and Josky were all Male Asians. Jumb and Kongo were Female Africans. Mr. Wallace resold, Monte, Topsy, and Moms to Van Amburgh Circus (Mugivan & Bowers) shortly thereafter with the other twelve joining the four (Robbins Queen, Tess, Mama, and Ding, all Asian females) he still had and becoming the herd of the new Hagenbeck-Wallace title.