Olden Circus Topped Baseball for Athleticism at Cairo, Illinois

Twenty-Fourth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Friday, August 31, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Baseball served as tonic enjoyment for Americans following the Civil War, rising in appeal across divisions of race and class. The Cincinnati Red Stockings of professional baseball became national darlings, winning 80 straight games over challengers like the New York Mutuals, Philadelphia Athletics and New Orleans Southerns.

The Red Stockings generated news coast to coast, building audience for the team and sport. Other cities responded, producing fully paid baseball clubs to rival the famed “Red Legs,” such as the White Stockings in Chicago. But Cincinnati’s team was household name, made by newspapers and magazines, and those mass media capitalized, churning out stories and illustrations. By time the Red Stockings finally lost, an upset at Brooklyn in 1870, fans were consuming reports nationwide. Stunned by defeat of the invincible team, readers were hooked on baseball’s daily drama. Scribes hailed it The National Game.

Amateur teams attracted hopeful players along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where the Red Stockings had thrashed clubs of Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. “Baseball is becoming the rage with our old and young boys,” observed The Bulletin at Cairo, Ill., confluence of the rivers. Nearby along the Ohio, in Massac County, “cockfighting and baseball are Young America’s amusement.”

Baseball games in Cairo streets constituted a nuisance, already, banned by city officials. Vacant lots filled with players in warm weather, for games typically segregated but sometimes mixing whites and blacks. Ball clubs of both races organized in the tri-state flatland, men’s teams of name like the Deltas and Shoo Flies, with junior squads for boys. Young males were mindful of pro baseball and the Red Stockings, dreamy symbols, and some aimed for the big-time level. But baseball remained crude in form, from equipment to playing fields.

Many Cairo kids and adults aspired for careers in amusement of a different order: the conventional entertainments of drama, music and circus. And local products were working in show business, on stage and in management. Some Cairo talents would realize that old cliché, fame and fortune, or former if not the latter.

Cairo in the postwar offered theater clubs and instructors, schools of music and dance, gymnastics and equestrian classes, even training in trapeze, the crowd favorite introduced by Jules Léotard.  Athleticism was an asset in each focus, obviously, and paramount for circus, where spectators demanded “break-neck gymnastics” of performers.

“Sports of the ring” drove circus entertainment. Fans clamored to see acrobats fly fast and high, including child daredevils, on floor, horseback, high wire and trapeze. And Cairo audiences witnessed the best.

Henry Magilton, American superstar of bareback tricks, tumbling and trapeze, showed at Cairo with Spalding and Rogers circus. Later Magilton was paralyzed of a 25-foot fall in London’s Alhambra Theatre. DeHaven’s circus at Cairo featured the Hanlon brothers, famed acrobats on trapeze and horseback. The Siegrist brothers appeared—Louis, Toto, and boy William—in their “phenomenal gymnastic groupings” for Batcheller and Doris. The Leslie brothers performed “graceful and daring double trapeze” in Rothchild’s circus. And “leaper” Frank Gardner vaulted into “a double somersault over four camels and one elephant,” stealing the show in Cole’s circus at Cairo, The Bulletin reported.

Maggie Claire of Cole’s was tough to top as “Queen of Air” on the “flying rings.” A brilliant talent, Claire debuted in Memphis vaudeville as a child contortionist in 1867. She appeared at Cairo in 1880, going up on ropes above 50 feet, grasping rings by hands and feet, twirling and flipping to band music, no safety net below.  Decades later she confessed: “Cold chills sometimes run over me [in retirement], when I think of my daring, and, especially, the ease with which I performed. It wasn’t work, it was mere play. My happiest hours were those when I swung high over the heads of my audience.”

In the big top at Cairo, Maggie Claire “captivated all present,” a scribe recounted, adding “her dangerous and quick movements, at so great a height, stamp her as an altogether superior artist.” During a quarter-century of performances, thousands of ascents in tents and theaters, Maggie Claire fell four times with each mishap due to rope malfunction. Her final drop was 44 feet to floor, causing hip dislocation and brain concussion among injuries, which ended her career.

P.T. Barnum brought breath-taking aerialist “Zazel” to Cairo, Rossa Matilda Richter, the Paris teenager on American tour. Barnum collected name performers by the dozens for his massive circus, and ZAZEL! dominated advertising in illustrations and text for 1880 shows. Richter was a pioneer “human cannonball” but likewise an elite athlete, climbing like a spider, unshakable on high wire. Thousands in a big tent fell silent as Zazel reached the darkened ceiling, crest line of the canvas. There she pranced and danced across a wire, frolicking child-like, toting a pink parasol. Suddenly Richter launched away, midair in her “eagle dive,” timing a half-flip on descent to bounce safely off net.

“She is on her feet again in an instant to perform the crowing act of her feat,” a newspaper recounted. “She enters the muzzle of a large cannon suspended over the ring, and is ejected from its mouth with a loud report and a smell of powder, rising some 20 feet in the air and landing in the net about 50 feet from the cannon. This act concludes the [entire] performance, which is certainly the best that Barnum has ever prepared.”

A child performer relied on lithe body and confident mindset, steely emotion, for circus success. Some kids couldn’t cope but many reeled off cold-blooded feats then smiled, mesmerizing crowds, charming all. In 1876 small acrobats were prime acts for Howe’s circus at Cairo. Little Willie Dorr was billed as “The wonderful child gymnast… who throws fourteen consecutive double somersaults.” Brothers Frederick and Willie O’Brien were hyped as “only 6 years old… the finest actors on the trapeze ever seen in America.”

Equestrian skill ranked highly in the delta, and thousands of enthusiasts converged at Cairo to see marquee circus riders and steeds. Children on horseback commanded spotlight, such as the Stokes sisters for C.W. Noyes. Beloved little riders Ella, Emma and Katie Stokes, of the legendary circus family, displayed cunning, dash and flash at Cairo. Noyes’ circus also featured a boy who stood out among men on horseback.

“Master Woody Cook is a prodigy,” declared The Cairo Bulletin, following an exhibition. “Although a mere lad, he is entitled to rank among the first equestrians and gymnasts of the period. He is the only boy living who throws a double-somersault.” Cook popped stunts atop horses speeding round the ring, turning 25 forward flips and 5 back flips on one ride, according to Noyes agents. “A standing challenge of $10,000 that Woody Cook, a mere boy, is the best bareback somersault rider in the world stands unaccepted,” the circus boasted. A Cairo newsman saluted kid Cook as “a miracle of agility, fearlessness and daring.”

Equestrian star Lizzie [Marcellus] Stowe first appeared at Cairo around age 12, with the Dan Rice Circus. She worked in the area for a decade, training and performing, until death with her husband and children aboard a steamboat in 1882. The tragic young woman had been “in early life a pupil of the renowned Dan Rice, and under the name of Lizzie Marcellus she won renown as one of the best female riders in the country,” reported The Bulletin.

Rice was expert in the somersault or flip on horseback, and he instructed riders in technique, but didn’t teach the first female to accomplish the feat. She was Mollie Brown, “Pearl of The Arena,” who drew a fan mob at age 19 in Cairo, starring for the Batcheller and Doris circus. “Superb,” The Bulletin gushed of Brown, reviewing the show. “The crowd at the circus… was the largest we ever saw anywhere at an afternoon performance. It is estimated that over 3,000 people were present. At night the immense canvass [tent], which the posters say seats 8,000 people (but which will not seat over 5,000) was jammed and crammed full.”

“The city was literally crowded yesterday with country people. Commercial Avenue and Ohio Levee were thronged with them.”

Adult equestrians were mainstay of the circus, most anticipated by Cairo audiences. In 1880 Barnum brought female riders Lizzie Marcellus, Emma Lake (“Side-Saddle Queen”), and his Parisian import Eliza Dockrill, known worldwide for gymnastics across the backs of horses, racing four and six at once. Barnum paid huge salary to “Madame Dockrill,” who headlined his shows for years, and contracted her husband as equestrian director.

Men riders shone in circuses at Cairo, led by masters James Robinson, C.W. Fish, Sam Stickney, Levi J. North, James DeMott, Frank Melville—and versatile Dan Rice, gifted horseman, gymnast, comedian, singer and dancer.

Rice, native of New York City, first landed at Cairo with a circus in the 1840s, preceding the Lennox showboat. During the 1870s and ’80s the aging celebrity often made home of the local area, conducting business in southern Illinois and Missouri, but also distancing from mounting creditors and his estranged wife, in-laws back in Pennsylvania. Rice had been America’s most famous entertainer in his prime, and a columnist mused that boys confused near mythical “Old Dan” with the biblical hero in Book of Daniel.

Some delta folks weren’t laughing though, the anti-circus parents, preachers and others. They seethed, contending children should be taught that circus and icons like Rice were false idols propagating sinful behavior, evil.

The Bulletin countered, charging hypocrisy on part of the circus critics, churchgoers, primarily, otherwise prone to praise team sports—baseball and tackle football—for so-called Muscular Christianity. Editorial writers scoffed: “The weather permitting there will be another game of base ball played in the Fifth Ward on next Sunday, and also a game of football. The whole to be concluded by a rousing fight. These kind of amusements are becoming very fashionable, and yet our good Christian people do nothing to prevent them.”

“We do however maintain that pugilistic encounters should not be put down upon the list of recreations. Several Christians also called upon us to say they had prayed for the reformation of the base ball men, but to little effect.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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  • http://www.donbrady.com/ Don Brady, PhD, PsyD, NCSP

    Again, Matt…another enjoyable piece of American history…thanks for your insights and efforts!

    Interesting that for some, ” Fool’s Ball ” was OK, while circus related activities were significantly frowned upon…