This is a true story of the Barnum Circus, and of the only known Canadian
boy who travelled with that famous show, when it came overland through
Canada in the early 1860s.
Nelson Forse was only 18 years old when he ran away from home to
join the circus. Exciting stories he had read of life beneath the
big top had fired his imagination and robbed farm chores of
their fascination for him. Plough and harrow had been his daily fare, but all the time he was building castles in the air -- castles
where fantastic clowns and shaggy-maned lions were the principal
actors and he was their loyal playmate.
So one dark night in the year 1857, which is long ago, Nelson Forse
decided his dreams should become reality. With a few silver pieces
jingling in his pocket and a bundle of clothes over his shoulder, he
crept stealthily down the rickety stairs of the old farm house which
he called home, and was swallowed up in the shadows of the night.
How he reached Albany, N.Y. where the Barnum Circus was showing, is
a long story, too long to be repeated here. He was a strapping,
robust lad and had no trouble securing a job as driver of a
Thus commenced the circus
career of Nelson Forse and for the next 18 years he served the
Baruum show, in return for enough food to keep a growing boy alive,
a make-shift bed and an adventuresome existence among the wild
animals, the rough circus men, and all the freaks that went to make
up that famous show.
Today Nelson Forse is farming in Norfolk County, Ontario not far from
his birthplace, and though he has seen 84 summers, time has dealt
generously with him. He still enjoys hoeing in the garden, wielding the
buzz saw, driving his horse to town over the road where he once rode on
top of a lion cage.
But his chief delight lies
in rehashing Barnum Circus days. His memories of those eventful
times are very vivid and he revels in reciting the colorful
incidents of his circus experiences. Especially is he fond of
retelling the annual pilgrimages of the Barnum Circus over the
"The summer trip
through Ontario and Quebec was always a favorite one," says
Nelson Forse. "This may seem odd in view of the fact that at
the time the country was densely wooded, the roads were only
partially broken trails, and as we traveled at night our only
beacons were the flickering lanterns that hung beneath each
"Though the journey was
long and tiresome, nearly
every circus man enjoyed showing in Canadian towns and mingling
with Canadian people. As far as I was concerned it was only natural
that I should be glad to be in my native province again.
"As a rule, we came in
from the west at Sarnia, which incidentally was one of the
best show towns in Ontario. Striking north, we followed the
lakeshore road, making one-day stands in Kincardine, Owen Sound,
Collingwood, and other young towns in the Georgian Bay district.
"On the return trip we
followed the Longwoods road through to Chatham, where we usually
stopped for a couple of days. Although thickly populated with Negroes Chatham was one of the best paying circus towns in western
"The river boat was
plying between Chatham and Detroit, at that time and I recall
crossing to the American side by boat one summer, I think in the
year 1860. Leaving Chatham, the circus passed on to The Kiln,
Strathroy and Lucan.
"I remember well a
stirring incident that happened in Lucan. Henry Barnum would never
allow any sort of rowdyism in the camp, but the men were always
prepared to defend themselves. One night, when the rough element in
Lucan got busy, we had an opportunity to display our wares. One of
our drivers chanced to overhear a plot to run some of our cages and
wagons down a steep hill. We laid in ambush and when the Lucanities
showed up we pounced and beat them to a pulp.
"In all the smaller towns and villages we made only one-night
stands, but in such places as London and St. Thomas we stopped for
two or three days.
"Proceeding eastward we
visited Ingersoll, Woodstock, Tillsonburg and Simcoe. The latter
town was perhaps the greatest driving centre for its size in
Ontario. Henry Barnum, the circus owner, knew I used to live near
Simcoe and whenever we approached the town he would say
affectionately. "Well, Big Nels, we're coming to the little
town among the Willows,"
"Every time we were leaving Simcoe I
felt I would like to desert for a while, and go back to the old
folks on the farm, but the sense of duty in the Barnum Circus was
great enough to overcome any yearning of this sort.
"Brantford and Hamilton
were the next show places and then on to Central Ontario, Galt,
Guelph, Preston, Berlin and Stratford were all good circus
"The last named was a
real dyed-in-the-wool show town in those days. It was branded by
travelers as a bad place to start anything, for the pugilistic
fires were always smoldering in Stratford and only a slight breeze
was required to set the whole town ablaze.
"During one stay we
made there, a man named Bates who drove our band wagon, got into an
argument with one of the downtown rowdies, that ended in a thorough
trouncing for the latter.
"In a trice the streets
were buzzing with excitement. I was almost the exact image of Bates,
and two Stratford policemen started to arrest me in mistake. I was
rather a powerful fighter myself in those days and I had just
managed to knock out both of them when someone gave the "hey,
Rube" call. Our fellows came streaming from nowhere, and in
half an hour we had cleaned up the whole town. The next day a
traveler told us he counted 42 bandaged heads in Stratford that
we stopped at Georgetown, Milton, Orangeville, Newmarket and Aurora.
Orangeville was always a red hot circus town. Sectional feeling ran
high in those days, and I remember seeing the Orangemen and the
Catholics wage a regular pitched battle on Orangeville's main
"Of course Toronto,
although only a good-sized town in the 1860s, was the big circus
centre of the Ontario circuit. We showed at the north end of
University avenue, and circus goers came from miles around to see
the wonders of the great Barnum show.
"Whenever we landed in
Toronto, the celebrated P. T. Barnum came over from New York to
officially open the circus. He was an accomplished orator, and
hundreds came just to hear him speak.
"We had another lively
scrap in Toronto one night. About 50 of the smart crowd planned
to wreck our show. Their advance agent was a swell dude, who came
swaggering into the big tent with his sweetheart on his arm just as
the evening performance was about to start.
"Our usher offered them
several seats but they preferred to stroll about the ring,
obstructing the view of patrons. The usher, who was also Barnum's
chief detective, warned them to be seated, on penalty of being
ejected. They refused to comply and Mr. Dude was tossed bodily from
the tent. That was the signal for the storm. It was a lively scene
for a few minutes, but our fellows were burly, two-fisted fighters,
and soon pummeled the gangsters into submission.
"Our eastern route
included Oshawa, Whitby, Port Hope, Cobourg, Belleville, Picton,
Kingston, Gananoque, Prescott, Pembroke, and Ottawa. We were at the
Capital when they were working on the parliament buildings, and I
remember we showed directly across the commons from them.
"Crossing into Quebec,
we showed at Hull, Three Rivers, Point Lewis and Quebec City.
"I have not forgotten
the time we were in the ancient capital when Prince Napoleon of
Frances was visiting there. I was sound asleep under my cage-wagon
when his boat steamed into the harbor. Directly above me were the
fort's guns, and when they boomed their salute, I was certain an
earthquake had struck us.
"The Indians at Point
Lewis were also holding a big pow-wow in honor of Prince Napoleon.
The Prince drove into camp in a fine phaeton drawn by a span of
snow-white horses. During the noisy ceremony, these horses broke
loose, smashed the phaeton to pieces and trampled dozens of the
stakes that supported our tents.
"Returning on the south side of the St. Lawrence we stopped at
Richmond, Sorel and St. John's, then crossed the boundary at Rouse's Point, at the mouth of Lake Champlain, and proceeded south for the
"In the days when it
was an overland show," continues Nelson Forse, "the Barnum
circus was by far the largest on the continent. It comprised 42
cages, 60 wagons, 323 horses and 325 men.
"I was one of the
drivers and my daily work consisted of piloting from eight to 10
horses attached to a huge lion cage over the highways and byways of
the United States and Canada. It was quite an art to drive
horses in squads of six and 10, with the whip as the principal
persuader. The experienced driver always held the lines with one
hand to check the horses, with the other in control of the whip.
"Our work commenced an
hour or two after midnight. Immediately following the evening
performance, down came the tents, the beasts were rushed to their
cages and the waiting wagons commenced the tedious all-night journey
to the next show place.
"Each man understood
his duties perfectly and the last stake was generally pulled within
an hour after the circus crowd had dispersed. We never averaged more
than seven or eight miles an hour, but the pace never slackened, for
we had to be on time for the regular forenoon procession at the next
difficulties we encountered in traveling by night those wrenched
roads can be easily imagined. Some of them were verifiable quagmires.
We often had to bring up the ponderous elephant, Tippo Sahib, who by
sheer brute strength could extricate the heaviest wagon from the
deepest mud hole. Many times I have seen him push hopelessly mired
cage wagons on to the highway again.
"The problem of travel
was partially solved by pathfinders, who went in
advance of the show, to pick out the best roads. The first advance
agent went six or eight weeks ahead of the show, to arrange for
feeding the animals. Then there was another pathfinder who would go
two weeks in advance, reporting specifically on every turn in the
"Finally followed the
24-hour man, who would leave the circus grounds at 10 o'clock at
night, and go ahead on the route we were to follow. He would either
use a rail or pile up grass, to indicate the way we were to go, and
would mark the dangerous places with red lanterns, which the driver
of the last wagon would gather up.
"I knew one of Barnum's
advance men of whom it was said he had covered more than 100,000
miles in one buggy.
"When on the march, the
baggage wagons were always in the vanguard, followed by the animal
wagons. With 60 wagons in the procession, extending about a mile in
length, it was a truly imposing spectacle.
"As we approached the
town, the caravan began to take on signs of life, for everyone had
to be groomed for the parade before we entered the city. after the
parade our work was done for the day. Usually we slept till
nearly midnight, then breakfasted and were ready for the next lap of
the endless overland journey.
"In the days of the
wagon circus we slept in the open under canvas. Nobody went to hotels except featured performers, but we had the best food in the
land that money could buy, and all we could eat at that. Beef,
chickens and vegetables were part of our daily menu.
"In the western country
where game was plentiful, our sharp-shooters would always supply us
with prairie chickens and venison. And there was no stinting in the
grubhouse. We could always pass the plate around for the second
"Moreover, the eating
tent was always clean and orderly, for Henry Barnum would never
tolerate anything but cleanliness in his show. No man could enter
the tent in his shirt sleeves. Mr. Barnum always sat at the
same table with his employees and anyone who did not know him
would never distinguish the wealthy circus magnate.
"But Barnum circus
employees were not only well fed. They were generously paid. We
drivers received $72 a month and board. The lowest salary was $25 a
month and board, while the highest paid ranged close to $100 a
"No employee could draw
his entire pay until the end of the season unless he quit.
Consequently, the Barnum staff of 328 men and women were steadfast
in their loyalty to Henry Barnum and seldom was he troubled with
dissension among them.
"When my friends ask me
about the Barnum circus," says the veteran cage-driver,
"they invariably assume that P. T. Barnum was the captain in
command. That is an absolutely erroneous idea.
"From the day I joined
the circus in 1857 until I drew my last pay slip in 1875, Henry
Barnum, who claimed no kinship whatever to the celebrated P. T., was
the exclusive owner and director of the big show. He was a
Connecticut Yankee, a born circus promoter, and although he died a
poor man as the result of disastrous investments, at one time he had
accumulated a fortune estimated at $17 million.
"With a small beginning
in the year 1834, he gradually built his show until it was
recognized for many years as the premier circus in America.
"With it for a long
time was associated the 'one and only' Van Amburgh Golden Menagerie.
Van Amburgh has gained world fame because of his daring work among
the wild animals of his menagerie, and had come to be known as the
king of lion-tamers.. He was still with our circus when he died in
"I knew him very well
and remember his death distinctly. We were showing in Philadelphia
at the time. One Sunday, which by the way, was always a day of
leisure for all of us, the intrepid lion-tamer went alone on a
fishing trip. He returned towards dusk with a good-sized catch. One
of our crowd queried 'Are you going to eat them, Van?' The rejoinder
came without hesitation: 'I'll eat them by -- or die.' He passed to
his reward later the same evening.
"In 1868, Henry Barnum
entered a partnership with another circus promoter. It was, however,
short-lived, for the following year when fire destroyed the famous
Barnum museum in New York, the circus split up and Henry Barnum
started out with a new show called Central Park. I was still driving
a cage for him in the new circus. We toured the West that year and
enjoyed a fairly successful season.
"But upon our return to
New York, Barnum announced that he had decided to buy a whole new
circus in England. At once he selected 17 of his employees,
including myself, to cross the Atlantic and being back the new show.
"We were in the old
country nine weeks and landed back in New York on St.
Valentine's Day, 1871. with a brand new show, known in England as
Howe's Circus and Sanger's English Menagerie.
"The new tableau
wagons, made of carved wood and inlaid with gold gilt, were
magnificent. In the sunlight they shone like a mountain of silver
and gold. They were 15 feet high and were drawn by 12 horses. In
fact, they were so high that we were compelled to lower them when
passing under railroad crossings.
"Inside one of the
parade wagons was a huge wooden elephant which, when wound up would
slowly rise on to the top of the wagon as the procession
passed along the street.
"But the 142 head of
English horses we brought back proved utterly useless, due no doubt
to the effects of the stormy ocean voyage. So we exchanged them for
French steeds at Montreal. I drove a span of these beauties for
eight years. They were my lead horses and were extraordinarily
intelligent, knowing the various routes was well as I did.
"We had only one
side-show. Jake Reid, whom I knew very intimately, was the
enterprising owner. His stunt comprised a weird dance by two
idiotic, flat-headed children, a boy and a girl, whom he picked up
"Reid had an uncanny
flow of oratory and held out his protégés as a pair of Australian
wild children. They would protest vehemently to the audience in an
endeavor to disprove their master's assertion. But this only served
to add to the general merriment of the crowds.
"The children, though
nearly white, were in reality Negroes. The whole side-show was a
humbug, but Jake Reid and his kids never failed to make a hit, and I
know he cleaned up a fortune before retiring.
"Among the many
outstanding attractions was the "fat lady." She weighted
over 400 pounds. I had an amusing experience with her one day at
Amherstburg. That village was then known as Moulden, and a
provincial insane asylum was located there. The 'fat lady' insisted
on visiting it. I consented to accompany her.
"We had just got inside
the date when one of the inmates stalked forth and commanded us to
halt. The 'fat lady' was petrified and her many superfluous pounds
trembled in waves of fear. Fortunately the keeper appeared just
then, the imbecile disappeared, and we were shown through ths
"There were many
thrills in the Barnum circus. The 'old man' by virtue of his
generosity, had secured for his show the most notable aerobatic
performers in either hemisphere. Their daring stunts alone were
worth the price of admission.
"They flirted with
death every day, but during my 18 years with the show only two of
them were fatally injured. An
acrobat named Kelly, whose feat was a leaping triple somersault from
a springboard over the backs of 21 horses, lined up side by side,
miscalculated the distance one afternoon and falling, broke his
neck. The other, a young French-Canadian performer, who earned his
salary by lifting a huge cask of water with his teeth, overtaxed his
strength and died as the result of a broken blood vessel in his neck.
I remained with the Barnum
circus until 1875," concludes Mr. Forse, "when one of the
promoters conceived the idea of travelling from town to town by
rail. It is argued that with receipts ranging from five to seven
thousand dollars in the larger cities, and falling below two
thousand in the smaller places, it would pay in the long run to
transport the show by rail.
"Thus Barnum's became a
railroad circus, over, however the protests of the great showmen and
a big percentage of their employees, to whom the long journeys
overland presented an unconquerable fascination, and who were
reluctant to forsake the old wagons for the railway coach. .I was one
of them, and I drew my last pay slip from the Barnum show in the
autumn of 1875."
In contradiction to the
popular belief that circus like in the pioneer days was an
unenviable one, Mr. Forse asserts that those 18 years were the most
delightful of his entire career. In his own words, "The days of
the overland circus have come and gone, but I would not have missed
them for the world. The life possessed a certain glamor that time
itself could not dispel. For months after I left the circus I could
not sleep. At midnight I could still hear the harsh cries of the
hustler, the loading of wagons, and the crackle of whips. Sense of
habit compelled me to arise from my bed, pull on my clothes and cry
"Let's go." Then and only then could I retire for a good