In 1891, Richmond hosted the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’

In the late 19th Century, traveling circuses were the most popular entertainment in rural America, and the Ringling Bros. show and its elephants were at the head of the class. Ringling visited Richmond in 1891, one of two circuses in Ray County the same week. (Library of Congress photo)

By Linda Emley

In 1882, five brothers traveled around the state of Wisconsin and performed juggling acts and skits in small town city halls. They used the name Ringling Brothers’ Classic and Comic Concert Company.
On May 19, 1884, they joined forces with Yankee Robinson and took their one-ring circus act across the Midwest. The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Circus was short lived because Yankee died while the circus was in Jefferson, Iowa on Sept 4, 1884. But as they say in the land of show biz, “The show must go on” and it did because the Ringling Brothers Circus became one of the largest circus acts in America by the late 1880s.
It took teamwork to run a circus and each brother had his own duty. Alfred was in charge of advance publicity and put up colorful animal posters to advertise the upcoming circus; Al was in charge of the acts; Charles was the show producer and manager; Otto took care of the money, and John was in charge of transportation. The youngest brother, Henry, did not become part of the show until Otto died in 1911.
The circus would go from one small town to the next small town, usually only moving 15 to 20 miles each night. In 1888, the brothers bought their first elephant and things started to change. In 1889, two of the brothers went to Philadelphia and purchased railroad cars from Adam Forepaugh, who had a traveling show since 1864. The Ringling Brothers put their new train cars to good use and started playing only big towns and as they say, the rest is history.
I’m sure everyone is thinking, “What does the Ringling Brothers Circus have to do with Ray County history?”
In the Richmond Conservator on July 23, 1891, there was a full-length ad that was announcing that the circus was coming to town.
“Only Big Rail Road Show Coming. Ringling Brothers’ World’s Greatest Show. Three Ring Circus and Elevated Stages. Real Roman Hippodrome, Museum and Aquarium, Mighty Millionaire Menagerie, World’s Horse Fair and Realistic Roman Gala Day, Sports and Spectacles. Will Exhibit At Richmond, Monday, Aug 10. The largest and most faultless union of MIGHTY SHOWS ON EARTH! Embracing all the cardinal features of the amusement world, now enlarged to fully five times its former vastness. A veritable traveling city of splendors with a miraculous population and an opulent wealth unparalleled in the history of amusements.
“1000 people, 300 horses, 80 musicians, 5 brass and reed bands, 10 different kinds of music, 100 dazzling acts, 300 circus and hippodrome performers, 100 cages, dens chariots, etc. … 7 of the dens of wild animals open in parade. 3 great circus rings, 2 elevated stages, 1 largest hippodrome track on earth. $1,000,000 invested in menagerie alone. One ticket admits to all. An admirable collection of earth’s rarest wonders, largest living hippopotamus in captivity, mammoth Amphibious Bovalapus, only genuine African Zebras in America, mighty herds of ponderous elephants, all kinds of thrilling races, the largest cars under the sun! The Umbrella Eared Elephant. The remarkable Demon Equine or hairless horse. The latest historical Roman Spectacle.
“Caesar’s Triumphed Entrée into Rome. Babylon – the largest elephant on earth. A boundless feast of aerial sensations. Only den of African Man-Eaters. ‘Prince Battenburg’ midget bull – height 24 inches. An all-new and thrilling Roman Hippodrome. $10,000 troop of performing stallions, The largest and most extensive zoological exhibition in the world. Family of baby kangaroos, cutest baby lions, playful baby tigers, stupendous revival of the circus maximus, America’s most brilliant, grand and mighty amusement institution.
“Every morning at 10 o’clock the most elaborate, sumptuous free street parade that has ever moved in pomp and glitter through any city in the world. One 50 cent ticket admits to all. Children under 12 half price. Two performances daily – afternoon and night. Doors open at 1 and 7 p.m. Performances commence 1 hour later. These – The World’s Greatest Shows Will POSITIVELY EXHIBIT AT Richmond, Monday, August 10.”
On Aug. 13, 1891, The Richmond Conservator gave a good review about the circus. The circus arrived early on Sunday morning and everyone preformed their duties like a well-trained army. They were very quiet and orderly. By noon, all the tents were up and they were ready for the show on Monday. Several local people visited the circus grounds on Sunday afternoon and enjoyed the excitement.
“Long before daylight on Monday,” the Conservator said, “people began flocking to town from all directions, and by 10 o’clock the crowd in town was estimated at 12,000.”
When the parade started, the police had to help with crowd control to keep people from blocking the roads. They claimed it was the largest crowd ever in Richmond. Alf Ringling told the newspaper that the afternoon show sold 9,406 tickets. He said this was the second-largest crowd they had seen. The largest crowd was 10,200 people at their show in Fargo, N.D.
“The show was the best ever seen here,” the Conservator reported. “The Ringlings tolerate no fakers or gambling devices in or around their tents, and manage a clean show and do all they advertise, They informed us that they would certainly visit Richmond during the tenting season of 1892.”
The same newspaper had a short article about the circus. “It cost Ringling Brothers $400 to have their circus trains hauled over the Santa Fe railroad from Carrolton to Plattsburg.” Considering they made at least 10 grand in Richmond, $400 sounds like small change.”
There is always another story behind the real story and in this case, it is the sad tale of “Robinson’s Circus”.
The Aug. 13 Conservator told it like it was. “Robinson’s Circus which exhibited here yesterday afternoon and last night is described as ‘Rocky’ . It is at Vibbard today”
It’s been 121 years since this circus came to Richmond, but I still feel sorry for the manager of Robinson’s Circus because it was really poor timing to come to Richmond two days after the Ringling Bros. Circus. I’m sorry, but not every show can be “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The Conservator got the last word when it declared the following: “Towns like Richmond don’t often enjoy two circuses in one week. On Monday we had Ringling Bros. circus and on Wednesday Robinson’s . But then Richmond is better than most towns and is entitled to all the good things going.”
Yes it was a good week for Richmond, but lots of other things were going on around town. Come back for part two of “the good, the bad and the ugly of 1891.”

Have a story or comment for Linda? Write her at or see her at Ray County Museum.

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