I love circuses. It’s that part of me that has never grown up. I was one of those kids who wanted to run away and join one, and I never quite got over the love of the spectacle, even as I learned the not so glamorous aspects. When I worked at the Atlanta Journal, I always got ringside tickets, and I would grab the nearest kid as an excuse. Is there anything better than cotton candy, peanuts, clowns and a death- defying trapeze artist.
I was reminded of that a few days ago when I came across some old photos of circuses from the 1800s, and I instantly dove into research mode.
Imagine my delight when I encountered a strong circus heroine from the past. As you know from my previous posts, I love finding unheralded heroines. And although this one was quite famous at the time, she seems to have faded from memory. So let me tell you about Mollie Arline Kirkland Bailey.
But first a little circus history . . .
Circus were quite common in the west, even before Barnum and Bailey. The year 1814 marked a major turning point not only in the growth and development of the United States but also for the American Circus. In that year, the circuses moved beyond the Appalachian mountains and into the west.
They weren’t always greeted with laughter, though. One newspaper editor in Ohio commented, “The circus business is an unlawful calling, one that cannot be defended on scriptural ground. The performances are calculated to amuse the giddy and thoughtless and to excite the laughter of fools . . .it does not yield a rational amusement to men of understanding and reflection. Our country. . .is infested with dishonest, unprincipled men of various descriptions such as swindlers, counterfeiters, stage players and showmen. . . ”
The rest of the country obviously didn’t agree, and circuses grew in popularity on the 19th century.
Mollie was with one of them. She was called the Circus Queen of the Southwest, and her background is the stuff of novels. Mollie was born on a plantation near Mobile, Alabama, and as a young woman eloped with Gus Bailey who played the cornet in his father’s circus band. With Mollie’s sister Fanny, and Gus’s brother Alfred, the young couple formed the Bailey Family Troupe, which traveled through Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas acting, dancing and singing.
During the Civil War, Gus served as bandmaster for a company of Hood’s Texas Brigade. Leaving their child Dixie, the first of nine children, with friends, Mollie traveled with the brigade as a nurse and, according to some sources, as a spy for the Confederacy. She disguised herself as an elderly woman, passed through federal camps pretending to be a cookie seller, and was said to pass packets of quinine through enemy lines by hiding packets of it in her hair.
She joined her husband and brother-in-law in Hood’s Minstrels in 1864, and during this time her husband wrote the words for “The Old Gray Mare,” based on a horse who almost died after eating green corn but revived when given medicine. The song was later used as the official song of the Democratic National Convention of 1928.
When the war ended, the couple traveled throughout the South and then toured by riverboat with the Bailey Concert Company. Their career in Texas began when the troupe traded the showboat for a small circus that enjoyed immediate success as the Bailey Circus. It later became the Mollie A. Bailey show after Gus’s health forced him to retire. At its height, the one-ring circus had 31 wagons and about 200 animals; it added elephant and camel acts in 1902, and Mollie gave free tickets to war veterans, Union or Confederate.
Unlike other circuses, she bought lots in many places where the circus performed to eliminate the high “occupation” taxes levied on shows by most towns. When the circus moved on, she allowed those lots to be used for ball games and camp meetings and later let most of them revert to the towns. She was noted for her generosity to various churches and for allowing poor children to attend the circus free. She was said to be the friend of Comanche chief Quanah Parker and she entertained senators and governors in her private train car. She showed the first motion pictures in Texas in a separate circus tent, including a one-reel film on the sinking of the U.S. Maine.
From spy to riverboat entertainer to circus owner, Mollie obviously grabbed hold of life and never let go.
One of these days, I think I’ll model one of my heroines after Mollie. I’ve always believed a novelist can’t compete with real life heroes, heroines and even villains. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s some other fun circus facts:
— The circus came to the United States in 1793 when John Bill Rickets, an English equestrian rider, used a ring and added acrobats, a rope walker and a clown to his equestrian act.
— By 1852, about 30 circuses were touring the U.S. Most had menageries. The circus was the country’s most popular form of entertainment because its traveling shows gave them the only entertainment they had all year. Competition among various circuses created the golden age, as each circus tried to outdo the others with a show more spectacular than circus goers had ever seen.
— In the 1850’s, Charles Rogers built the first circus showboat, called the Floating Palace. In 1857 “fairy floss, otherwise known as cotton candy, was invented.