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We hope you will enjoy reading CIRCUS DAYS which we are distributing as a public service to the people of our


We wish to commend the members and staff of the Frankford Historical Society for the time and energy they have contributed in a successful effort to see that the early days of the town are not forgotten. It will be worth your while to visit the Museum maintained by The Frankford Historical Society at 1507 Orthodox Street. The building is open every Tuesday evening.


Circus Days in Frankford

President of the Frankford Historical Society

HILADELPHIA has long been considered by circus people an excellent city not only for the large audiences, but also as the home and birthplace of many famous circus actors and acrobats. It is a strange coincidence that most of these performers in the earlier days came from Frankford. It is also interesting to note that one of the early organizers of shows which developed into circus proportions was a resident of Frankford. It is therefore fitting that this account should begin with a brief sketch of this early show man. John O'Brien, for he had a major share in making Frankford famous as a circus headquarters' town during at least three decades of the last century. Sometime during his early life before he went into the circus business he peddled fish in Frankford and as he traveled along the streets he would cry "Fresh Porgies!" hence his nickname "Porgy." We are told that he was illiterate until his later years but always had a good memory. O'Brien was not much of a business man. It is said of him that he did all his business in his head. He didn't know anything about books or bookkeeping. It was easy to tell when O'Brien was wealthy. As soon as he struck a good season he would dress in the most flashy manner. A man who knew him well left this story on record about him. "In 1870 O'Brien was very flush and anyone who saw him would know it at a glance. He had a great weakness for diamonds and this year he was literally decked with blazing stones. He had a large cluster of diamonds in his shirt bosom and a velvet vest every button of which was set with a diamond. He was very proud of this vest and was accustomed to wearing it on all occasions. He had it for several years, but the second season one of the buttons was missing. Before the end of the season two more were missing. It was at the end of the third year that the last diamond was cut off and then the vest was discarded." "Porgy" O'Brien was on the high road to success a number of times, but each time he succeeded in getting his finances in such shape that he had to begin all over again. In his time he had conducted more than a dozen shows, and at one time he was considered the biggest show man in the country. He is said to have been the indirect cause of Adam Forepaugh starting in the show business. Early in the 1860's Adam Forepaugh

was a horsedealer in the northwestern part of the city. Along about 1862 and 1863 O'Brien stocked his circus with horses from Forepaugh's stables. At the end of the season he could not pay the bill and Forepaugh seized the show. He bought it in and the next year he started on the road with a circus. There is a story which gave O'Brien great delight in telling himself. It was an incident which occurred when he was running the stage from Frankford to Philadelphia before he entered the show business. He had a driver who went by the name of "Whitey". One night he was in the hay loft when "Whitey" came in and began counting his money. He had a lot of change and he counted it out in two lots in this way: "This is for John." "This is for me." When he came to the last coin he said, "I'll toss this to see whether John takes it or whether I take it." At this point O'Brien called down from the hayloft, "You had better let that go for horse feed, Whitey." That was Whitey's last night as a driver in the employ of O'Brien. Of the various buildings used by the circus people of Frankford, the one built by Porgy O'Brien on Darrah Street near Fillmore is perhaps the best remembered. "Porgy" in those days lived at the southwest corner of Darrah and Harrison Streets. He built it for Alexander Lewando and for many years it was used as training quarters for the members of that family of acrobats and bareback riders.

Ring Barn

Bare-back riding had just become popular and O'Brien seeing possibilities in that field that had not yet been attempted put up this building known to most Frankfordians as the Ring Barn. It resembled a one-ring circus tent of wood instead of canvas. There was a fifty-foot ring (hence the name Ring Barn) around which the horses ran and the riders had their "try-out" using the regulation attachment known in circus parlance as the "mechanic". It consisted of a pole erected in the center of the ring. It had a long projecting arm from which was suspended a harness. The straps of the harness were adjusted around the body of the performer who was practicing, to prevent him or her from falling in the event of a mistake in trying to complete a somersault. The extending arm was attached to a shorter arm below, which was turned by a man on the ground at the base of the center pole. By this means both the horse and the acrobat were kept together while in motion. It was on this machine that some of the most daring feats on horseback were first practiced. With this support which insured the rider against a bad fall, the performer was given nerve to attempt some feats he probably would not otherwise have attempted. Practice gave courage and agility and in a little while the act could be accomplished without support. During the winter months the Ring Barn became a place for the entire company to keep in practice and a place where new sensations were created with which to startle the amazed pubic the next season. During these months the company was paid from the proceeds of two performances given each week. These performances were given on Friday and Saturday nights when the townspeople would gather to see how the performers were progressing. The admission fee was small and after the show-people received their portion the remainder would often go to help one of the "profesh" who was down and out. Special performances were given when members of all the shows in Frankford would give their services free. In this way, many a performer who had been injured or was sick would receive a goodly sum of money. The Ring Barn was arranged exactly as a one-ring circus. Animal cages lined the walls on one side of the circular building while on the other side were a few tiers of seats for the spectators. At one end was the public entrance and ticket office and almost opposite across the building was the door where the performers came into the ring up an incline which led from the adjoining barn where the stalls for the horses were located and where tents and wagons were stored. Over this entrance was a small balcony for the band. One great drawback to this old winter circus, from the small boys' standpoint, was that it was impossible to sneak into the show under the tent cloth and the windows were too high and always too well guarded for peeps from the outside. Frankford, in time, became quite famous as a winter circus center and training place for performers but it was not until O'Brien discovered the famous Lewando family that he was able to realize

his dreams of daring horse-back feats. It was while on a short tour to Cuba that he accidentally came across a wandering troupe of acrobats with a donkey upon which they did the most wonderful tricks he had ever seen. He straightway made a contract with the troupe (7 in number 1 and brought them to Frankford where with the assistance of Alexander Lewando, the father of the group, he soon had the boys drilled into doing daring feats that astonished the public and brought applause and plenty of money wherever they exhibited. Other celebrities who used the Ring Barn to practice when not on the road included the DeMott Family of riders; George H. Adams, the famous clown; the LaRue Family of acrobats and Mollie Brown, the first woman bareback rider to turn somersaults on horse back. Mollie Brown was a half sister of Mrs. James DeMott. The family of James DeMott and his wife Josephine lived at the northwest corner of Harrison Street and Frankford Avenue. They were of French descent. Some of their ancestors in France had distinguished themselves as circus performers. Mrs. DeMott's grandfather was the first man who ever turned a somersault on a horse's back while her mother was the first woman to stand on one foot on a horse balancing herself erect. Her half sister was the first woman ever to turn a somersault on the back of a bareback horse. Thus it will be seen that the children of this DeMott family who went into the circus had many traditions of great riding to live up to.

John V. O'Brien 6

Mrs. John Battersby

There were eight DeMott children but only the following became connected with the circus. William was a circus man all his life and was an excellent rider. He was the father of Mrs. George Hart, of Frankford. Josephine (later Mrs. Josephine DeMott Robinson) was professionally known as Josie DeMott and during her circus career was the most famous bare back rider under the Big Top. Louise also went into the circus but her heart was never in it. There were many other persons connected with the circus from time to time in various capacities. Among these was Harry Colis, the elephant man. It is said that he and his dog and one of the elephants all slept together. Colis, it is reported, left the circus one year while it was showing on the circus lot in Frankford and the elephants became quite unmanageable until Colis was persuaded to come back. Mention should also be made of John Battersby, the living skeleton and his wife Hannah, the fat lady. The Battersby's lived at Unity and Waln Streets. John Battersby is reported to have weighed but 70 pounds while connected with the circus as the living skeleton. We are told that in later life his weight went up to 125 pounds. His wife Hannah, the fat lady of the circus, was born in Vermont in 1842. Her weight remained normal until she was 12 years of age. After that she began to increase in weight abnormally until she reached 500 pounds. The following items were found in a series of newspaper clippings: "The wife of John L. Battersby was taken seriously ill at Providence, R.I., while presiding at the Fat Ladies' Convention, an honor conferred upon her by reason of her being the largest and heaviest woman at the convention." She recovered from this attack of illness. Later, when she died she was buried in a walnut casket 7 ft. long, 3 ft. wide, and 2 ft. deep. It was carried by 12 men and a derrick was used to lower it into the grave at Cedar Hill Cemetery. The Battersby's had an adopted daughter, Edith, who was the Cannibal in the circus. She later became the wife of police officer, Charles Huckel. As O'Brien's circus grew, he built enlarged quarters on a plot of ground at Griscom and Foulkrod Streets, back of Seven Stars Hotel. This included the large brick building on Frankford Ave. north of the Hotel and adjoining Star Hall. This he used to house his circus wagons and animals. It was later used as a hay shed by the Seven Stars Hotel. On the western end of the lot he had an enclosed training ring that was used all during the winter months. The cages and circus wagons were made by Thomas Castor, whose establishment stood at the Northwest corner of Frankford Avenue and Overington Street. On several occasions great excitement was caused by animals escaping from O'Brien's menagerie. On one occasion one of the

lions escaped and set off to study the topography of Frankford. Before the beast had a chance to greet any of the residents Signor Robinson mounted the big elephant Empress, gave chase, and the king of the forest was lassoed and taken back to the cage before he had a fair taste of liberty. Empress was the largest elephant in captivity in the United States at that time. One day, Empress, the elephant, was brought to Dark Run Creek from O'Brien's barn at Darrah Street near Fillmore, to water her and probably to give her a scrubbing. Elmer Cole was riding down the Pike with the Krewson's in their milk wagon, drawn by a big black horse they had just bought. This horse was probably not used to the smell of an elephant, and when they got down as far as Dark Run Creek, the horse got a whiff of Empress, turned the wagon about face and went up the pike, never stopping until they arrived at their place on Salter's Lane, now Magee Street. Late in 1874 O'Brien's four big elephants did some stunts at Worthington's Buck Tavern, Feasterville, where they stopped overnight. Being in a playful mood they lifted the roof off the corn crib and played havoc with the apple trees. In March, 1876, a Washington correspondent of The Philadelphia Item wrote, that the circus of John O'Brien, exhibiting in that city, advertises as the "Million Dollar Show," six big shows in one, comprises one sea cow, one elk, one sacred ox, two deer, two hyenas, one eland. two leopards, one lioness and cubs, two lions,

Quarters for entertainers were in the Seven Stars Hotel, corner Frankford, Oxford and Arrott Streets. Animals were kept in rear of hotel. 8

one horned horse, one yak, some monkeys, some birds in 16 cages, one elephant, one camel, four wax bell ringers, two marines and 22 wagons and 16 mounted men in the brass band. In September, 1879, Adam Forepaugh commenced suit against P. T. Barnum, in the Court of Common Pleas, to recover value of certain goods which were sold under judgement obtained by Mr. Barnum against John O'Brien, and which goods were claimed as the property of Mr. Forepaugh. The allegation was that Mr. O'Brien, who was a circus man, obtained from Barnum the right to use the name of the latter in advertising his circus, for which right he was to pay Barnum a considerable sum of money. He failed to pay Barnum and the latter, therefore, got a judgment against O'Brien for $14,000, and under this judgment so obtained, Barnum, about the beginning of the year 1880, seized at Frankford a lot of circus stock, consisting of horses, harness, cages, etc. This property Mr. Forepaugh claimed as his own, and due notice was given to Mr. Barnum and Sheriff Wright, but, notwithstanding such notice, the sheriff was directed to proceed with the sale, and he did so, and the suit therefore, was against Barnum for the value of the goods. In April, 1880, a local paper announced that Mr. Forepaugh is setting up the quarters of his wild beasts at the Seven Stars Hotel, Frankford, preparatory to beginning the summer campaign in combination with Messrs. Cooper and Bailey with "the greatest show on earth. Carriages and chariots will come forth in barbaric splendor, newly gilded and painted, and the performers are already hard at work practicing and rehearsing. Some of the forest monarchs belonging to the combination have histories. One of the tigers is said to have swallowed his keeper, and there is a lion that recollects with pride how he once got loose and kept the entire population of a country town in their houses for three days. The baby elephant is also a great attraction. For several years after the Civil War, P. T. Barnum showed on the old Red Barn lot, which included much of the ground that is now bounded by Frankford Avenue, Oxford Pike, Overington and Leiper Streets. Later the plot of ground at Frankford Avenue, Franklin now Griscom, Dyre and Wakeling Streets was the "circus lot." On this spot Forepaugh, O'Brien, Robinson, Sell and others, famous in the circus business. held forth. More recently the Filter lot at Church and Tackawanna streets was used by the smaller circuses and Wild West Shows. The circus parade was also a regular feature in Frankford during this period. They are said to have been a "thing of beauty" and attracted crowds of people from Frankford and the surrounding country to Main Street to see- them pass. The late Mr. William Overington told the writer that he remembered very little about Porgy O'Brien but he did remember that over 70 years ago, when attending Miss Club's school, the

pupils were permitted to go out on the lawn of St. Mark's Church, with which the school was connected, to watch O'Brien's circus parade go by. Mr. Overington also recollected that there was a row of houses at Oxford Avenue and Griscom Street where the circus employees lived. While many of the performers of the various circuses were respected citizens of Frankford, there was the riff-raff which always follows the show, and of this class, we are told some of the more timid residents were sorely afraid. The story goes that as soon as the circus arrived in town for the winter some of these folks would carry everything of value into their bedrooms at night and would put double locks on the doors and windows. Whether these precautions did the trick or whether these circus hangers-on were not so black as they were painted, the fact remains that there were but few serious robberies reported. In conclusion, let us learn how a person who was brought up in the circus and who spent the best years of her life in it, feels about this life as compared with life in what she terms the Outside World by quoting from The Circus Lady by Josie DeMott. She says, "We of the circus know only one lawsimple and unfailing: "The Show must go on." For youngest and oldest, for least and highest; for the bareback queen and the canvas man this is the cardinal law. There are no amendments. There is

Transportation to Circus Via An Old Horse Car


no need of any. For always, despite rain or cyclone, despite train wrecks, despite life itself, and even death, this law is obeyed by everyone. "A world of its ownthe circus. Like the outside world, it has its births, and deaths, and marriages, its joys, its jealousies, and fears. But to us who are born under its surging canvas, it has one thing more. There is a fraternity there that we of the circus who have ventured into the Outside World, do not find in that strange place a fellow feeling that transcends money and position, that applies the Golden Rule and practices it. "The lure of the circus is for the Outside World to feel. They see the flashing spangles gleam in the light as the bareback rider flies by. They are fascinated by the spangle shimmer, and the circus becomes to them a thing of whirling magic. But we of the inside world know the daily toil that made possible that lovely shimmering leap on a horse's satiny back, the years that have gone to make those muscles answer so perfectly the demands on them. For us, the lure of the circus is the laugh of comrades, the helping hand in need, the sympathy at a fall, the little big things that make life possible and lovely. "I find that I prefer the sympathy and understanding of my world to the indifferent, haphazard, money-mad hurry of the Outside World."

An Old Dummy Car with Trailer


Building of the Historical Society of Frank ford

Secretary's Office of the Society showing 200-year old Fireplace Reconstructed from Waln Grove. Table is from Chalkley Hall.

Corner of Museum showing small part of Treasures of Yesterday


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