P.T. Barnum Circus 1854 riot

old 19th century circus poster
19th century photograph of man in suit

Northern showman and promoter, Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) spent decades having his famous Circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth,” zigzagging across the nation. From his home base of New York City, P.T. Barnum entertained 19th century audiences in big cities but also sent his traveling menagerie to towns where entertainment was rare. His show caused fun and excitement.

In its earlier days, Barnum’s show was referred to as a “Museum” or a “Menagerie,” later becoming known as a “Circus.” On September 9, 1854 the Barnum “Menagerie” provoked a different type of excitement when it came to the small town of Washington, Rappahannock County, Virginia. This is the same community mentioned in “A Gun was Fired…” when Quakers from Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, Virginia, were set upon by Rappahannock citizens intent on keeping the Quakers from helping a kidnapped black woman, Kitty Payne. Payne and her children were being held in the town’s jail. Nine years after that event, the town of Washington (the county seat of Rappahannock County, VA) once again showed how some of its townspeople could become dangerously alarmed, this time when a “young slave boy” was helped to freedom by Barnum Circus “showmen.” The story was picked up by several national newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

barnum circus riot over slave boy
Brooklyn Daily Eagle September 14, 1854 wrote of the riot in Washington, Rappahannock County, Virginia when the Barnum “Menagerie” show came to the small northern Virginia town. Other newspapers, in both northern and southern states, also covered this story. Courtesy newspapers.com

Two days later, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle returned to the story with more information, implying that the whole fracas started when a Washington, Rappahannock Co. citizen proved himself too clever to be fooled by one of the exhibits. He had pronounced the Barnum exhibit to be “humbug.” That assessment sparked fisticuffs from the Barnum crowd, both sides of which may already have been pickled and primed for a fight.

old 19th century circus poster
Handbill poster for Barnum’s Museum, Courtesy of Library of Congress

The effort to help an enslaved boy escape had apparently been discovered shortly before the “humbug” fight broke out, and may, in fact, be why magistrate Braxton Eastham was on hand to take a well aimed punch or two. The issue of the “negro belonging to a gentleman in Madison” was now relegated to the bottom of the news column.

old brooklyn newspaper text
old brooklyn newspaper text
Brooklyn Daily Eagle September 16, 1854. Courtesy newspapers.com

The Court Book 1851-1857, at the Clerk of the Court Offices in Washington, Rappahannock County, VA gives legal basis for the newspaper article’s claim of “four or five” showmen charged with “Incitement to Riot” and committed for trial. The court documents show the men were found “not guilty” of the charge of rioting. One of the men, James Duane, was singled out and may have been something of a ringleader. Transcript of Court Book pages 306, covering the initial Grand Jury charge, and page 310, shown below, is here.

old 19th century court records
old 19th century court documents
Court Book 1851-1857, page 310, Courtesy of Clerk of the Court Office, Washington, Rappahannock County, Virginia

Madison, Virginia, mentioned as the home of the young enslaved boy helped to freedom by a Barnum showman, is 28 miles south of the town of Washington in Rappahannock County, where the riot occurred. News of the boy’s escape seems to have traveled fast, or at least, faster than the circus wagons. If he disappeared with the circus when it left the town of Madison, news of his departure must have spread far and wide. Imagine his fear when he was spotted in Washington and dragged from his new role with the famous circus.

southern blue ridge mountains usa
In the 19th century, Rappahannock County was beautiful and rural, and looks similar today. The small town of Washington is the county seat of Rappahannock County, located 70 miles west of the nation’s capital with the same name.

What does this story have to do with the Quakers of Lincoln, Loudoun County, Virginia? That is a fair question since it has nothing to do with the Quakers of Loudoun County. However, the 1854 incident with Barnum’s traveling show does show the atmsophere of non-Quaker Virginia country towns. The Virginia citizens may have recognized humbug when they saw it, but they also seemed more than ready to fight in support of sending a boy back into slavery.

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