When the circus came to Newburyport, Mass., in 1810, it wasn’t viewed as a completely respectable form of entertainment. Those who planned to watch did so with some trepidation about the effect on their reputation.
Circuses started in Europe in the 1760s and began as horse-riding exhibitions. By the late 1700s they arrived in America with exotic animals, acrobats and clowns had been added to the mix.
Growing up in Newburyport in the 1790s, Sarah Anna Emery’s mother, Sarah Smith Emery, recalled some of the most important events and colorful stories of her time. They included the tale of the circus that came to town and her brave decision to attend.
The Circus Comes To Town
“The third of May, the first circus that ever visited Newburyport came into town; an Italian troop, Messrs Cayetano and Co.,” she wrote.
She then described how men set up a board pavilion in an unoccupied lot between Pleasant and Harris streets. They then furnished it with seats in the pit, which surrounded the ring. Above the ring perched a gallery, which had boxes comprising the dress circle, and a musicians stand.
The circus scheduled its exhibitions for Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Doors opened at 3:30 p.m. and the performance started at 4:30 p.m. Tickets cost $1 to the boxes, 50 cents to the pit and children under 10 got in for half price.
“This was a most respectable and fine looking company,” she wrote. “Their horses were splendid animals [and] all the appurtenances in the best style.”
The company had a problem, though. It advertised grand military maneuvers by eight riders, but it only had six.
And so, wrote Sarah, “upon their arrival at the Wolfe Tavern they applied to Mr. Stetson to fill the cortege. He referred Cayetano to Samuel Shaw and David Emery, as two of the best military riders in the place. These gentlemen hesitated respecting joining such a show, but by the solicitation of friends their scruples were overruled. The matter was kept secret; only a select few knew ‘of their intention, and the uniform would prove a perfect disguise.”
Wrath of Heaven and Its Judgments
Sarah Smith Emery had her doubts about going because of the feebleness of her uncle, Col. Bartlett. “But my uncle insisted upon my going,” she wrote. “He was curious to hear about it, wished he could see Sam and David ride, [and] he knew they could sit their horses with the best of them.
“My plans came near being reversed, through the conversation of a band of callers on the morning prior to the Wednesday afternoon performance, which I had engaged to attend. Little suspecting that I had any special interest in the play, these pious women invoked the wrath of Heaven, and its most awful judgments upon the company and all who should patronize them, calling the circus performers ‘A mean, low set of foreigners, their presence was a disgrace to the town.” They wondered the selectmen should grant them a permit. ‘No one of the least respectability would think of showing themselves in such a place as this circus.’
“Abashed, I reported to Uncle Bartlett. He declared the talk all nonsense, and bade me go. Finding that my Uncle Peabody and Sophronia were going and that most of the elite had purchased tickets, I ventured to dress for the occasion. Mr. Emery escorted me to a private entrance on Harris Street, where we joined Mr. and Mrs. Shaw. The gentlemen having conducted us to a box, went to don their uniform.
Wisdom, Wit and Beauty
“We were soon joined by General Peabody and his daughter, and Dr. Prescott and his daughters. Col. Greenleaf occupied the next box. I soon espied Mr. Moses Colman and his son Jerry in the pit, and as seat after seat and box after box filled with the wisdom, wit, beauty and fashion of the town and vicinity, I leaned back in my seat, satisfied with my company, and glad that to please my uncle and David I had not been over scrupulous.
“This was prior to the formation of brass bands. The music, consisted of some half dozen performers on the bugle, clarinet, bass-viol and violin. Various airs had been played while the audience were gathering. As the moment arrived for the performance to commence, at a bugle call, in dashed the eight horsemen, in a showy uniform in single file; they rushed around the ring, then followed a series of splendid feats of horsemanship and military tactics. I do not think I should have known either Mr. Shaw or Mr. Emery had they not given a little private signal. They did themselves great credit, rode better even than the trained equestrians. Cayetano was highly delighted, and was most profuse in his encomiums and compliments.”
Buffoonery and Horsemanship
“The military exercise over, Master Tatnal performed several gymnastic feats. He was followed by Master Duffee, a negro lad who drew down the house by feats of agility leaping over a whip and hoop.
“Mr. Codet signalized himself in feats of horsemanship. Mr. Menial, the clown, amused the audience by buffoonery and horsemanship. Mr. Cayetano executed on two horses the laughable farce of the “Fish woman, or the Metamorphosis.” With a foot on each horse he rode forward, habited as an immensely fat fish woman, in a huge bonnet and uncouth garments. Riding rapidly round the ring he divested himself of this and several other suits, ending in making his final bow as an elegant cavalier.
And Still More Horsemanship
“The young African next performed feats of horsemanship and vaulting, danced a hornpipe, and other figures, ending by dashing’ round the ring, standing on the tips of his toes. The horse, Ocelot, posted himself in various attitudes, danced and took a collation with the clown.
“Mr. Cayetano performed the Canadian Peasant, and feats of horsemanship with hoops, hat and glove, terminating by the leap of the four ribbons separated and together. Mr. Cayetano performed the pyramid, young Duffee on his shoulders as “Flying Mercury.” Then came the Trampoline exercise by Messrs. Menial, Codet, and the young African; somersaults over men’s heads and a leap over six horses.
“The next scene was the Pedestal ; the horse of knowledge posted in different attitudes. The performances concluded with the Taylor riding to Waterford upon the unequalled horse Zebra, by Mr. Menial, the clown. This was a most laughable farce, Zebra being a Jack trained to the part. This elicited a storm of applause, and the play ended with cheer after cheer. The circus gave universal satisfaction, and from Newburyport they went to Exeter, intending to make an Eastern tour.”
Source: Sarah Anna Emery of Newburyport in 1879 published the memoirs of her mother, Sarah Smith Emery, and called them Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian. This story was updated in 2022.