Asheville Archives: The John Robinson Circus comes to town, 1891

WALK THE LINE: There are no known available images from the 1891 circus. This image, circa 1887, shows a high-wire act performing before the former Buncombe County Courthouse in present-day Pack Square. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

In October 1891, excitement lined the pages of the Asheville Daily Citizen. The John Robinson Circus was coming to town. A grand street parade was set for Saturday, Oct. 24, at 10 a.m. Additional acts would follow, including a “[t]hrilling balloon ascension and parachute jump from the clouds to the earth.”

On Oct. 10, one resident waxed nostalgic, sharing with the newspaper memories of an earlier visit by the circus. “It traveled by wagon then,” he wrote. “Somehow I had never thought much of going to see the show, until the crowd came to town, and the parade passed me by.”

Upon seeing the ensemble, the writer continued:

“I felt that my future depended upon my success in getting to that circus. Through fear of a tent man, I was too honest to try to make a sneak. So I began racing around, looking for some way of getting the necessary funds. I sold my knife, several tops, a toy pistol, and other articles, and even then thought the bargain a splendid one.”

Throughout the weeks leading up to the circus, the event’s location was kept under lock and key. On Oct. 22, two days before the spectacle arrived, one eager resident wrote the paper, beseeching: “[W]on’t you turn your ear to an anxious public and tell it wher’ the circus is going to be at?”

The paper, which appeared to relish the writer’s panic, replied:

“Certainly, old man. There are at least one thousand just such men as you in this good old city, who have been losing sleep for weeks past, trying to find out where the circus will pitch its tents. … The circus will be ‘at’ near the passenger depot[.]”

The following day, an influx of visitors poured into Asheville. The Oct. 23, paper reported:

“People from the rural districts, always early at a circus, began arriving in the city before daylight this morning. Some of them are ‘camping out,’ and will spend today seeing the city’s sights, buying goods and riding on the street cars, so that by tomorrow they will have nothing to do but go down to the depot and see the big tents go up and wait for the procession to move.”

Meanwhile, many local residents tried desperately to find ways to see the circus for free. According to the paper, the Police Department had received over 100 applications seeking appointment “as special police on circus day.” The department’s chief, W.G. McDowell, discouraged any further applicants, informing the Daily Citizen that he did not anticipate the need for additional manpower that day.

On Saturday, Oct. 24, the John Robinson Circus finally arrived.

“The frosty bottoms by the French Broad never got into a worse looking tangle than they did this morning when thirty-nine car loads of circus paraphernalia were dumped into them,” the paper wrote. “Down by the river banks the cooks were busy getting breakfast, and heaps and stacks of beefsteak, soup-bones and rib-roast mingled with piles of the succulent yam and cabbage, and the odoriferous onion.”

John Lowlow, the circus’ renowned clown, invited the paper for a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s menagerie. Baby lions were its main attraction. But the Daily Citizen praised the company’s entire collection of exotic animals, noting the monkeys, elephants, “sacred cows,” “ungainly ostriches” and a giraffe dressed in a gown.

That same day’s paper featured an additional article that celebrated Lowlow the clown’s 33-year career. “Can you imagine the good that old Lowlow has done in his score-and-a-half of fun-manufacturing?” the paper asked. Then continued:

“He has caused thousands to laugh who never dreamed of laughing. He has staved off the blues from many a heartsick person hesitating between hope and despair. He has made young couples’ hearts to beat happier — in truth, John Lowlow has done long and for the most part good service to mankind in general.”

Two days after the circus left town, the Daily Citizen commented on its remarkable success, both in size and in order. The paper estimated 8,000 people attended. For such a large crowd, it noted, “[t]here was very little crookedness along with the show.”

The article went on to praise the bareback riders, trapeze artists, hippodrome races and the show’s revolving wheel man. It concluded that “all ’round the people were satisfied, and went home to talk for days and days over the sights they had seen.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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