1918: Circus & the Flu

(Looking for Part 2 of Christian’s Covid Chronicles? That’s for next week!)

Circus folk are a resilient sort. We’re used to looking at the world upside down, or from a precarious height. Many of us are putting that adaptability to use in a less fun way this year, grappling with new methods of circusing with respect to the current pandemic. 

But this isn’t the first time our community has had to deal with some crazy world changes. I found myself wondering, 

How did circus performers and managers from the early golden years
of American traveling shows deal with their epidemic? 

What was it like for Circus during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918?

Long story short, the circus world turned on its head. 

Before we dig into the details, let’s start with a very, very brief backstory.  The Flu of 1918 — also called the Spanish Influenza, which (side note) annoyed the Spanish probably as much as the Chinese flu references of today — was first identified in the spring of 1918. By fall, it had swept across the United States. The country was also at war, having entered World War I about a year before. By the time the pandemic ended in November, an unbelievable 675,000 Americans had died from the flu alone. From beginning to end, it was about 4 months’ time.1 Worldwide, the flu infected approximately one-third of the population, killing 50 million people.2

Backstory finished. On we go:

Let’s roll back time to August 1918, along the east coast. Tree leaves were just beginning to turn brilliant colors, the long days of summer were hopefully nearing an end, and —  before the average citizen had become particularly worried about being in a crowd — circuses were on the road and in full spirits. The early 1900’s were the beginning of the American traveling tent shows’ most robust days. Spectators were just being introduced to the delight of unending trains rolling in alongside crowds of cheering children, of the massive parades through downtown, of the plumage and the glitter and the snap of the flags over large white tents rising up by the hands of circus folk and rube volunteers side by side. 

Unfortunately, influenza was also on the road and gaining steam in August. From Atlanta to Chicago to Philadelphia, places of amusement began to close, while cities scrambled to keep citizens safe. Much like today, some folks in the entertainment industry resisted change or made jokes about the situation, but in general the industry expressed a willingness to take whatever action the health boards requested. In some places, empty theatres were even converted into makeshift morgues, with nurses embalming bodies on the stage. (Read Thom Wall for more on this amazing story.)2 

Meanwhile, the circus marched on, headed south and west as the weather leaned into fall. 

In September, the Ringling Bros circus had begun to feel the effects of the flu scare to a greater extent as the situation deteriorated.1 On September 14th, The Charleston Evening Post announced with delight that the Ringling Bros show would be coming to the city for the first time in a decade, with no mention of the epidemic.3 Just a few days later on September 21st however, it also announced that the Governor of South Carolina was less excited about the prospect; he had asked the State board of health to prevent Ringling’s show from touring at all.4

Newspaper clipping: Governor Moves to Stop Circus
Governor Moves to Stop Circus

Governor Manning stated today that he felt there was real danger of the circus spreading the disease over the State. Besides he feels that it will be a great demoralization of labor at this time when it is essential that every body should be at work. There is cotton in the fields that must be picked and there is other work that must be done…. It would be hard to estimate the loss that would result to the State, the Governor thinks, from the attendance of farm labor on the circus and consequent loss of a day’s work.4

If I may make a side note here lest we forget about the war abroad: this piece was followed by an article detailing the British attacks on German forces near Mont St. Quentin in France.4

A week later, The Charleston Evening Post predicted that the “Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out” in anticipation of the order from the health board that would be issued later that evening.5 But lo, a plot twist! The next morning, readers awoke to this headline: 


The board of health has decided not to act in the matter in any way. Dr. Hayne [the State health officer] said that the board felt that they could not issue a discriminatory order against one tented show unless they included all tented shows, which would be almost impossible to do.6 [emphasis added]

Newspaper clipping: Tomorrow Circus Comes to Town
Tomorrow Circus
Comes to Town

The Charleston Evening Post went on to say:

The whole matter seems to be one of labor and not of health. Dr. Hayne said that the board did not feel that it should act in the matter inasmuch as the United States railways were hauling the circus over the country and the United States Public Health Service did not feel that it could act. The board has left the matter entirely with Governor Manning.6

As the final, resounding confirmation from The Charleston News and Courier on September 30th, the headline stated, “Circus To Show Here On Friday,” although the Governor had at least negotiated the tour down to just two days.7

Were Governor Manning’s fears well founded, and was the circus carrying influenza with it as it traveled? It’s hard to say now in hindsight, but it seems like times were already troubled in the state. We’ll talk more about this in Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu.

By October, circus shows around the country had been told they were not welcome.

In many towns, they were quarantined in place and townsfolk were prohibited from setting foot on show grounds. Even in places that they were not quarantined, they often faced townsfolk who were too afraid of contracting something from the big crowds to attend.1 

In a few days, the traveling season ended for nearly every circus across the country:  

– last week of September – 
  • On Sept 28, Sells Floto Circus closed in Walsenburg, Colorado.1
– first week of October –
  • Following the aforementioned negotiations with the Governor, the Ringling Brothers paraded through the streets in Charleston, South Carolina on the morning of Oct 4. The newspaper remarked how “All Small Boys and Fathers Will Wake Up Early to Miss Nothing” of the 1000 animal menagerie, the street parade, “the giraffe twins who must be careful to not get a sore throat because their necks are so long” and a troupe of elephants dressed as surgeons and Red Cross nurses.8,9  Ringling Bros had agreed to limit performances to Oct 4 and 5th only.9  
  • On Oct 5, the Charleston Board of Health ordered all public spaces to close, including all public and private schools, churches, theatres, movie houses, and any/all public gatherings and meetings, including the circus.9 
  • Despite the 3 days of cancellations in Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, Ringling Bros still had to feed 1200 employees, not to mention the menagerie.1
– second week of October – 
  • By Oct 7, Charles Ringling had had enough. He placed a notice on the front door of the cook house stating that the circus would close the next day (not one for advanced notice, I guess) in Waycross, Georgia. This notice also stated that the show would be moving to new winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut rather than the usual Baraboo, Wisconsin.1 Why the different quarters? More on that in a minute. 
  • The Walter L. Main Circus shut down on Oct 8, a week ahead of schedule.1 
  • Ringling Bros World’s Greatest Shows gave its final performance ever on Oct 8th in Waycross. Local officials had attempted to cancel it, however a small crowd had shown up anyways and so the show went on. After the performance, Charles Ringling went into the dressing tent and told the performers that he was not in a position to hire any of them for the next season (really, what’s with this guy?). Also, this show would be permanently disbanded; he and another circus owner had struck a deal and next season, the new show would tour as the combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.1 
  • The next day, Charles Ringling paid off the employees, sold over 100 horses and ponies to local residents for prices ranging from $75 – $175, and took off for the winter quarters he would be sharing with his new partners. 1
– still the second week of October – 
  • Meanwhile, the Barnum & Bailey show arrived in Houston for its last stop of the season. 
  • By this time, the influenza was in 77 Texas counties and the state had already banned all public gatherings.1 On Oct 9, the acting mayor (the actual mayor was ill with influenza) enforced the ban on public gatherings, and the city began a 17-day quarantine.10 The circus left Houston a few days later on Oct 11, although it is not clear how they were allowed to leave with the quarantine in place.1 I imagine it would have been hard to stop circus trains then.
  • Maybe though, it was not a very effective quarantine, because even though the city was on lockdown, city leaders still allowed Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show to arrive in town for a 5-month stint.10 I wonder what sort of reception they received….
  • Also on Oct 9, the John Robinson Ten Big Shows arrived in Norfolk, Virginia and were not allowed to unload, so they moved on to Raleigh, North Carolina several days ahead of schedule. After missing 6 dates, the owners decided it was time to close up shop and the staff were paid off. They packed up the rest of the circus and shipped off to their Peru winter quarters.1  
  • The Sparks Circus closed in Laurinburg, North Carolina on Oct 9 as well, and headed to their less attractive, but significantly more accessible, also-in-North-Carolina Salisbury  winter quarters.1
  • Yankee Robinson closed at Stuttgart, Arkansas.1 
– third week of October –
  • Al G. Barnes arrived in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, Oct 13 and found the city under quarantine, like all the rest of the state. Both of the next cities in Louisiana canceled their upcoming shows. With no hope of reopening, he connected his advertising cars and a private Pullman to a locomotive and left that day for home. The Greatest Show on Earth began the trip back to California, only stopping when necessary to feed and water the animals.1 
  • Texas’ statewide quarantine also caught up the Gentry Bros and the Christy Hippodrome Shows.1 
  • The same day and states away, the Cole Bros circus closed in Corinth, Michigan. 
  • Wrapping up a 6-day engagement in Atlanta, Georgia, the Sun Bros discovered they were quarantined there and not allowed to leave. Pete Sun immediately took out an advertisement in The Billboard and sold most of the property in the next several weeks.1  
  • Ironically, Atlanta officials still allowed the massive Southeastern Lakewood Fair to continue on Oct 16, since events held outdoors were considered safer. Visitors had to wear masks, which The Constitution declared would make the event look like a “great harem” (in their opinion, this was a bad thing). Twenty thousand people attended to enjoy the featured bands, circus acts, horse races, fireworks and movie stars — maybe this is where some of Pete Sun’s property went to live its next life.11 

Twelve full shows closed in the course of about 3 weeks. And these are mostly just the ones along the east coast. 

By November, the pandemic had subsided. The New York Clipper reported at the end of the year that 1918 was one of the most challenging seasons in circus history.1  Showbiz in general had ground to halt, and even as things began to open up again, there were residual feelings of nerves.2

As the holidays rolled around, all the circuses were in winter quarters, there were no more cases of the influenza, and American soldiers were planning for their voyages home. The world was beginning to be “normal” again. 

There was a ray of hope for circus, too: with few exceptions, each of the circus owners who completed the 1918 season returned in 1919. Some had radically changed, like the newly combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey shows, and in some cases, the power shifted to favor rising circuses that had made good financial decisions during the pandemic.1 

All of this history feels a bit odd nowadays in the wake of a post-Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey world.

How many of the show names above have been lost to history, or at least to common knowledge? Shows don’t travel in the same way, don’t parade when they arrive, and don’t need half the town to volunteer setting up and breaking down the tent. The circuses of those days were a scrappy, resourceful and shrewd sort; we can see it in how quickly they pivoted, weighed whether to cut the season or push on, head to winter quarters early or cut losses and sell off the property. Just a couple days of missed shows had huge economic impacts on these mini-nomadic-cities. 

Circuses and circus-y arts today retain that same spirit in spades, even if our pandemic takes longer and even if our pivots involve moving to a virtual space instead of winter quarters. Circus folk have always been remarkably resilient, even in the most turbulent times. 

I do have to wonder though… how would Al G. Barnes or Charles Ringling have leveraged Zoom, Instagram or Facebook, if they’d had such tools then?



(Much thanks to the fantastic University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia and The Circus Historical Society.)

1. Berry, Chris. (2018). The Circus and the Pandemic of 1918. BANDWAGON, Issue 4.  https://circushistory.org/2020/04/30/the-circus-and-the-pandemic-of-1918/

2. Wall, Thom. (2020). Showbiz & The Spanish Flu: Lessons from Last Century’s Pandemic. CircusTalk. https://circustalk.com/news/showbiz-the-spanish-flu-lessons-from-last-centurys-pandemic

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 14). Ringling Bros. Circus Coming. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8970flu.0001.798

4. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.1080flu.0001.801

5. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 26). Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4080flu.0001.804

6. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806

7. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 30). Circus To Show Here On Friday. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.9050flu.0001.509

8. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4520flu.0002.254

9. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html

10. Knapp, Gwendolyn. (2020, Jun 9). The Similarities Between the Coronavirus Pandemic and the 1918 Flu in Houston. Houstonia. https://www.houstoniamag.com/news-and-city-life/2020/06/coronavirus-pandemic-and-1918-flu-similarities-in-houston

11. Hallerman, Tamar. (2020, Apr 16). For coronavirus-hit Atlanta, echoes of 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional/for-coronavirus-hit-atlanta-echoes-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic/QIC48abnRUJQvapSKAUIUJ/

Images (in order of appearance)

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.1080flu.0001.801

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4520flu.0002.254

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