(I probably shouldn’t start with this, but I felt you needed to know. Circus District, with infinite stealth, in the pouring rain, in a town near you, just pulled off a not-at-all-illicit transfer of the Opaque. Trash Bag. Full of Juggling. Balls. Direct from the trunk of the infamous dealer, Thom Wall. These sweet goodies might just start appearing in a little free library down the street from you. Maybe. Who knows? Stay tuned for more to come in the next few weeks.)
In looking for the stories of American traveling circus during the 1918 influenza, what I found most striking was the information that was missing from the logs of history. For a start,
What was the flu epidemic like for circus folk?
Their voices are so far entirely missing from the newspaper articles and documents of that era. Circus folk are treated as outsiders in these records; their world unfathomable by the average American citizen. For us today, we have all seen the changes this coronavirus pandemic has had on our personal work experiences and social expectations– similarly, what lasting effects, if any, did this have on the way circuses were run and the way they traveled?
We’re left to wonder at the precautions they may or may not have taken to protect audiences and performers. Also, a question that has really been nagging at me…
How many circus people were ill?
And who cared for them?
Maybe circus medics or each family administered to their people on the go, or maybe the ill were left in each town to be cared for there. How did the circus folk feel about their role in the influenza epidemic as ‘probable disease spreaders’?
I apologize for keeping on the question train here, but what happened to all the artists of yesteryear who, after finishing a successful final performance in Waycross, Georgia, are told by Charles Ringling that this is the last show ever, they won’t be hired next year, and they certainly weren’t going back to winter quarters with him? They were on their own. What did they do that winter, and where did they go? To my knowledge, most circus folk then were not likely to pivot from the circus to pick up a career in higher ed entrepreneurship, or any of the other directions that are possible for people nowadays.
While much remains unanswered, some of these questions we might be able to tackle with the resources at hand. To start:
Did the circus bring Influenza with it, as the Governor feared?
We started on this question in Part 1, but the evidence would indicate that the circus folk were more likely to catch influenza in Charleston, South Carolina than to be carrying it.
Charleston had a robust public health and hospital infrastructure, but a woefully low health budget that was only about half the amount of similarly sized American cities like Atlanta. On September 16th, 1918 (which, for reference, was after Ringling Bros announced it was coming, and before the Governor tried to keep it out), the first cases of influenza were reported among sailors at the nearby Charleston Naval Training Station. The Navy worked quickly to keep sailors away from citizens and to control the disease, and perhaps they were successful. Regardless, other outbreaks were soon reported around the city. Also, did I mention a typhoid epidemic was raging in the city as well at this time? 1
And what about:
If the Governor of a State wasn’t even able to keep the circus from entering, where did the real power lie in these times?
According to the headlines, the Governor had to negotiate with the Ringling Bros circus to keep them out of South Carolina, and even then, he only managed to limit their tour. The Board of Health flat-out refused to take part in this whole business, declaring that it would be “impossible” to keep all of the traveling circuses out of the state. 2
I just want to re-emphasize this: the government of a state felt they did not have the power to refuse entry to all the circuses that would come across their borders, and had to negotiate with these nomadic entertainers hustling around the country by train and by wagon. An opinion piece in the Charleston News and Courier declared,
“Education and religion, it seems, are esteemed by the board of health on a par with theatres and emphatically of less importance than the dollar of the circus.” 3
Strange times, indeed.
There’s so many unanswered questions from these stories, and I hope that by Part 3, I’ll be able to answer a few more of them for you. (If you have any good resources or people I should talk to, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
(old habits die hard, though they do grow rusty)
1. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html
2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806
3. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 30). Calls for Opening of Local Churches. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8860flu.0001.688