Caesar of Showmen

James A. Bailey helped create the modern circus by distilling Detroit’s spirit of innovation and promotion.
Ringling Bros. circus parade on Woodward Avenue
A crowd at Campus Martius in downtown Detroit watches the Ringling Bros. circus along Woodward Avenue in June 1910. It was the last circus parade in the city, marking the end of an era. // Walter Reuther Library

Detroit had extra reason to be thrilled in June of 1879 when Cooper, Bailey & Co.’s Great London Circus came to town. Besides the usual trained animals and stupendous stunts, it featured Thomas Edison’s new invention: the incandescent electric light bulb. Patrons crowded into a dark room to see the bulb illuminate, and they emerged wonderstruck.

Few realized that Great London’s co-proprietor, James A. Bailey, was returning to his hometown. Born as James A. McGinnis some 32 years earlier, near the present site of the TCF Center, the lad — the youngest of six children — became an orphan at 10 and fell behind in school. His guardian worked and whipped him like a mule. “I stood that until I was nearly 13 years old,” James recalled. “I remember well now the morning that I started down the country road, determined never to return except as my own master.”

R.J. King documents in “Detroit: Engine of America” how McGinnis eventually met advance man Frederic Bailey, nephew of circus impresario Hachaliah Bailey, and traveled along with the troupe. Since 1808, the Bailey circus had featured an Indian elephant named “Old Bet,” one of  the first such animals to be seen by Americans. McGinnis eventually took the Bailey surname, and later he refined his skills managing another circus, the Lake & Robinson.

With his concentration on excellence, it was a short step to a display of genius. “He went on to acquire the Cooper and Bailey circus … and caused a sensation when (in 1880) he incorporated into the act the first elephant to be born in the U.S., ‘Little America.’ ”

He started the two-ring circus and took the show to an impressive date in P.T. Barnum’s home of Bridgeport, Conn. The following year, Barnum & Bailey debuted the first three-ring circus at Madison Square Garden in New York. Barnum passed away in 1891, but Bailey went like gangbusters.

Called the Caesar of Showmen by The New York Times, he dispatched Joseph Warner, former mayor of Lansing, to Europe to find a new attraction. Warner’s journey led to the $10,000 purchase of Jumbo, The World’s Biggest Elephant, who was born in Sudan but had been living in the London Zoo. Claimed to be 13 feet tall, his removal caused “a regular furor when he was brought to America,” the Times reported. Bailey marched Jumbo in Manhattan and over the Brooklyn Bridge, then exhibited him in towns across America, raking in at least $1 million for the circus. At its peak, the operation employed 1,000 people.

Pitching the big top meant covering an area greater than two football fields, along with providing 15,000 seats. Constant innovation demanded varying the acts. For one, Johanna the gorilla poured herself a glass of wine and ate from a plate using a knife and fork. She “wipes her mouth with a napkin and afterward makes good use of a toothpick,” an 1897 report said.

Bailey’s net worth rose to $2.5 million. He and his wife, Ruth, built themselves a marble palace on St. Nicholas Avenue overlooking the Hudson River. The property included “a stable fit for a king.” After visiting Detroit for a brother’s funeral, he became ill and perished at his Mount Vernon, N.Y., country home. He was 58.

His wife sold out to the Ringling Brothers, and the last combination of great circuses was formed — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The concept finally wore out in 2017 as attendance weakened, costs rose, and animals could no longer be treated like poor Jumbo, who was run over and killed in the St. Thomas, Ontario, train yard. Today, the great beast’s skeleton is displayed at the American Museum of  Natural History in New York.

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