“Les Standiford takes us under the big top and behind the curtain in this richly researched and thoroughly engaging narrative that captures all of the entrepreneurial intrigue and spirit of the American circus.” —Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove
Millions have sat under the “big top,” watching as trapeze artists glide and clowns entertain, but few know the captivating stories behind the men whose creativity, ingenuity, and determination created one of our country’s most beloved pastimes.
In Battle for the Big Top, New York Times–bestselling author Les Standiford brings to life a remarkable era when three circus kings—James Bailey, P. T. Barnum, and John Ringling—all vied for control of the vastly profitable and influential American Circus. Ultimately, the rivalry of these three men resulted in the creation of an institution that would surpass all intentions and, for 147 years, hold a nation spellbound.
Filled with details of their ever-evolving showmanship, business acumen, and personal magnetism, this Ragtime-like narrative will delight and enchant circus-lovers and anyone fascinated by the American experience.
Historian Standiford (Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America's Xanadu) delivers a zippy history of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. He traces the roots of the modern circus to 18th-century England, and notes that "a truly indigenous American circus" emerged with the introduction of elephants in the early 19th century. After James Bailey joined his first circus as a 12-year-old orphan in 1859, he became the co-owner of a show in 1873, and a few years later lost nearly half his animals on a steamship journey to Australia and New Zealand. In 1880, P.T. Barnum, who had launched a traveling circus after displaying mermaids and other "natural curiosit" at his Manhattan museum, offered to pay $100,000 for a calf born to one of Bailey's elephants, and the two men eventually agreed to a merger. John Ringling and his brothers acquired the "Greatest Show on Earth" after Bailey's death in 1906 and oversaw its golden age before such challenges as the Great Depression, suburban development, television, and animal rights laws eventually led to its closure in 2017. Standiford packs the account with colorful circus lore, and ably sketches contemporaneous developments, such as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Readers will relish this entertaining portrait of a bygone American institution.