The circus first came to an American town on April 3, 1793, when John Bill Ricketts presented his “unparalleled Equestrian Performance” in Philadelphia.
Ricketts honed his trick-riding skills in London where he was inspired by the enormous success of a circus pioneered by Philip Astley, a former British cavalry officer. Ricketts adopted Astley’s formula of breathtaking stunts on horseback, comedy routines and acrobatics all performed within a 42-foot ring.
With his horse racing at full speed, Ricketts thrilled audiences by leaping from the animal’s back, jumping over a ribbon suspended some 12 feet above the ground and landing on the horse a split second later. He was so well known for dancing a hornpipe on the back of a galloping horse that a fiddle tune called “Ricketts’ Hornpipe” or “Ricketts’ Ride” became part of the folk music lexicon by the early 19th century.
Ricketts had introduced himself to Philadelphia society by opening a riding school in the city in 1792. His well-heeled clientele became the core audience of the circus, which was attended on occasion by President George Washington, himself an able horseman.
The circus toured up and down the East Coast for six years, performing in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and Charleston. Ricketts is also credited with introducing the circus to Canada in 1797.
His career ended abruptly when the amphitheaters he’d built in New York and Philadelphia both burned to the ground in 1799. Bankrupt, the showman decided to return to England. His ship was lost at sea in early 1800.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.