Even Larger Than An Elephant
WATER BOY to the elephants. That job got me—free of charge—into nearly every circus that came to my boyhood home town of Howell, Michigan.
The elephants were large; they slurped up so much water, spilling a lot of it, that I got a sore arm carrying it. But the circuses themselves were usually small, one- or two-ring affairs, rather than the three-ring variety. I liked it better that way. In a two-ring arena, by keeping your head swaying constantly back and forth as though you were at a tennis match, you could pretty well take in everything that was going on.
My free admission to the main tent did not include the sideshows. I seldom took those in, but once I did part with some small change to see “a woman’s head without a body.”
I got my money’s worth—and a whole lot more. There she was—at least, there was her head and her attractive smiling face—floating in midair, sans body. It seemed too unreal to be true, but there it was, right in front of me.
And that smile of hers was aimed directly at no one else but me. One reason for this—although I didn’t react to it then—was that I was the only customer in that particular sideshow at the time. She was definitely smiling at me, which made me uncomfortably nervous.
But talk about nerves. What happened next almost unnerved me completely. The rouged lips of that bodyless lady’s head began to move, and two words came out:
“What?” I blurted out. “What did you say?”
The lips moved once more. “Don’t you know me, Francis?”
I definitely didn’t. And I didn’t know what was going on.
“Come over to the side, raise the curtain, and come in where I am.”
I did as those rouged lips directed. There before me was that attractive woman’s head, surrounded by reflecting mirrors, attached to a real human body. More to my amazement than ever, it was the body—not of a woman—but of a boy. When the voice spoke again I realized that it was the body—as well as the head—of a friend of mine, a boy in the class just above me in school. For the first time, I realized that his voice always had been rather high pitched. A woman’s wig, plus some rouge and face powder, had completed the “transformation.”
My friend explained how the mirrors created the illusion. He explained the lucky circumstances which had enabled him to get the job. Ruefully I had to admit that this circus job of his was even better than being water boy to the elephants.
One particular circus that once came to Howell did not have elephants. It didn’t need them. It boasted an even bigger attraction. Bigger, even, than elephants. It was the real live Buffalo Bill in person. Buffalo Bill himself!
Since there were no elephants to serve as water boy, I didn’t get free admission to that circus, and did not take it in. I didn’t have to; William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the main attraction and he was good enough to appear, free of charge, leading the great circus parade up Grand River Avenue. There he was, mounted on a high-stepping horse, riding right past me.
In later years I’ve had second thoughts about Bill Cody and all the buffalos he killed, supplying meat to the workers laying tracks for the first transcontinental railway but at the same time depriving the plains Indians of their livelihood. As a youth, I didn’t know about that and I am always glad I saw Buffalo Bill.
As a youth, also, in those dreamy-eyed days in Howell, I didn’t know about another fact concerning circuses and my home town. In importance, this was way and beyond the fact that Buffalo Bill once rode along Howell’s main street. In this, I am really talking big time.
Not in my youth, not ever in fact, did the two really colossal circuses—Barnum & Bailey or the Ringling Brothers—ever come to Howell. Not in my youth, in fact not until I had moved to California and become middle-aged, did I find out that my little old boyhood home town of Howell lay claim to a circus fact that puts Buffalo Bill and elephants to shame. Mr. James Anthony Bailey was a Howell boy! The Mr. Bailey of the Barnum & Bailey Circus once lived and worked in my home town!
The January 14, 1976 edition of Howell’s Livingstone County Press tells the whole story. I am indebted to them for the following facts:
James Anthony was an orphan. His last name was not Bailey to begin with, but McGinness. As an eleven-year-old, he worked as a porter, livery stable keeper and errand boy for a Howell hotel. He had left his native Detroit in 1858 at the age of nine, working at odd jobs farther and farther from Detroit, until he landed the hotel job in Howell.
One of the big circuses of the time, the Robinson Lake Wagon Show, came to Howell in the fall of 1860, with the front man, Col. Fred Bailey, doing the advance work. Young James Anthony took a liking to Bailey, and vice versa. When the circus left Howell, the two of them left together and a few months later James adopted the last name of his new friend and benefactor. From that time on he was James Anthony Bailey.
He liked show business, he worked hard, he was a natural opportunist, and by the time he was 30 he was half-owner of the Cooper & Bailey Circus.
His great rival was P.T. Barnum. Bailey’s largest elephant gave birth to a baby. This was an unbelievably great prize for any circus. P.T. Barnum heard about it and sent a telegram, offering $100,000 for the new baby.
Bailey was elated. But instead of accepting the offer, he reproduced Barnum’s telegram on billboards and in newspaper ads, saying beneath it: “This is what Barnum thinks of Cooper & Bailey’s baby elephant.”
Barnum realized that he had met his equal. He wanted Bailey as a partner. He got him. Cooper retired with a tidy fortune and “BARNUM & BAILEY, GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH” was born.
When Barnum died in 1891, James Anthony Bailey became the sole head of this greatest of shows. From the time that he had lived and worked in Howell as a boy of eleven, until his death in 1906, Bailey always listed his home town as Howell, Michigan.
That was my home town too, where I worked as a water boy for the elephants and grew to love circuses.