George Washington Sees the Circus: Examining the President’s Household Accounts

TOPICS: Financial Papers, George Washington, Slavery, Student’s Perspective, Washington or Custis Family, Washington’s Presidency

by Carly Dotson, Undergraduate Student Worker
October 11, 2019

John Bill Ricketts, oil on canvas painting by Gilbert Stuart (1795/1799). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Gift of Mrs. Robert B. Noyes in memory of Elisha Riggs (1942.14.1).

The circus is not what usually comes to mind when thinking about George Washington, though it seems Washington was intrigued by it. According to his Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Washington “[paid] for 8 tickets for the Circus” on April 24, 1793.1 This was the first circus to take place in the United States, and it had debuted only a few weeks prior.2

The circus that Washington attended was started by John Bill Ricketts, who previously had trained and worked as a circus performer in Europe in the 1780s. In 1792, Ricketts took his entertainment skills to the United States and opened a horse-riding academy.3 Initially, Ricketts was the sole performer in an act featuring his equestrian skills and elaborate tricks, such as balancing on two galloping horses, while throwing a marble in the air and catching it in the mouth of a bottle. Ricketts eventually expanded his performance to include other entertainment, such as tightrope dancing, pantomiming, and tumbling.4
In later years, there was even a hot-air balloon act.5

Ricketts’ performances were highly regarded. The Aurora General Advertiser reported that the circus had “given a considerable stimulus to the youth…and a taste for useful accomplishments.”6 And the Federal Gazette asserted that Ricketts’ “professional merit” was “unrivaled.”7 George Washington seemed to have found the performances fascinating too since he attended the circus on several occasions.

Washington was not the only member of his Philadelphia household who saw the circus. His stepchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, attended as well.8 The financial accounts show that Washington also bought tickets for “Mrs Washington’s maids” and for several of his slaves, including Hercules, Austin, Molly and Ona Judge.9

In addition to attending the circus, Washington developed a personal relationship with Ricketts. They occasionally went horse-riding together.10 Ricketts also held a special event on Feb. 22, 1796 in honor of Washington’s birthday,11 and gave a special performance on Jan. 24, 1797 “by desire of the President.”12

Though his circus started in Philadelphia, Ricketts eventually opened another venue in New York as well as toured from Baltimore to Boston. In the end, however, Ricketts’ circus was short-lived. Ricketts’ amphitheater in Philadelphia burned down in 1799, and as a result, he set sail for England. Unfortunately, he was lost at sea on the way.13 Despite the short duration of his circus, Ricketts brought a new and successful form of entertainment to the burgeoning United States that was welcomed by George Washington and the American public.

 


1. George Washington’s Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
2. “Ricketts Circus Historical Marker.” ExplorePAhistory.com. accessed Oct. 2, 2019. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-1DB
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), June 8, 1793.
6. Aurora General Advertiser, Feb. 2, 1796.
7. “The Federal Gazette,” Federal Gazette (Philadelphia), April 17, 1793.
8. George Washington’s Presidential Household Accounts.
9. ibid.
10. “Ricketts Circus Historical Marker.”
11. Federal Gazette (Philadelphia), March 1, 1796.
12. “Pantheon, and Ricketts’s Amphitheatre,” Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, Jan. 23, 1797.
13. “Ricketts Circus Historical Marker.”