Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Stardust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus - by W.C. Coup

Stardust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus by W.C. Coup is an “as told to” memoir by an American showman.  (US Edition)  (£0.77 UK Edition) It was published in 1901.  W.C. Coup took circuses from wagons to railroads and was an associate of P.T. Barnum.

I like reading tales of not just a bygone way of life, but also a hidden life.   The circus was its own traveling town and you had to be employed by the circus to know what that life was like.  Circus folk, like actors, were not respectable, and therefore not a suitable topic for books.  That is why this sort of memoir is rare.

The book starts out in customary fashion with Mr. Coup running away and joining the circus!
The show which I joined was one of the largest then in existence, having more than a hundred horses, ten fine Ceylon elephants, a gorgeously carved and painted "Car of Juggernaut," and many other "attractions" which seemed marvelous in my boyish eyes. Not the least of these in point of attractiveness and popularity was General "Tom" Thumb, who was petted and feasted wherever he went. But Nellis, the man without arms who could paint pictures and shoot pennies from the fingers of the manager, claimed a large share of my silent admiration.
Let me just say this book is worth downloading to read about the white elephant and the yellow horse, which is a bit too long to quote in a blog.  There is also a story about meeting Sam Houston which I enjoyed. The subject matter does hop about a bit.

Coup seemed to have many encounters with toughs, ruffians and desperados.  Here is one:

At last, however, a fight did come off, and a hot one it was, too!

Right in the midst of it one of my horses, which had been trained to fire off a cannon from its back, got loose and, fully accoutred, galloped into the thick of the mélêe. The creature seized the strap which operated the trigger and began firing blank cartridges in every direction. If ever a mob of toughs was frightened it was then! They stopped not upon the order of their going, but fairly flew in all directions.

One of them afterward told a policeman that they could fight any gang of showmen that ever traveled, but when a horse commenced to unload on them with a cannon, he knew it was time to quit.

This is a peep into a closed world.  You will find accounts of cruelty and prejudice, but those of us who read the classics, know that is not confined to the circus – but perhaps here it is shown with less veneer.

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