Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865) was the first lion tamer of the modern (post-Roman) era. By that I mean of course he trained and performed demonstrations with all manner of big cats, not just lions but also tigers, leopards, panthers, etc. Originally, a cage cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York, a menagerie based in the town of North Salem, he learned that he could actually get the creatures to mind him and obey his commands. The effect was so astonishing that the menagerie owners made a show of it, dressing Van Amburgh in a Roman toga for his encounters with the beasts (an interesting indication to me of the only frame of reference available to people back then — gladiatorial encounters with wild animals in the Roman coliseum). Van Amburgh was not only able to get the cats to sit still, come when called and other now familiar tricks, but he was the first to stick his arm and even his head into the mouth of a big cat.
By 1821, he had played New York City to great success. Within months he peeled off and started his own show. In the late 1830s he toured England, including an engagement with Astley’s (the modern world’s premiere circus) and gave several performances before Queen Victoria. He also toured continental Europe and then returned to the U.S. where his traveling circus became one of the top touring shows in the country. Even after Van Amburgh’s death (by heart attack) in 1865, his show continued to bear his name, and was still used professionally until 1922.
How did he do it? Apparently through one of the oldest animal training methods known to man: cruelty. Beatings and starvation were among the quivers in his arsenal to make the wild beasts in his charge so very meek and mild. Even in the 19th century, not exactly a Golden Age of sensitivity to animals, Van Amburgh was criticized for the inhumanity of his techniques. In defending himself, Van Amburgh cited the passages of Genesis wherein man is given “dominion” over the animals.
To learn more about the history of show business, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc