On James A. Bailey (The Guy Whose Name Comes After Ringling and Barnum)


Today is the birthday of circus impresario James A. Bailey (James A. McGuiness, 1847-1906).

He is of course the guy whose name falls at the end of “Ringling Brothers, Barnum and…” Because of him, the present RB, B & B organization can claim a lineage that goes back all the way to the early days of American circus. James McGuinness was an orphan boy who was adopted by Frederic Bailey, nephew of Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845), the presenter of “Old Bet”, the first show elephant in the United States. A young P.T. Barnum is said to have seen Old Bet as a child, one of his inspirations for going into the show business.

James Bailey learned the ropes of the circus business at the feet of Frederic, and partnered with James E. Cooper in 1872. After the great international success of this venture, the organization was the principal competition to P.T. Barnum. In 1881, the pair of showmen did the unthinkable by merging and went on to even greater heights together. Barnum passed away in 1891, leaving Bailey in sole charge of that amazing colossal show for fifteen years. He died of an infectious bug bite at the age of 59. The Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey circus the following year but continued to operate it independently until 1919, when they finally merged it with the show that bore their name.

Bailey was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I visited in 2015:

For more on show biz history, including much about the circus, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever colorful books are sold.

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