Carl Hagenbeck and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus

The name Hagenbeck was attached to the trade in exotic critters even before Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913) came into the picture. His father Claus Gottfried Carl Hagenbeck (1810–1887), a seafood dealer in Hamburg, Germany, also dealt in wild animals when opportunities came his way. When he was still a teenager Claus gave Carl a polar bear and some seals. Carl was to parlay those initial acquisitions into an international empire. In 1866, he hung out his shingle as a wild animal dealer himself, and was soon joining trappers, hunters and explorers on expeditions all over the world personally, visiting remote jungles, islands, mountains, and deserts, anywhere rare creations could be found. He was considered a pioneer in humane methods of capture and (later) care and training.

In the mid 1870s he got directly into the zoological exhibition business himself, showing not only his exotic creatures, but PEOPLE in his displays. Alongside his lions, tigers, elephants, and so forth he would also present habitats containing “primitive” people from far-flung regions like Africa, the Arctic and the South Seas. Showmen like P.T. Barnum had pioneered this practice; Hagenbeck expanded the scale of it; still others would follow Hagenbeck’s lead. We now find the zoological context for this unpalatable. At the time it was considering edifying, even if it contained an element of exploitation we consider intolerable.

In 1887, he started the Hagenbeck circus, a natural development considering the fact that at the time most major circuses had menageries and presented trained animal acts. Hagenbeck also showed his animals at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, and Luna Park in Coney Island (in competition with the Bostocks, who exhibited at Dreamland).

In 1907 he opened his pioneering Tierpark Hagenbeck on the outskirts of Hamburg, the first zoo to separate its creatures from the public with moats rather than bars, and to attempt to mimic their native habitats. This is probably Hagenbeck’s most lasting legacy. Not only is the Tierpark still a going concern, but his methods are emulated throughout the zoo industry.

The same year, he sold his circus to the B.E. Wallace Circus of Peru, Indiana. It became the famous Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, at times second only to Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in prestige. Among the many performers who worked for the organization were Clyde Beatty, Red Skelton (and his father Joe), Emmett Kelly, Maria Rasputin, Hoot Gibson, Otto Griebling, George Techow, Texas Jim Tarver, Bert Nelson, Adgie and Her Lions, Artoria Gibbons, May Wirth, the de Barcsy Troupe, Gottlieb and Elfriede Fischer, and Grace Gilbert. In 1919, Hagenbeck-Wallace was merged in to the American Circus Corporation, which was then acquired by Ringling Brothers in 1929.

Carl Hagenbeck died in 1913 of a snake bite! His sons continued his family business thereafter.

To learn more about the variety arts, including circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,