For National Day of the Horse: John Bill Ricketts, Father of American Circus

It’s National Day of the Horse, a more fitting occasion than you may know on which to celebrate John Bill Ricketts (1769-1800), long venerated as the Father of the American Circus.

The institution of the modern circus began with horses; the size of the circus ring is specifically calculated to perfectly accommodate equestrian acts. (Ever notice when a trick rider stands top a horse as it runs around the ring? The angle at which the rider leans seems perfectly aligned to maximize the forces of gravity and momentum which allow him to hang there). Ricketts started out at the Royal Circus and Philharmonic Academy in London after it opened in 1782.

A decade later, he came to Philadelphia, bringing the infant nation one of its first imports. He built Ricketts Art Pantheon and Amphitheatre at the corner of Market and 12th Street. (European circuses are presented in buildings; the American tented circus was a later innovation). Rickets presented his shows to Presidents Washington and Adams, and was painted by Gilbert Stuart. 

It’s seldom framed this way, but Ricketts essentially died as a casualty of America’s Quasi-War with the French. After his theatre burned down in 1799, he embarked with his show for the West Indies, where he was kidnapped by a French privateer and taken to the French colony of Guadalupe. After performing there for a time, he amassed enough funds to hire a small ship — which subsequently foundered on his voyage back to England. He and his horses were lost. But the American circus chugs on.