John Bill Ricketts - The Circus Comes To Town

John Bill Ricketts - The Circus Comes To Town

John Bill Ricketts brought the circus to the United States.

Although created by others in England, Ricketts was the first to bring the show to America. Strange as it may seem, John was the primary attraction…on horseback.

The Circus

George Washington may have been prim and proper, but he still liked to have a good time.

Georgie’s desire to be entertained was seen by the world in April of 1793, when the United States Capital was in Philadelphia. While the President had some free time, he went to see the new curiosity in that city.

The circus had come to town.

John Bill Rickets

The previous year, John Bill Ricketts arrived in Philadelphia.  

Ricketts was an expert horseman who performed for years in England. The circus had only begun in Britain just before the Revolutionary War and had never been to America.

Seeing an opportunity, Ricketts came to the United States with the intention of joining a burgeoning entertainment industry.  

And that is just what he did.

Prepping the Show

When he arrived in Philadelphia, John Bill opened a center for horse training. He spent his first few months finding the right steeds and teaching them to perfect his tricks.

Ricketts built an arena in Philly as a place for customers to attend shows.  

John was also known to be the highest class of gentleman, which was necessary to make sure the event was seen as respectable. This is the reason why George Washington, undoubtedly the most respectable gentleman in all the land, was able to attend the event without feeling like he was stooping to the level of the mob.

The Performance

These early circus’ (in both Europe and America) had clowns, acrobats and juggling like we might expect today. However, stunning feats on horseback were the main attraction and John Bill Ricketts was the star of the show.

When Washington went to the circus in April of 1793, he would have seen Ricketts jump off a moving horse, fly through a hoop, and land back on his steed.

Ricketts would have an assistant stand on his shoulders with one foot while he was standing on a horse, also with one foot.

And most impressive (from my point of view, anyway), John would ride two horses side by side with one foot on each horse. Under his feet? Unbroken eggs!

Since he was an avid equestrian, I can only assume President Washington’s jaw dropped while watching these events. (Truth be told, if that were to happen it would have been the most shocking thing the spectators would see that day.)

After Philadelphia

After the success of the circus’ first run, John Bill Ricketts toured his show up the coast. He would become a well-known showman throughout the remainder of the 1790’s.

Unfortunately, just before the turn of the 19th century, Ricketts’ arena burned down. He decided the time was right to take the show to the West Indies.

John ran into some more bad luck one his trip, as he was captured by a French ship (as the Quasi-War with France was in full swing).  

After performing a few shows for the people who were imprisoning him, Ricketts was able to get some of his money and horses returned. He chartered a boat to sail back to England, however, the ship was lost as sea.

Ricketts, only 29 years old when his vessel went missing, was never seen again.

If you’d like to learn more about entertainment during the Founding Period, check out this article on Patience Wright.

To learn more about the early days of the circus, pick up a copy of ‘The Horsemen who invented the Circus.’ Though primarily about Philip Astley, it does go into detail about several other circus pioneers, including John Bill Ricketts. Purchasing through our Amazon affiliate link below does not change your price but does help to support this site.

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