Dr. Gilbert R. Spalding was a pharmacist who operated a drug store in Albany, NY. Gilbert’s father, Guy Spalding, had operated the drug store starting about 1810. The Spaldings sold different varieties of chemicals, oils and alcohol that they would blend into medicinal drugs, paint, stains, varnish, cleaning fluids, and popular drinks.
They could make up a cure for almost anything from a headache to piles, consumption to lumbago. Their ability to blend medicines led their Albany neighbors to nickname both Guy Spalding and, later his son Gilbert, “Doc” Spalding. Gilbert Spalding operated the drug store from about 1840 to 1845.
Even as early as 1840, Albany had a history of circus acts performing in the city. Old Albany newspapers made mention of James Bancker, an acrobat and circus rider appearing with other performers at the corner of Eagle and State Streets in 1823, and later at the South Pearl Street Theater in 1825. W. Blanchard and Captain Page of Page & McCracken and M. Villalave also produced indoor circuses in Albany at this time. On February 14th, 1826, Samuel B. Parsons opened what was described as a “really fine amphitheater” (66 x 111 feet), known in Albany as the New Circus on North Pearl Street. Parsons paid $22,000 to build the amphitheater.
The first circus parade in the United States is believed to have been that which took place in Albany in 1837, when the Purdy, Welsh, Macomber & Co. Circus marched into Albany led by the Boston Brass Band directed by Edward Kendall, followed by large Indian elephants and the performers from the circus. Ned Kendall was a famous band leader who played a keyed bugle, said to be one of a kind.
In the 1830s, Sam H. Nichols was a very successful touring circus owner. Nichols built another circus amphitheater on Dallius Street at the corner of Westerlo. The new amphitheater was built of brick and covered half an acre. The front entrance was on Dallius Street and the entrance to the “pit,” which held 600 customers, was on Lansing Street. Two tiers of box seats would hold another 918 people. The ring was 48 feet in diameter and the stage was 28 feet wide by 64 feet deep. The stage was designed to produce such equestrian shows as “Mazeppa.”
Nichols’ amphitheater was extravagantly ornamented with a gilded dome. The grand opening was held on December 7th, 1840 before a large and enthusiastic crowd. The performers included Latour, Barney Carroll, Walter Aymar, John Wittaker, Henry Madigan, Tom & James McFarland and the clowns John Grossin and John May. For the first year the performances were extremely popular and many plays incorporating gymnasts, horses and clowns were produced. Large lines ran around the corner to Lydius Street (now Madison Ave). A grand performance was scheduled for the retirement of popular clown, John May, who was well-known to almost everyone in Albany. Large crowds showed up to see him off. When the retirement production was held on March 1st, 1841, it was billed as “The First of March and the End of May.”
However as with most fixed performances, the originality eventually wore off and after two years, attendance at Nichols’ amphitheater was dropping as just about everyone in Albany had seen it and Nichols was running out of new shows.
In about 1843, Doc Spalding loaned money to Nichols to operate his circus. Nichols also owed Doc Spalding for paints and medicinal elixirs Nichols had purchased. The circus was pledged as security for the loan, and when Sam Nichols was unable to repay, Spalding took over the circus and the amphitheater. Spalding ran the circus on a site later occupied by Hoyt’s Coal Yard on the corner of Eagle and Hudson Avenues. Spalding sold the amphitheater and hired several performers to help spice up his circus. Spalding realized that a performance of this kind could not be in a permanent location. It needed to move around to attract a new audience which had not seen it.
One of Spalding’s new performers was Daniel McLaren, previously a stable hand, who in 1843 was performing as a clown, dressed at different times in either black face or white face. McLaren had taken on the stage name of “Dan Rice” to try to capitalize on the fame of the minstrel T. D. “Jumpin Jim Crow” Rice. Dan Rice was very talented and not only had performed as a clown but also did puppet shows, had trained animals, performed as a strong man and did comedy sketches.
Rice was a natural circus performer, creating outlandish acts and outlandish stories that the public loved. He created many stories about himself including that he was a famous jockey, had danced to Senator Henry Clay’s fiddling, and was a close friend of both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. He said that he had enticed Spain’s Queen Isabella. In 1844, he went to work for Doc Spalding and Spalding’s North American Circus.
Another clown hired by Spalding was Dan Emmett, another black face minstrel performer and fiddler in the 4-man group Virginia Minstrels. He also was the later author of Civil War era songs including “The Blue Tail Fly” (Jimmy Crack Corn) and “Dixie.”
Spalding seems to have enjoyed running the circus and was making money. He realized that the Albany audience and Albany weather would soon decline so he decided to take the circus on the road. Spalding purchased a paddle-wheeled steamboat and loaded the circus on the boat and sailed for New Orleans. During 1847-1848, Spalding performed at New Orleans and then moved his show slowly up the Mississippi River stopping at most towns. In 1848, Presidential candidate Zachary Taylor attended the show and then rode on one of Spalding’s circus wagons carrying a performing band and minstrels. This created great publicity for Taylor and the crowd loved it. It was later said that Taylor had ridden Spalding’s bandwagon right into the Presidency and the term “jumped on his bandwagon” was born.
When the show reached St. Louis, Spalding split it into two groups; he continued the original North American Circus, while the second one was managed by Dan Rice, who was now Spalding’s partner, with Spalding’s brother-in-law Wessel T. B. Van Orden as manager. Spalding leased the steamboat Allegheny Mail and placed Rice’s show on it. It cruised the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. At the end of 1848, Rice wanted to buy the second show and Spalding sold it to him but Spalding retained a mortgage on all of the assets.
Spalding’s American Circus meanwhile, went into partnership with circus rider Charles J. Rogers at the end of the 1848 season and the following year went on the road newly equipped. Spalding was said to have invented quarter poles, extra tent poles in addition to the center pole, installed to hold the tent higher and eliminate the collection of rain water. Spalding also developed the stringer and jack type of elevated tiered seats. He was also the first circus to install gas lights instead of candles. One of his new inventions was called “The Appolonicon,” a huge circus wagon with a built in pipe organ pulled by 40 horses arranged in ten rows of four horses and all driven by one man, J.W. Paul.
Meanwhile, Dan Rice’s show ran into difficulty when its schedule ran into a cholera epidemic and visitors were afraid to come out into a crowd. Attendance plummeted. Spalding financed Rice a second time and Rice started out in a land-based show but by the end of the season, Rice’s circus was losing money and Spalding took action to foreclose on the mortgage as Rice was in default. Rice said that he had been cheated and one of the great public feuds began. Although there were definitely bad feelings at first, the feud created publicity for both men and may have benefited both, leading to an intentional continuation of the feud long after the tensions had blown away.
Spalding foreclosed on the mortgage and repossessed the Rice Circus including all of his horses and animals and all of his wagons and equipment. Rice started the 1850 season with only one trained performing horse, Aroostook, and a few other performers. When Rice posted advertising handbills promoting his circus, Spalding posted handbills derogatorily advertising Rice’s show as a “One Horse Show.” The term “One Horse Show” came to define a very small circus or a very small event.
Rice retaliated by incorporating a comedy routine into his clown act and singing songs that included lyrics saying that Spalding was having an affair and Van Orden, who had him foreclosed, was an embezzler. Spalding and Van Orden had Rice arrested for slander.
Rice persisted and created a successful show. By the mid-1850s Rice would use the name Dan Rice’s Great Show in summer tent shows and winter circuses in city theaters. His circus featured a large number of animals including a blind horse named Excelsior Jr. that he had taught to climb stairs, an elephant named Lalla Rookh that walked a tightrope, a trained rhinoceros, and Pete & Barney, two comic mules that kicked off anyone who tried to ride them. The five young Ringling brothers said that they had been inspired early in their lives when their father was repairing some harnesses for Rice’s circus and had been partially paid with free passes that he used to bring them to the circus.
Rice ridiculed many political figures in his comedy act, reducing the major issues of the day to one-line jokes. He dressed up in a red, white and blue striped costume imitating Uncle Sam and did his political comedy routine. He made jokes about many important people of the time and supported the views of the South, making some enemies. He attacked abolitionists as extremists. He made derogatory jokes about “Black Republicans” and Abraham Lincoln. He was in New Orleans when Louisiana seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War and he spoke out supporting the action. By 1862 or 1863, Rice’s show had folded and he was back working for other shows. In 1863, he was back working for Spalding when he was fined for using excessive force to kick a man out of a tent.
It was also said to be a Spalding circus, operated by Rice, traveling the Mississippi River that impressed Mark Twain to write in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men in just their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable – there must have been twenty of them – and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful sight; I never see anything so lovely.”
In 1852, Spalding purchased the riverboat Floating Palace for $42,000 and outfitted it as a performing theater with a 42-foot circus ring. When he heard that the Albany Museum was closing, he brought the Floating Palace to Albany and loaded most of the artifacts from the Albany Museum aboard it including a statue of famous Albany murderer Jesse Strang, which Spalding renamed Murrill the Highwayman, a stuffed rhinoceros, many stuffed birds and other oddities. He outfitted it for performances and sailed it up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Spalding spent another $42,000 to purchase tow boats to move the Floating Palace. He installed a menagerie in a boat towed behind. At the same time, he operated a land circus. He operated indoors in the city of New York during the winter of 1854-1855. Spalding said that he had invested a quarter of a million dollars in the Floating Palace.
One of the performers in the Spalding & Rogers Floating Palace was Agnes Lake Thatcher, a tightrope walker, lion tamer and equestrian. When Agnes’ husband Bill Lake Thatcher, who went by the name Bill Lake, was killed evicting a man who had snuck into a circus, she remarried a performer in a competing Wild West Show, Wild Bill Hicok.
The next year, 1856, Spalding formed a partnership of Spalding, Rogers & Bidwell and took a 10-year lease of the Pelican Theater in New Orleans and refitted it for circus performances. He later named it the Academy of Music.
In 1856, Spalding also started what is believed to have been the first railroad circus, traveling from town to town with his circus train in both the United States and Canada. He had up to three different circus companies traveling at the same time by wagon. He had riverboat shows on the Floating Palace, the James Raymond and the Banjo. The Raymond and the Banjo produced minstrel shows and the Banjo towed the Floating Palace. The Floating Palace and Raymond were both fitted out with a cannon and a steam calliope to help summon customers. Spalding also put a circus and dramatic company into the Bowery Theater in New York, performing productions that also included horses. He also did performances at the Academy of Music in Boston.
Sterling purchased an “advance steamer” named the Gazelle that he outfitted with a steam calliope. The Gazelle would arrive at a location first, playing her steam calliope to awaken the community. The Gazelle would dock and unleash a flock of bill posters who would post advertising handbills on every available space in the community. A newspaper called The Palace Journal was distributed free to anyone who would take it, advertising the many attractions and circus performances on the way. The James Raymond arrived next with its menagerie, then Banjo with its minstrel show and towing the Floating Palace. The circus on the Floating Palace would include comical clowns, gymnasts, bareback riders, high-wire acts, trained animals, magicians, jugglers, a band, strongman, steam calliope, ringmaster, and others; all for about 25 cents admission, 50 cents for a box seat.
In 1862, during the Civil War, Spalding organized the Ocean Circus, which started from the city of New York aboard the brigantine Hannah and traveled to Brazil, Uruguay, Buenos Aires and the West Indies with Charles Rogers as managing proprietor. In 1865, Rogers retired and Spalding & Bidwell continued, leasing the Olympic Theater in St. Louis as well as theaters in Mobile and Memphis, establishing a theater circuit.
In 1865, the Floating Palace caught fire and burned to the waterline destroying all of the artifacts from the old Albany Museum. Strangely enough, the fire occurred while the ship was docked at New Albany, Indiana.
In 1867, Spalding decided to send an entire amphitheater to Paris for the Paris Exposition and hired a Mr. Kennedy of Albany to construct a movable theater with 44 private boxes beside an imperial loge, 760 parquet seats, 1,420 balcony seats and a gallery capable of accommodating 2,000 persons. They chartered the steamer Guiding Star to transport the amphitheater, company, horses, ponies, mules, a performing buffalo, wardrobe, etc. to Paris. After arriving, and with almost everything set up, they found out that a Paris law prevented the construction of any wooden building within the city limits. They had to move to the Theatre Prince Imperiale in the Rue Du Temps where they performed for six months and then did three more months at the Holborn Amphitheater.
In 1872, Spalding again financed Dan Rice with a road company. In 1872, Spalding’s son, Harry W. Spalding was seriously wounded by a pistol shot during a circus performance at the Dan Rice Paris Pavilion Circus. He died at Spalding’s residence in 1874, reportedly of liver disease, at the age of 26. In 1874, Spalding, together with John O’Brien and Ben Maginley, formed the Melville, Maginley & Cooke’s Continental Circus and Thespian Company. In 1875, Rice declared bankruptcy, listing Spalding as his major creditor. In 1879, Spalding retired and died of cystitis in New Orleans.
Gilbert R. “Doc” Spalding and his wife Cornelia, as well as his father, Guy Spalding, two brothers, Charles and Harry, and one sister, Fanny Josephine, are buried in the Spalding family lot, Section 62, Lot 95, at Albany Rural Cemetery.
Illustrations, from above: Spalding’s North American Circus advertisement from 1847; Dan Rice in clown costume from ca. 1840s-1850s (Harvard Theatre Collection); Circus poster for Spalding & Rodgers Two Circus: The Stupendous Apollonicon or Great Musical Chariot (1849); “Spalding and Rogers’s Floating Circus Palace” (ca. 1854); the interior of Spalding and Rogers’ Floating Palace (1854); and an advertisement for an August 24, 1875 appearance in Nyack, NY, of Melville, Maginley & Cooke’s Centennial Circus and Thespian Company (Rockland County Journal).