Sex, Violence, and Politics in 19th Century Circus Discussed in Lecture

Press Release Contact: 

Todd Kenyon, Public Relations
New York State Historical Association
Fenimore Art Museum/The Farmers’ Museum
Phone: (607) 547-1472 / E-mail:

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. —On Friday, October 18, David Carlyon will present "19th Century Circus: Sex, Violence and Politics” from 1:45-2:45 p.m. in the Fenimore Art Museum Auditorium. This lecture is open to the public and is included with regular museum admission. No advance registration is required.

In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain described a circus as "the splendidest sight that ever was." But despite this sweetly innocent image from 1883, Twain knew that circus before the Civil War had been raw stuff for rowdy audiences. Touring circus presented performers in skimpy clothes, and performances with a strong hint of sex.

Reflecting a participatory age, talking clowns told dirty jokes and political jokes, bantering with raucous audiences. (One clown, Dan Rice, was nationally famous for his political wit, then ran for president—legitimately—from the ring.) Circus had to fight locals daily, with Hudson River towns especially notorious.

By the 1880s rowdiness became considered vulgar. Circus turned into innocent family amusement and a sentimental symbol. Dr. Carlyon will explore why circus changed, how politics changed, and how America changed?

David Carlyon is a writer and independent scholar. He has a Ph.D. in theater history from Northwestern University and was a clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His award-winning Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of, is a biography and cultural history of 19th-century America.

Admission to the lecture is included with Fenimore Art Museum admission, which is free to members of the New York State Historical Association.

Open to the public, the presentation is part of the annual October Conference for Teachers hosted by NYSHA. The conference is a professional development opportunity in social studies education. For more information about the conference or to register, visit or call 607-547-1534.

Press Release Category: 
Program and Event Press Releases
Publication Date: 
October 2013