Leaping Over Eighteen Elephants


By George Brinton Beal. San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 1931.


The leapers are coming back. This season what is probably the greatest, most dangerous and most thrilling act ever seen inside a circus tent will be restored to its former place of prominence in the program. Not for twenty years has this great feature been included.


And once more the band will blare and the trim, gayly dressed line of acrobats, the pick of the acrobatic world, will march out into the arena near the close of the big show. The announcer will take his place and the age-old introduction of the leapers used since the first far-distant days of the circus will sound again under the tented dome.


Elephants will be lined up side by side in the arena, gay with brilliant trappings of the Orient, first three or four. Down the narrow runway will come the brilliantly garbed acrobats, the leapers from the springboard their slender bodies will go flying through the air, turning and twisting like birds in some mad, fantastic flight of ecstasy.


High over the backs of elephants they will soar, turning somersaults, twisters, brandies and gainers. Then more elephants will be added to the line. Then horses, as gayly caparisoned as the mighty pachyderms who share the honors of the leaping line with them. More elephants and more horses, then perhaps a camel or two, some ponies, some of the curious lead stock from the menagerie, a sacred buffalo, zebras.


Challenging Fate


Faster and faster come the leapers, light as fairy creatures. Single and double somersaults follow in an endless sequence of madly whirling forms. The drums roll and the trumpets blare. Defying gravity, challenging fate, each leaper takes off, knowing that the arresting hand of death is forever before him, reaching out to claim him in that small space between the last obstacle and the huge tick upon which he is supposed to land.

The Kinkers, circus title of acrobats and performers in general, had been hard at it warming up in various winter quarters. At least one show, the Dutton Circus, personally conducted by Nellie Jordan Dutton, of circus fame, will place the leapers as the featured act on the bill. Unquestionably others will follow.


With this great revival of what was for years the biggest of circus thrills, will come a renewed interest in the possibility of doing a triple-somersault, the greatest ambition of every leaper in the business.


Why It Is Dangerous


An ambition the usual reward for the satisfaction of which has been death. For nothing in the entire list of acts possible to an acrobat is more heavily laden with possibilities of disaster than the triple somersault. Former leapers and old circus people in general still while away many an hour in the circus backyard between shows in endless and frequently heated discussions as to whether or not the triple somersault was ever actually performed in a public performance in the whole history of leaping. The majority opinion holds that it never was. Some go so far as to claim that no man ever made a triple somersault from his feet to his feet and lived to tell the tale. Others offer evidence to prove that the feat has been accomplished.


The evidence, for the most part, is against them. For even a double somersault was considered a mighty feat when leaping first entered the circus routine. Triple somersaults are a terrific strain no matter how they are performed. Alfredo Codona, probably the greatest living aerialist, husband of the late Lillian Leitzel, last of the circus queens, who died from a fall in Europe during the summer, does one twice daily with the Ringling BrothersfBarnum & Bailey show. He does his from a trapeze into the outstretched hands of his brother, hanging head downward from another trapeze.


The great risk involved in attempting a triple somersault is, as acrobats who have attempted it agree, that after the second turn is accomplished and the third turn is attempted, the performer "loses his catch," or, translated from show language, loses control of his body and is governed in his descent by gravity. His head, being heavier than his feet, he is most likely to land on his head and break his neck.


The latest victim of the triple somersault on record is Charles Siegrist, himself a former famous leaper, who crashed to the floor of the Madison Square Garden only a few weeks ago during a performance of the Ringling Brothers show. Siegrist, a trapeze performer, always ended his performance with a triple somersault into the net.


He finished on the night in question, posed for his final great feat, the triple. The drums of Merle Evans' famous band rolled into a crescendo * * something went wrong. His heel struck his trapeze a glancing blow. He struck the net head first. He bounced off onto the floor, making a gallant effort to stand up and give the famous Roman salute of the circus, to show that he was unhurt. He crumpled to the floor. His backbone was broken. He will never be able to perform again.


But, back to the problem of the leapers. Leaping is the most spectacular act ever attempted in a circus. Nothing that equals it for beauty, or for genuine thrills, has ever taken its place. "Which, perhaps, accounts for its return to popular favor this season. A word about how it is done may not be amiss, for, unless you were going to circuses and eating peanuts and popcorn and drinking pink lemonade twenty years ago, it will be a mystery to you.


How It Is Done


I will here introduce to your kind attention Nellie Dutton, owner of the Dutton Circus, who will give you a clear but accurately technical description of the paraphernalia of leaping. Quoting Mrs. Dutton:

"Leaping is done with the aid of a long narrow running board elevated at one end to about ten feet and at the other to about four feet. Then at a distance varying with the ability or habits of the leapers (usually eight feet to the center) is placed the spring or leaping board. This is made of the best seasoned hickory and is formed by attaching hickory about the width and thickness of flooring with cleats, making a board about 24x40 inches. This board is placed with one end attached to a beam of the dimensions of an old-fashioned wagon tongue (hickory) which in turn is supported at each end ,by 'jacks' such as are used to support seats. This beam or pole is about five feet from the ground. With one end of the board on this, the other end, sloping toward the end of the long run, is supported by merely resting unattached to some lower object, usually an elephant tub.

"Thus resting on the smooth surface of an elephant tub (the large drum-shaped affairs on which elephants are taught to stand and perform various feats in the circus) the leaping board is free to move backward and forward as the weight of a man strikes it and causes it to move.


"The last and perhaps most important feature of the leaping paraphernalia is the landing pad; or 'tick.' This is made by filling a huge canvas bag 8x10 feet with clean straw. The tick is then placed ahead of the leaping board on the opposite side of the object or objects over which the leaps are made."

And there you have it, in the lady's own words. And she knows what she is talking about, for out at the Dutton winter quarters a selected group of circus acrobats have been working hard all winter to put together a leaping tournament that will rival anything seen in the greatest day leaping ever knew. Furthermore, in that group will be Roy Alexander, mentioned previously as he who does the backward triple somersault in the Dutton show, who was himself a champion leaper in the old Sells & Downs circus as recently as 1907, and Reno McCree, whose father, Reno McCree Sr., was a noted leaper and double somersaulter, and who saw the passing of leaping from the circus before he was old enough to do much at it. Alexander, at 17, was doing single and double somersaults over horses and banners.


The leapers with the Dutton outfit and their billing are as follows: Bobby Alexander, single and high; Mickey Kazor, single, distance; Tony Scala, double distance; Roy Alexander, double high and distance; Walter Pate, double and high, and Dan Mitchell, comedy leaps.

Probably one of the most famous of the leapers was Frank G. Gardner. He became a circus performer in 1869 as a pad rider. In 1870 he graduated to bareback riding. He was the second man ever to attempt a double somersault over 13 square horses. That was in 1872 with the old Dan Rice circus.


Just precisely what a "square" horse is, I do not profess to know, but both "square' horses and "square" elephants are terms used in describing the feats performed by the old leapers. The language is from no less an authentic source than the route book of P. T. Barnum and the great London circuses. Possibly it means that the animals in question were squared around, side by each. That is only one man's guess and not guaranteed to mean anything more than that. Possibly some old-time showman can help me out, if this is a bad guess.


Over Eighteen Elephants


At Gilmore's Garden, in New York, this same Gardner did a double and a single somersault over five elephants, one camel and three horses, the center elephant elevated on a high pedestal. This was in 1878. Later on, apparently feeling the stir of ambition urging him to even greater feats, he increased his leap to nine elephants, with three on tubs. In Brooklyn, in 1881, he put some more elephants to work for him, clearing 10 in all, five of them on tubs. And in later years he did a double somersault over the backs of 12 elephants, seven on tubs, the center tub being five feet high. In St. Louis he did a double over 18 elephants. There the record stops. Probably, as one wise wag once remarked, anent Mr. Gardner's penchant for increasing his daily dose of elephants, he ran out of elephants.


Victor Lee, now with the Downie Brothers show, feels a distinct stirring of doubt about that 18 elephant leap. In 1879, confides Mr. Lee, Sells Brothers had the most elephants of any show and the number was eight. The year of the great leap, 1881 or thereabouts, the existing elephant supply, assorted by shows, was as follows: Barnum and Bailey, 4; Forepaugh Bros., 5; W. C. Coup, 3; Robinson, 2; W. W. Cole, 2; Burr Robbins, 1, and the Sells show, the same eight. Not until 1896, according to Mr. Lee, did anybody start out to corner the elephant market. That season Forepaugh collected nine from another show, bringing his own total up to nineteen, but he had no leapers on the show that year, which leaves the question of long leaps about where it was in the beginning, a matter of circus legend.


Incidentally, mathematics enters into this question of such a long leap as that over 18 elephants would have to be. An elephant measures in girth from 16 to 20 feet. In diameter it is, not to be too accurate as to details, six to eight feet. This would make an elephant line 18 bulls long cover a distance of in the vicinity of 150 feet. It would take a remarkable performer to make that leap, even with the help of a springboard.


Gardner is credited among old-time circus fans as being the greatest of the leaping line. William H. Batcheller was another great leaper, having on record a double somersault over nine elephants. And there were many others, among them names widely known among circus fans of their day.

Double somersaults were first considered the most remarkable performance possible from the leaping board. John J. Jennings, a veteran writer on circus topics, tells of seeing, in the fifties, an English clown named Tomkinson do the first double he ever saw performed.


An Impossible Feat


It took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, at a benefit performance for Tomkinson. Jennings describes it as follows:


"When the ringmaster had made the preliminary speech and Tomkinson retired up the steep incline which terminated in the springboard, every heart stood still. A quick, impetuous rush down the board, a bound high in the air, a slow revolution, and the gymnast descended nearly to the ground. It seemed impossible to do it, but in the last six feet the curled-up body turned once more, and Tomkinson alighted on the big soft mattress on his feet, but staggering. He was prevented from falling by the ringmaster."


An acrobat by the name of Costello probably was the one to introduce the feat into this country. He added difficulties by placing several horses, side by side, between the springboard and the landing tick. This obstacle leaping became at once the popular method of staging the act. Elephants were used, as were horses, and sometimes both elephants and horses and some other inmates of the led stock of the menagerie by way of novelty.


Double somersaults became the ordinary thing among the really great leapers, and no circus was so poor as to not afford half a dozen double somersaulting leapers in the years that followed. As to the question of a triple somersault, that is something different. Nellie Dutton believes that it has been done. So do various other authorities on circus history. Proof, however, is lacking to any great extent. In an editorial of somewhat recent date, the Billboard, famous publication of the outdoor show world, told of the performance of a noted leaper, John E. Rixford, whose act, it said, consisted of doing a triple somersault over the back of five elephants. The editorial brought down a storm of letters. No acrobat worthy of the name but has cherished some time the ambition to do a triple somersault, from his feet to his feet.


Almost to a man, they challenged the possibility of the Rixford feat. And old circus fans bore them out in their protest. For the history of attempted triples is deeply fringed with black. About the surest way to remove your name from the list of the living is, according to all existing reports, to attempt this hazardous feat. Like the much-quoted paths of glory, triple somersaulting leads but to the grave.


Photograph by George Beal 1940

Reprinted in Circus Scrap Book, No. 14 (Apr), 1932, pp. 10-16. The information should be checked with additional sources.

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