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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Photograph by George
Reprinted in Circus
Scrap Book, No. 14 (Apr), 1932, pp. 10-16. The information
should be checked with additional sources.
If you have a question you would like
to submit email us at the
Back to the
Good Old Days
Back to Main