Transatlantic Journeys: John Bill Ricketts and the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus

Kim Baston


John Bill Ricketts is generally credited as the founder of American circus, setting up a circus in Philadelphia in 1793. This paper examines evidence from Ricketts’ early career in England and Scotland and argues that the successful transplant of the early modern circus form initiated by Philip Astley into America rested on Ricketts’ experiences with a small circus in Edinburgh, established by the equestrian performers George Jones and William Parker. Not only did this circus provide a repertoire and a business model which Ricketts replicated in his American circuses but, crucially provided him with a network of experienced performers whom he subsequently employed. Ricketts has often been presented in terms redolent of the myth of the self-made man, an individual single-handedly forging his way to success, a myth that has particular resonance in the American context, and is particularly attractive in a founder figure. His achievements in America, though, were enabled through lineage and collaboration. The first circus in America owed much to the first circus in Scotland.



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