Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Lincoln Attends A Circus

Page 46

In the summer of 1833 the first circus and menagerie ever known in the west was billed to be in Springfield while Mr. Lincoln was postmaster at Salem. The putting up of the bills created intense excitement in all the Springfield country. Thousands of the pioneers had never seen such a show. Ross who carried the mail at that time, though living in Havana, was determined if possible to be in Springfield to see the street parade, which was to take place at 12 o'clock and also to see the show. So he started the night before at 12 o'clock with the mail and got to Salem at sunrise the next morning. He went to the tavern to get his breakfast and have his horse fed and was told that Lincoln had gone to the country the day before to do some surveying and had not returned, and that Bill Berry, his partner, had been to a dance the night before. The dance did not break up till daylight and Bill was well nigh filled up with eggnog and Ross feared that he would have some trouble waking him up to change the mail. After breakfast he found Bill in a profound slumber in a little room adjoining the post office. For a half hour Ross pounded on the door and yelled and shouted, but all in vain. It would have taken the angel Gabriel's trumpet to wake him up. So Ross threw his mailbags across his horse and went on his journey. He left the mail that belonged to Salem at Sangamon and asked the postmaster to keep it until the next day, when he would get it on his return. He hurried on and got to Springfield in time to see the parade.

There was a mighty host of people in town who had come from far and near. Some had come twenty miles, bringing their families with them. It was wonderful what an attraction a circus was. I have seen the Bottomites, as they here called at Havana, commence gathering money a month ahead of a show. They would bring blackberries, or a load of clapboards, or rails, or anything else that would sell for money. Some would do without coffee, whisky or tobacco until they had enough money saved to got to the show, or just to take their children to see the animals. Another class and a meaner one I think is the man who goes to town and sees the street parade and then is too little to pay his money to go into the tent and patronize the show.

Probably there never was such excitement in Springfield as there was that day except on two other occasions. The first was when Lincoln piloted the Tailsman up the Sangamon and landed her near Springfield. The people then believed that the Sangamon would always be navigable for steamboats and they were wild with excitement with the outlook for Springfield's prosperity. The other great excitement was when the state capitol was moved from Vandalia to Springfield. There were two things connected with the show, which astonished the people wonderfully. One was a monster anaconda snake eighteen feet long, and the other a young lady who stood on a horse and rode at full speed around the ring. If there was anything that would bring fear and terror to the early settlers is was the sight of a snake. They had seen so many cases where people had been bitten by snakes and the terrible sufferings they had endured that they had good reasons to dread snakes. The snake in the Garden of Eden has done so much damage to the human family that we may we beware of snakes. So when the showman took the monster from the iron cage and it crawled upon his shoulders with its hideous head extended far above him and with its forked tongue darting out six inches and it s baneful eyes that looked like balls of fire, the audience was transfixed with terror. But when the showman commenced to carry the hideous thing around the ring close to the people, the women would scream, the children cry and the men would yell for the snake to be put in the cage. So the showman had to stop the horrid performance and put the anaconda back in the cage or there would have been a general stampede from the big tent. However, the people approached cautiously afterwards to gaze upon the big snake. The people were entranced with the spangled young woman who rode at full speed around the ring standing upon the horse. It was a common sight in those days to see a woman driving horses while they held the plow, or to see them on horseback going to the mill. The pioneer girls and women were expert horsewomen in a sidesaddle or even bareback. But when it come to a pretty girl standing on a horse going at full speed it took the people's breath away and made their hearts stand still. No mortal of them could ever have believed that a girl could do a thing like that until they had seen it.

No rain had fallen in Springfield for several weeks and the black dust lay deep in all the roads and streets. The big crowd kept it well stirred up and the women and children in their holiday clothes were a sight to behold.

Mr. Lincoln got back to Salem a few hours after Ross had passed through and was a little displeased because he had not left the mail, not knowing the cause. With every man and woman, who paid his and her way, Mr. Lincoln went to the show. After the performance was over Ross met Lincoln on the street and as they met Ross noticed a scowl on Lincoln's face. Lincoln said to him "How did it happen that you did not have the mail changed when you came through Salem. You might get me in trouble about this. Suppose the postmaster at Springfield should report the fact that the mail was not changed at Salem to the department at Washington, but was brought on to Springfield. What would happen to me?" But when Ross told him the whole story, how he had gotten up at 12 o'clock at night so he could get to Springfield to see the show come to town, and that he had never seen a show and how anxious he was to see one and how hard he had tried to get Billy Berry up to open the mail and that he had not brought the mail to Springfield but had left it at Sangamon and would carry it back to Salem in the morning, Mr. Lincoln in a kind voice said, "Oh, well that is all right. Bill Berry ought to have gotten up and changed the mail for your." Then he said, "I am going home this evening and I will stop and get the mail and carry it home with me." Ross found next day that he had done so.

When Ross met Lincoln he noticed that he had a new suit of clothes on and a new hat. While talking to him Ross had a good opportunity to scrutinize his whole wardrobe and he could remember everything he had on. The coat and pants were of brown linen, the vest white with dots of flowers in it. The shirt was open front and buttoned up with small ivory buttons. The collar was wide and folded over the collar of his coat. He had for a necktie a black silk handkerchief with a narrow fringe to it and it was tied in a double bow. He wore a pair of low shoes tied in a double bow over the instep. He had a buckeye hat on. It was made of buckeye splints and was much like the fashionable straw hats. The buckeye hats were much worn in those days and cost twice as much as a straw hat from $1.25 to $1.50 apiece. So the reader may see how Mr. Lincoln looked when dressed for a circus.

When Ross got back to Salem next morning he found that Lincoln had given the people their mail and that Bill Berry was very sorry for his misconduct, and that Lincoln had washed off the Springfield dust and was amiable and happy as ever.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors