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Peculiar-looking floating circus docked on town’s riverfront: 1852

Cutline: Artwork From Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Feb. 19, 1853. Reprinted in Circus Scrap Book, No. 13 (Jan), 1932, pp. 19-20. Source: Gleason and Maturin; Internet Archive

Mary Lou Montgomery

The circus is a comin!

Those words can still stir up a thrill in children of all ages, but modern-day entertainers simply cannot compete with the performances of yesteryear.

The “sterling peals” of the chimes of 20 bells announced the arrival of the Spalding and Rogers’s “Floating Palace” upon the banks of the Mississippi River at Hannibal on Aug. 21, 1852.

The Missouri Courier of August 19, 1852, contained this notice: “The Floating Palace.” This unique “show,” it will be seen per advertisement, exhibits at this place to-morrow. It certainly is a curiosity in its way, and will draw a crowd.

Possibly the strangest looking vessel to ever traverse upon the most majestic of this country’s rivers, the Floating Palace brought with it entertainment the likes of which had never before been seen in such desolate areas as the developing town of Hannibal.

The boat was 200 feet long – approximately two-thirds the length of a football field, and 60 feet wide. While today’s American Queen at 418 x 89 feet dwarfs the Floating Palace, for its day, the construction and operation of the river-bound entertainment venue was a modern miracle.

By replacing the typical canvass tent with the climate-controlled, gas lit and comfortable setting of a theater, the Floating Palace tempted customers to exchange their coins for tickets, not only to see the show, but also the much heralded venue.

Once on board, the seating was of theater-quality. There were 1,100 cane-bottom arm chairs sold on a reserved basis. There was the “family circle,” consisting of cushioned settees to accommodate another 500 people. Finally, there were 900 gallery seats.

In addition, there was a saloon on board, for the enjoyment of circus-goers.

Each performance was two to three hours in length. Once a show concluded and passengers debarked, a steamboat pulled the elegant barge to the nearest small town in plenty of time for the next scheduled performance. In the case of Hannibal, the nearest stops were Saverton to the south and Marion City to the north.

Hannibal performances on Aug. 21, 1852, were advertised for “2 ½ in the afternoon and 8 o’clock in the evening.”

Performers included:

William Lawrence Slout; Miss Rosaline Stickney; H.P. Madigan, who served as a ringmaster, equestrian, gymnast, vaulter and pantominist; E.S. Perry; Charles Crosby, a gymnast who worked for Spalding and Roger from 1852-56; D.W. Stone; Dr. Reed; the Le Pantomime Troupe; Masters Eustache & Jean and Monsieur Benoit.

In addition, John Gossin was a clown, rider, tumbler and still vaulter. Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., surnamed the Grimaldi of America, was an immense favorite of audiences in the United States.

But the real stars of the show were billed as Bill Lake, an equestrian, general performer and popular clown; and his wife, Agnes Mersman Lake, an equestrian and slack rope walker.

William Lake Thatcher, according to Find a Grave, was born in 1816 in New Jersey, and died of an accidental shooting on Aug. 21, 1869, at Granby, Newton County, Mo.

His widow, Agnes Thatcher, later married James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok, noted sharpshooter and lawman, who traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show from 1872-73. He died from a single bullet wound to the back of the head at Deadwood, S.D. on Aug. 2, 1876, during a card game at a saloon. The shooter was Jack McCall.

Agnes died in 1907.

Source: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus, 1998

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