James A. Bailey

"The public likes to be humbugged," was a philosophy attributed to circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum, but his competitor-turned-partner, James A. Bailey, operated with a very different motto: "Give the people the best—spare no expense in doing it—and they'll reward you." After forming a partnership in the 1880s, these two men created the "greatest show on earth," a traveling circus spectacle that toured the world delighting young and old. Barnum & Bailey also ran Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

Toward the end of his career, Bailey moved from Manhattan to Westchester. Though he retired from the circus in the mid-1880s, Bailey soon emerged from retirement and was very much involved in the business while living at his estate in Mount Vernon, which was called The Knolls.

Greatest Show on Earth

The Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth" poster featuring James A. Bailey and P.T. Barnum, 1897. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Early Life

Born James Anthony McGinnis in Detroit, Michigan, Bailey, one of seven children, was orphaned during childhood. (His father died when James was two; his mother when he was eight.) James was sent to live with his married eldest sister, Catharine.

New details of Bailey's childhood came to light in the 1980s when an unpublished biography, written by his brother-in-law, was found in a descendant's basement. Circus historian A.H. Saxon gained access to the material and reports that Bailey was beaten frequently while living with his sister. Bailey eventually ran away to look for work, and he became a bellhop at a hotel in Pontiac, Michigan.

One summer a one-ring circus owner came to Pontiac, and James met the general manager, Fred Harrison Bailey, a nephew of Somers menagerie owner Hachaliah Bailey [see sidebar], who hired him to post circus bills around town. James began to work regularly for Fred Bailey and soon took the older man's surname.

Bailey's early circus career was interrupted by the Civil War during which he was a sutler (a provisions or store keeper) for the 114th Ohio Infantry. By age 21, he was back in the circus business with a show operated by William Lake and John Robinson. Robinson died shortly after Bailey joined them, and Bailey took on the role of managing the Lake & Robinson circus.

In 1868 Bailey married Ruth Louisa McCaddon of Zanesville, Ohio, and eventually he bought an interest in another circus that came to be known as Cooper and Bailey. By the late 1870s, Bailey had merged with or purchased several other shows and had become quite a force in the entertainment world. In 1880 Bailey decided to challenge his most serious competition, and he took his circus to P.T. Barnum's backyard—Bridgeport, CT, where Barnum's business was based.

To Barnum's consternation, Bailey's circus outsold Barnum's, taking in $2 to every $1 of Barnum's show. Rather than continue to compete head-to-head, Barnum proposed a merger. Bailey took over management of business affairs, while Barnum worked on the showmanship, and together they created "the greatest show on earth."

Jumbo the Elephant

Sheet music illustration of Jumbo, the famed circus elephant, carrying a group of children, ca. 1882. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Barnum & Bailey

Though Barnum is generally given credit for bringing the elephant Jumbo from England to the U.S., it was actually Bailey who thought of it and worked it out. The story goes that Bailey sent a representative to Europe to scout out interesting attractions. When the scout, Joseph Lee Warner, came back to the U.S., Bailey said to him: "What was the biggest thing you saw over on the other side?" "Well, answered Warner, after long thought, "I think the greatest thing I saw was an elephant in the London Zoo." "Go back and buy him," said Bailey.

Bailey paid $10,000 to the London Zoo for Jumbo the elephant. Enormous publicity followed the sale, with the press weighing in on whether the British should have let their "treasure" go. (Barnum, a master with the press, likely set this story in motion.) The elephant was also a reluctant traveler, so Barnum and Bailey then capitalized on Jumbo's refusal to get into the shipping crate. Every day of "elephant refusal" was another day of newspaper headlines. In 1882 when Jumbo finally walked up Broadway and across the Brooklyn Bridge and back, thousands of people came out to see him.

In his later years, Bailey chose Chester Hill in Mount Vernon, New York, to build his dream home, The Knolls. (The Vernon Estate apartments on East Lincoln and Esplanade now occupy the land where the Bailey mansion once stood.)

Though Barnum acquired quite a considerable estate (thought to be $5-8 million) the financial records reveal that running the shows was a constant struggle. (This report on the financial circumstances of the circus comes from historian Richard Conover who sifted through the McCaddon Collection of Bailey materials at Princeton University in the 1950s.)

In the contemporary press (including his obituaries) where the circus press agent could work a little magic, Bailey was known for his retiring nature, his admirable personal conduct, and his unflagging generosity to his employees, including what was described as a true employee benefit, an opportunity for staff members to invest in the circus. However, research conducted by historians Conover and Saxon makes the stock investment plan seem less a program of generosity and more a way for the circus to come up with continuing infusions of money.

P.T. Barnum died in 1891, but James Bailey kept the business going. The circus continued to travel throughout the United States on 85 railroad cars, employed more than 1,000 people, and maintained a large traveling menagerie.

The Knolls, Mount Vernon

The James Bailey Estate, The Knolls, Mount Vernon, ca. 1908. WCHS Picture Collection.

Final Illness

In 1906 Bailey was living at The Knolls in Mount Vernon, happy to be sleeping at home while supervising the installation of the circus into Madison Square Garden. In early April he became ill. The press reports state that Bailey developed erysipelas, an acute streptococcus bacterial skin infection. This condition is rarely fatal, but nine days later when Bailey attempted to go back to work he suffered a "sinking spell." According to an unsourced obituary, Bailey spent his final afternoon expressing to his wife (his sole heir), his brother-in-law, who was part of the circus management team, and the circus treasurer, how the circus should be managed without him. According to the article, his one regret was that he was not going to live until Orphans' Day, April 17, an annual ritual he had instituted because of his own background.

News of his death reached Madison Square Garden just before show time, and despite the profound grief of the circus staff and performers, the performance continued. Orphans' Day, too, was held a little over a week later. The New York Times reported that even the "ticket speculators" tipped their hats to Bailey for his reputation of good will and generosity. That year, the speculators bought up all the peanuts available from the street vendors, had them bagged and distributed free to the orphans as they arrived to see the show.

John and Alfred Ringling attended Bailey's funeral. Partner P.T. Barnum had died in 1891, and by July 1907, the Ringling Brothers had worked out purchasing Ruth Bailey's interest in the circus. The union of these two prominent circuses dates to that time. Today, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus continues to delight audiences across the country.