The Circus Comes to Charlottetown

The accidental birth of a nation

People in a town looking at a circus
Illustration by Kelsey Heinrichs

It is difficult, as previously intimated, to furnish the public with any entirely reliable information, and the reader must remember that what I am about to narrate is probably rather an approximation to facts, than themselves.
—Morning Chronicle (Halifax), September 10, 1864

On the evening of August 29, 1864, a Canadian delegation bound for Prince Edward Island boarded the SS Queen Victoria at Quebec City: eight mid-Victorian colonial politicians with a predilection for silk hats and frock coats and rickety coalition governments, for political brawling and petty grudges, for dodgy want-of-confidence motions—all of them punch-drunk from years of sectional hostility and scandal and legislative gridlock in United Canada.

It was a victory of sorts just to be on the water together. They’d spent much of their careers hacking away at one another in the legislature and the press, scuttling successive governments out of peevishness and bigoted disgust, the Anglos of Canada West and the French of Canada East trudging through endless rounds of divisive parliaments and inconclusive elections.

By 1864, the status quo was close to implosion—or to grinding to an ignominious standstill. The colony’s problems were so intractable that only the most radical solutions offered any hope; the unlikely coalition aboard the Queen Victoria was the product of a shared hunch and a fatigue that made the men reckless enough to gamble big. They were sailing to Charlottetown to meet their Maritime counterparts, planning to talk their way into that far-off country, that colonial pipe dream—a united British North America. The delegation was a chance configuration that assumed the status of a constellation only in retrospect.

The Queen Victoria was a government tug, a 495-ton iron steamship that delivered colonial mail and attended to lighthouses along the Saguenay and St. Lawrence. She was not a luxury vessel, but was considered stately enough to host official parties of Canada’s Governor General when he travelled within the colony. In 1860, she even ferried the Prince of Wales during his visit. Her captain, an affable francophone named Pouliot, cultivated the company of his genteel passengers, and he liked to show off a pencil case in the shape of a telescope, given to him by Prince Edward’s brother Alfred.

The late summer weather was warm enough that the Canadians spent much of the voyage sitting under a deck awning, polishing the presentations they planned to make to the Maritimers. In the evenings they played chess and backgammon in the saloon, pretending to like each other. They had nothing in common but a shared sense that confederation might save them from themselves. The notion of a united British North America was so fraught and unlikely, such a perfect solution to their troubles, that the feigned affection almost felt real.

The Queen Victoria sailed from Quebec with eight desperate Canadian politicians and enough champagne to float a castle in the sky.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The arrival of a circus is always an important event in the history of Hardscrabble, Timbuctoo, Tilletudlum, and other places of like character.
—New York Clipper, March 26, 1864

In the spring of 1864, America’s burgeoning circus industry was gearing up for another summer of travelling shows. In New York and Philadelphia, hundreds of equestrians, tightrope walkers, Shakespearean clowns, acrobats, and dancers prepared to caravan across the United States.

The Slaymaker Show of Philadelphia, a new company, almost folded before its first performance. Henry Slaymaker had worked as a sideshow proprietor with Gardner & Hemming’s in 1863. This appears to be the extent of his previous experience with the circus, and he was immediately in over his head as manager. Only the intervention of industry stalwarts Goodwin and Wilder kept his fledgling company afloat. They recruited veteran rider W. W. Nichols, who had his own stud of ring horses, and the company was renamed the Slaymaker & Nichols’ Circus.

Nichols was born into a circus family and began performing at the age of twelve. It was all he knew. He’d spent part of the previous winter performing with James M. Nixon’s Alhambra Pavilion in New York, and he was happy enough to be done with the outfit. The two men had a long association in the business. But their relationship was not always an easy one.

James Nixon started out as a groom with Aaron Turner’s circus, then performed as acrobat, ringmaster, and equestrian director before financing his own company. Like most self-made men, Nixon had a reckless frontier streak. He was a gifted talker, but the gift did not always serve him well. He was not above deception or duplicity in his business dealings, which may be why his Alhambra Pavilion had trouble attracting and keeping top-end talent. According to the New York Clipper, a trade paper later acquired by Variety, the Alhambra was “a fair country circus, and that is all.” Its audiences were middling at best. Much of the company scattered in the spring, including Nichols and Nixon’s suddenly ex-wife, Caroline.

Caroline had performed as Mrs. James M. Nixon long enough to raise a pair of daughters. Likely, Nixon’s seductive frontier streak and that gift for talk had held the marriage together that long. A betting man might guess his propensity for duplicity was the marriage’s ruin, in the end.

William Nichols was Caroline’s uncle. She and her trained horse, General Scott—along with James Cooke, an Irish clown who had just made his American debut in Washington, DC—threw in their lot with Nichols. They appeared with the precarious Slaymaker show at New Rochelle, New York, on May 17.

Over the course of the summer, the troupe travelled through New England by wagon. After May stops in Connecticut, they moved through New Hampshire and then into Maine. On July 20, while the circus was performing in Bangor, Caroline Nixon died.

There is no mention of a ring mishap or illness in the brief notices in the Clipper, and her biography says only that she passed “while traveling with the show.” It would be a leap to suggest her death was related to the breakup of her marriage. But the little information at hand, and the murky space around the event, makes the leap seem entirely possible. Nixon was thirty-five years old.

Before it became known as the Charlottetown Conference, before the Queen Victoria was nicknamed the Confederate Cruiser, before Charlottetown was christened the Cradle of Confederation, the 1864 gathering was a meeting about a Maritime union that no one wanted, and that no one planned to attend. The Canadians were unofficial delegates who had invited themselves along for the ride. The gathering was raised on the shaky scaffolding of political expediency and lucky timing and the inbred manners of British colonials. It was a vague rumour that kept its distance just long enough to become fact.

The possibility of the lesser federation of the Maritime provinces had been floated sporadically over the years, and lately it was the pet project of the New Brunswick lieutenant-governor, a priggishly condescending colonial official with delusions of grandeur. He had chosen Fredericton over Antigua as a first posting and appeared to blame New Brunswick for his subsequent disappointment. A united Maritime colony to be called “Cabotia” or “Acadia”—with himself as its governor-in-waiting—was one of the fantasies that got him through the brutal winters.

There was no real appetite for the union, and only the lieutenant-governor’s prodding stirred the pot enough to make it a topic of conversation. In the spring of 1864, the more or less indifferent legislatures of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were goaded into appointing delegates to a conference to discuss the issue.

Politicians in PEI, in particular, were leery of the notion. “Our little Parliament is a poor concern, the Lord knows,” wrote the Charlottetown Examiner, “but bad as it is, we are disposed to keep it.” The Island’s representatives were willing to bring a jelly salad and make small talk about the weather—anything less would be impolite. But they were not about to surrender local governance to Halifax or Fredericton. They were authorized to confer only on the “expediency” of Maritime union.

By June, nothing more had come of it. No arrangements were made, no time or place was set. No one cared enough to bother. And it would have ended there if the Canadians hadn’t got wind of the proposed meetings. Alight with their sudden conversion to the confederation cure-all, and with the gall of religious proselytizers, they suggested they might come along to discuss the larger question of a united British North America.

Maritime officials were too embarrassed to admit the undertaking was in limbo, that there was nothing to attend. A sudden flurry of telegrams and letters appointed the beginning of September in Charlottetown, and the Canadians were duly invited to join them in an “unofficial capacity.”

After the death of Caroline Nixon, Slaymaker & Nichols’ travelled north through Maine and crossed over to the lower provinces of British North America. By this time, the company was advertising itself as Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus, and had added a number of acts to fill out its anemic roster. The Snow Brothers, with their troupes of learned dogs and comical monkeys, had signed up. The Original Arabs were on board, as was a young “danseuse”—Miss Frank Nixon, daughter of James and Caroline.

Frank Nixon hadn’t toured with the circus before. She may have joined the company after her mother’s death to keep her close, through Caroline’s uncle William Nichols and her trained horse, General Scott. She might have been attracted to the constant distraction of set up and performance and tear down. If it was grief that put her in the ring, it wasn’t enough to keep her there. The summer of 1864 would be Frank Nixon’s last season in the business.

Writing from Halifax on August 5, Maurice Sands, the “Juvenile Equestrian Wonder,” reported to the Clipper that the company was off to Yarmouth on August 15, then on to Windsor, Nova Scotia, on August 25 or 26. They also intended to make a visit, he wrote, “to Prince Edward’s Island.”

They almost did not get as far as Yarmouth.

Travelling to Shelburne on August 12, the stock and empty wagons were sent overland while the company and horses went by steamer. Along the way, the boat’s engine room caught fire and caused a general panic. According to the Clipper, Maurice Sands and the Irish clown, John Cooke, resembled the Union soldiers in chaotic retreat at the first Battle of Bull Run. Two of the company’s horses suffered minor burns before the fire was extinguished, but no one else was hurt. The Shelburne show went ahead as scheduled on August 13.

It had been twenty years since a circus raised its tent on the Island. It is not immediately obvious why Slaymaker and Nichols broke the drought when they did. The ongoing maelstrom of the Civil War might have made the relative quiet of the Maritimes a preferable option. But there were circuses travelling throughout the Union and the Confederacy in 1864, and no other company took the long detour to the peaceable kingdom of PEI.

Most likely, it was simple desperation that brought them to town. If Nixon’s Alhambra Pavilion was a fair country circus at best, Slaymaker & Nichols’ was a step or two below that. They would have seen the isolated Maritime villages as the back of beyond, where even a second-rate entertainment would suffer little competition for attention. And they were not wrong.

Charlottetown had only 7,000 inhabitants, but buggies, surreys, and democrats from every corner of the Island descended on the capital to take in the wonders of the big top. Steamboat companies offered special excursion rates to entice rural folks from Shediac and Sackville and Pictou across the Northumberland Strait. The Island hadn’t seen such a crowd since the royal visit four years earlier.

Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus set up its tents on an abandoned lot at the south corner of Queen and Fitzroy Streets, almost within shouting distance of the Colonial Building on Richmond. On August 30, they began a four-day run of afternoon and evening performances.

When the Queen Victoria dropped anchor in Charlottetown Harbour just before noon on August 31, there was no one waiting to greet the Canadian delegation on the wharf. Eventually, a large man sporting a beard the size of a waistcoat rowed out to meet them. The Queen Victoria raised its flag as the harried colonial secretary of PEI approached, captaining a flat-bottomed boat with a barrel of flour in the bow and two jars of molasses in the stern. He was all the conference organizers had managed as a welcoming committee.

The Canadians were lowered in two boats “man-of-war fashion,” each with four oarsmen and a uniformed boatswain to go ashore. The provincial secretary led them up Queen, walking along with the circus-goers already making their way to the big top. They turned onto Richmond toward the Colonial Building, a vaguely Greco-Roman three-storey stone structure designed by self-taught local architect Isaac Smith. The central portico and substantial columns at the entrance rose above two low steps, too modest to accommodate the twenty-six attendees who posed there for a portrait the following week.

Inside, the Canadians were escorted to a tiny gallery above the Legislative Council Chamber, and the conference officially commenced. The Maritimers elected a chairman and immediately voted to postpone discussion on the question of Maritime union, deferring instead to the business of their guests, who were invited out of the gallery for what one prominent delegate called “the shake elbow and the how dyedo and the fine weather.” The conference abruptly adjourned until the following morning, and the newly arrived delegates set about looking for accommodation.

With two or three exceptions, the Canadians could not find beds in Charlottetown and were forced to stay on the Queen Victoria. Out-of-towners who had come to see the circus had claimed the Island’s meagre supply of hotel rooms.

Union of the colonies is a popular fiddle to play on, and there are fools enough to dance.
—Acadian Recorder, November 7, 1863

The notion of British North American union had been kicked around for decades. It looked more or less inevitable to most, though no one yet had been foolhardy enough to take it on. The thorny contradictions that federation presented always made it seem the work of a future generation.

No region wanted to abandon sovereignty to a national government. And there was widespread distrust of combining union and disunion—what the Halifax Citizen called “that expensive double machinery of government”—which promoted national sentiment through a central power while perpetuating sectional interests with local legislatures. There was no practical way, it seemed, to keep both riders in the saddle. And beyond the Queen Victoria’s passengers, no one appeared to take seriously Charlottetown’s chances of making it happen. The Saint John Telegraph was the only off-Island paper that even bothered to send a correspondent to cover the talks.

The meetings were private, informal. There was some suggestion of making the proceedings public, but the idea was dismissed in favour of candour. Nothing official was set down. No minutes were published; no resolutions were passed. The sources are all secondary or after the fact, and even these disagree on the order of events. The conference took place so far off the record it might have been made up altogether.

George-Étienne Cartier was the first to take the floor. Cartier’s English was blunt, his accent and idiom atrocious. It gave the man an air of religious sincerity, of unimpeachable conviction. Cartier was most concerned with re-establishing Lower Canada as a separate political and cultural entity within a larger union. He wanted to build a country as implausible and contradictory as the Holy Trinity, at once a multiplicity and a singularity. A nation distinct within its parts, yet whole and indivisible.

There were no breaks in the agenda, no lunch was served. Cartier was still offering up his sermon as a growing crowd made its way to the Slaymaker & Nichols’ grounds for the afternoon show, as the Most Beautiful Equestrians, the Most Accomplished Riders, the Most Daring Acrobats held the undivided attention of the citizens of Prince Edward Island just a five-minute stroll along Queen. The cheers and laughter of the audience were a distant murmur, an undertow that sucked at the ankles of the delegates sitting sober in the council chamber.

At the time of the Civil War, the American circus was less than a decade away from P. T. Barnum’s Great Traveling World’s Fair—six tents covering two hectares of ground. The first circus to add a second ring to the big top, it also boasted a museum, a menagerie, and a hippodrome. By the early 1890s, seven major companies were criss-crossing the continent, in trains that had anywhere from twenty railcars to Barnum & Bailey’s sixty-five.

Slaymaker & Nichols’ was a relic of the antebellum circus, a quaintly pastoral undertaking, rustic and meandering and innocently incestuous. It was modelled on a template created by Englishman Philip Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major turned showman, almost a hundred years earlier. His riding school featured a circular arena that he called “the circle” or “circus,” and the heart of his shows was equestrian display. Astley capitalized on what many trick riders before him had discovered—that riding in a circle created enough centrifugal force to allow for “feats of horsemanship” that seemed to defy the laws of nature.

Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus relied heavily on trick riding and trained ponies, on vaulting and pantomime performed on horseback. Between displays, John Cooke performed in a jester’s outfit, commenting on politics, misquoting Shakespeare for comic effect. An acrobat in a monkey costume gambolled crab-wise across the ring, leaped impossible distances, jumped from terrifying heights. But the circus the Maritimers were lining up to see was, for all intents and purposes, a horse show. Riders stood atop galloping stallions and performed headstands as they rode. They somersaulted through hoops and over poles and banners from the backs of horses circling the ring.

William Nichols performed the scene of the Flat Head Warrior (or the Armed Horseman of the Missouri). He stood on a horse while supporting Maurice Sands on his shoulders. Sands dropped to Nichols’ hip and was held there in a Superman pose. The Islanders and the visitors from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia sat mesmerized, astonished, and delighted by the implausible couplings, half-expecting them to fly apart at any moment.

Back at the Legislative Council Chamber, the centrifugal force of Quebec cultural nationalism was making a unified Canada seem possible. George-Étienne Cartier was standing on his head in the ring, with a new country at full gallop beneath him.

John A. Macdonald was the next to speak for Canada, slapping the reins of a strong central government. The ongoing disaster of the federal experiment in America made the conference more amenable to this notion than it might otherwise have been. Macdonald was sober and charming, slyly ingratiating.

They were an assembly of mere petty provincial politicians , he suggested, but by and by some among them might rise to the level of national statesmen.

He spoke to the delegates as if they were the parents of a wayward girl, one he planned to make an honest woman of. He wanted them to think he was too good to be true, and then to prove them wrong in that thought.

There is no maxim which experience teaches more clearly than this, that you must yield to the times. The wheel is now revolving, and we are only the fly on the wheel.

The lawyer from Kingston gave the longest speech of the conference, talking straight through until 3 p.m.

After he finally wrapped up, the Canadians hosted a luncheon on the Queen Victoria, where they broke out their strategic store of champagne. It was too early to call, of course. There were days of speakers still to come. Nothing had been debated in earnest; nothing had been put in writing or agreed to. But the mood in the ship’s stateroom was recklessly celebratory. Everyone was ready for a drink. They felt themselves on the verge of something monumental, and they wanted to be tipped over the edge.

Cartier spoke again, and Toronto newspaperman George Brown addressed the group. The era’s capacity for formal speechifying pushed the luncheon well into the evening. The bottomless cache of bubbly carried it hours past the close of Slaymaker & Nichols’ final show in Charlottetown.

Delegates toasted the possibility—and as the party wore on, the likelihood—and later again, the certainty—of confederation. There was a giddy surreality to the gathering; no one could quite believe how suddenly close it all seemed. The banns of matrimony between the provinces of British North America were presented, and no man spoke against it. Brown wrote his wife to say, “The union was thereupon fully completed and proclaimed!” Whether to credit the Canadians’ eloquence or their champagne for the match, he couldn’t say.

The delegates got drunk on the thought of themselves as fathers of a new nation, of their own little lives seen through that magnifying lens. They imagined themselves looking out on generations to come from grainy black and white photographs.

On Sunday morning, just two intense days into the work of talking a country into being, the conference delegates enjoyed a day of rest. They nursed their hangovers. They attended church. They pinched themselves. Slaymaker and Nichols, meanwhile, set about the tear down, packing the big top’s canvas walls, along with the stands and riding gear and trunks of costumes, into the company’s wagons.

By Monday, the circus had moved on and the conference reconvened to discuss the hypothetical nation. The talks on September 5 and 6 focused on studs and crossbeams and trusses—George Brown on rep by pop and sectional representation, Alexander Galt on economics and financial considerations. The Canadians had done their homework. They seemed to have an answer for every Maritime quibble, a salve for every concern.

On Wednesday, the delegates of the lower provinces sat alone to beat the dead horse of Maritime union one last time. It was a nominal effort, so they could say they gave it the old college try. PEI’s representatives insisted the legislature of a united Cabotia or Acadia be located in Charlottetown. Given the fact the Northumberland Strait was virtually impassable several months of the year, the discussion ended there.

From that point on, the conference was devoted to celebrating the larger and more unlikely consensus. A party was held on Thursday evening at the Colonial Building. Frances Preedy had spent the day trying to turn the place into a dance hall. The longtime housekeeper and caretaker, Preedy considered running the building’s affairs tantamount to running the affairs of the colony itself. Government officials thought much the same, and her salary was equal to that of some legislators. She lived in the basement with her husband and children, whom she recruited to help decorate the walls and fixtures with flags, evergreens, and flowers. She called in the local gasworks to rig up whatever “lighting effects” they had to hand. The Legislative Council Chamber stood in as a reception room, and Preedy served tea, coffee, sherry, and, naturally, champagne in the library.

After the guests arrived, John A. Macdonald led the first quadrille with the wife of PEI’s lieutenant-governor. The dancing lasted until a meal was served in the council chamber at 1 a.m. The delegates toasted one another and confederation ’til after 3, then staggered from the Colonial Building to the harbour, where the Queen Victoria was waiting to take them on a victory lap of the Maritimes.

Over the next week they stopped in Halifax, Saint John, and Fredericton. In each location there were banquets and official visits and self-congratulatory patter. Before the Canadians took their leave, a second conference was scheduled for Quebec, where they planned to hammer out the specifics of the union.

At the time, the details felt like a mere formality.

Providence being their guide
They builded better than they knew.
—Commemorative plaque, Province House, Charlottetown

Caroline Nixon had been dead almost six weeks by the time Slaymaker & Nichols’ arrived in Charlottetown. But the public advertisements for the show, strangely, suggest she was still performing with them in PEI. “M’lle Caroline, the accomplished Maitresse de Cheval, from Nixon’s Cremorne Garden in New York” couldn’t refer to anyone else. She and “Mrs. J. M. Nixon’s Wonderful Performing Horse General Scott” are listed alongside the late additions to the company’s lineup, including Caroline’s daughter, the danseuse, Miss Frank Nixon.

It’s difficult to dismiss the anomaly of Caroline’s appearance on the bill as a simple clerical error or circus hyperbole or outright fiction. It seems she was still with the company, in some implausible fashion, and it’s hard not to imagine her in the ring at Charlottetown, making her last worldly appearances, the ghost of a heartbroken woman on horseback.

It is a fact, though, that the four days of performances in PEI marked the final appearance of the company known as Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus. The name was abruptly changed to Goodwin & Wilder’s Circus when they crossed back into Maine, and they limped along through the middle of September. The Snow Brothers parted ways with the troupe before they reached Lincoln on September 19. After shows in East Corinth, Dover, and Hartland, they closed their season at the end of the month.

The Queen Victoria sailed down the St. Lawrence again in the first week of October. Maritimers had mistakenly called her the Confederate Cruiser, thinking she was a warship from the American South. But her new nickname took on wholly different connotations as she rounded up delegates and ferried them to the Quebec Conference, where the contentious task of making flesh and blood of Charlottetown’s words began.

It was largely happenstance—what used to be called providence—that made the Charlottetown Conference such a fortuitous combination of personality and ambition, such a potent mix of political circumstance and collective will. That same blind chance brought struggling Slaymaker & Nichols’ to town as the conference was getting underway, earning the forgettable circus a reprieve from oblivion as a wry footnote, a comic aside, briefly the centre of attention while history was at work in the shadows. They were only the second-most unlikely show in town, unwitting bedfellows to a country’s impulsive, drunken beginnings.

Goodwin and Wilder were already advertising “the entire stock of Slaymaker & Nichols’ Circus” for sale when the Quebec Conference began a month later, including “canvas with seats.…Eight baggage wagons, six light wagons for performers; sets of harnesses, saddles, bridles, &c.,” much of it “nearly new, used three months.” The private sale was set for October 12. Anything unsold was to be auctioned off in Roxbury, New York. And Henry Slaymaker retreated into the ordinary life he’d briefly abandoned.

Illustration by Kelsey Heinrichs

In the fall of 1865, W. W. Nichols was back in James Nixon’s tent, performing with Nixon’s Circus Company. Nichols was co-owner of the venture, and supplied the ring horses. Among them was Mrs. J. M. Nixon’s horse, General Scott.

Nixon’s Circus Company left New York aboard the Catherine Whiting on October 19. The troupe was en route to Galveston to begin an extensive Texas tour, but the ship struck heavy seas that forced them to overnight at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Back at sea on October 23, another gale set in. The ring horses were quartered in the open instead of being secured below, and one was swept overboard. The storm continued through the night, the animals exposed to the waves tearing steadily across the deck. By morning, all of them, including General Scott, had been washed into the sea and drowned. Nichols had insured the horses and made back part of the loss. But he never ventured into management again.

A year later, the Queen Victoria was returning from a charter run to Cuba, with a cargo of cigars, tobacco, and fruit, when she sailed into a hurricane. The storm hammered the vessel for two days and nights. At some point the first mate was lost overboard, but Captain Pouliot managed to keep the Victoria afloat while the winds howled and the ship heaved into the troughs. They thought they were through the worst when the weather cleared, until they discovered the ship was taking on more water than the pumps could handle.

The Ponvert, a wooden brig sailing out of St. Mark’s, Florida, came to their rescue, hauling the forty-one surviving passengers and crew aboard as the Queen Victoria was sinking. Pouliot managed to salvage the Confederate Cruiser’s bell before it went under, and he presented it to Rufus Allen, the Ponvert’s captain. The bell sailed with Allen another ten years, until he retired in 1875 to Prospect Harbor, Maine, and donated it to the village school.

On March 29, 1867, Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada almost three years after the circus arrived in Charlottetown. Prince Edward Island, ironically, had gotten cold feet, and the Cradle of Confederation was not a part of the initial configuration.

Edwin Derious was working with the Parisian Circus at the time the act was signed, preparing for the opening ceremonies of the Exposition Universelle on the Champ de Mars. He had been in PEI with Slaymaker & Nichols’, and had enjoyed a long career in the business by then, including stints in England and on Broadway, working primarily as a rider, vaulter, and tightrope walker. He had also performed on the Enchanted Ladder and as a “monkey man.” But his name didn’t appear on the Slaymaker & Nichols’ bill or in print advertisements in local papers. Derious was among the scores of circus performers who worked decades in near anonymity, their names and reputations known only to others in the business. Daredevils and dancers and fools who entertained audiences for an hour, then faded and were forgotten.

Derious was born in Philadelphia, the cradle of the American circus, in 1808. In the first half of the 1820s, he trained as a rider and vaulter with William Hunt, who was considered one of the best of his day. Derious was already in his mid-fifties when he came to Charlottetown, and approaching the end of his run as a performer. In 1867, the Parisian Circus hired him as equestrian manager.

The British North America Act’s prescription of “Peace, Order and good Government” for Confederation was just two days old when Napoleon III officially opened the Exposition Universelle on April 1. During the inaugural celebrations, Derious was gored by a buffalo and stricken with paralysis. There are no details of the incident beyond the barest of facts, but it ended his career with the circus. He died twenty-one years later, at his home in Philadelphia.

This appeared in the September 2014 issue.

Michael Crummey
Michael Crummey has a new collection, Little Dogs, due out next spring.
Kelsey Heinrichs
Kelsey Heinrichs contributes frequently to the National Post, Wired, and The Walrus.