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Dan The Circus Man

Dan Rice And The Greatest Show On Earth

Huge white and red tents, tight walking elephants, trained rhinos, pigs, tigers, and one clown performer. This is the circus we know today, but who started it all? And what did the beginnings of the American circus look like? 

A man of many talents and grand ambitions, Dan Rice was one of the many popular faces of the circus industry in the 1860s. Barnum and Bailey, The Ringling Bros, Van Amburgh’s Circus, and Spalding & Rogers Circus were all pre-civil war circuses and competitors of Dan Rice’s Circus. If you’ve ever seen the story of The Greatest Showman, you know the life of a circus man was not easy. Like many, Rice went bankrupt multiple times, (ironically causing his wife to divorce him for his treasurer). Though through struggles with rumors, money, and alcoholism, he still remained a fundamental contributor to how the circus evolved, and as Britannica puts it, “One of the most highly acclaimed clowns in the history of the circus.”

Dan Rice started his career as a young jockey in Pittsburgh after running away from home. Before then, he had lived with his later divorced parents (his father, Daniel McLaren, was a henchman to Aaron Burr). At 17 he joined the circus with an educated pig. When the pig died, he went in and out of jobs until he became a strong man and clown in 1844. As a performer, speech maker, dancer, singer, and comedian for a one ring show, he was able to command the whole audience and circus. His acts were known to be hilarious and also often political. American History labeled them as ranging “From Shakespearean parodies to biting political satire.” Because of these acts, his popularity grew greatly until he developed into a sort-of 19th century influencer, drawing a salary of up to $1,000 per week.

Beginning his way up the politics ladder in 1864, Dan Rice ran in the Pennsylvania senate election. His election in combination with his personality as a clown and comedian led many people to attribute him for the creation of Uncle Sam. The belief that Dan Rice was Uncle Sam was proven a myth, but it is true, according to PA History, that he “helped spread the popularity of the emerging icon of Uncle Sam by appearing in costume before audiences.” His campaign in the senate election also led to two more campaigns where he ran for house and the republican nomination for presidency in the 1860s. Rice dropped out of the runnings for both of these positions before being voted out.

After Rice’s endeavor as a political leader, though, his circus career didn’t go much farther. Rice made his last circus tour in 1885, from which he went to live with relatives for a decade before his death. Rice had acquired habits of alcoholism both before his death and throughout his career which many sources say contributed to his career’s decline and eventual death.

Although Rice’s career arguably stopped before it ended, he acquired a large number of accomplishments over his career. Most of us can’t say that we put our hat in the ring for president, or commanded an entire circus, or were the first to be attributed The Greatest Show on Earth, and no one else made the waves in the circus industry like Dan Rice did. Dan Rice was one of many great performers, as well as likely the first great circus performer and the circus we know today can be attributed to him. So if by some chance you find yourself in the audience of a circus, I hope you think of Dan Rice and The Greatest Show on Earth.

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