A Circus at Auction

Water for ElephIf you want to understand the impact of financial difficulties on the early circus, I highly recommend Sara Gruen’s best-selling, 2006 novel Water for Elephants. Though a work of fiction, the book helped me imagine the personal cost to the employees for a circus on hard times. What recourse did performers and workers have against cash-strapped owners? Since the circus was constantly on the road and it provided them with food and housing, workers were at the mercy of their employers. They might pay valuable performers while expendable workers were not—until, eventually, everybody left the paymasters wagon empty handed.

That, it appears, is what happened to The Hall and Bingley Circus in March 1889 when it passed through Atlanta. The owners were bankrupt and could not pay their employees. According to newspaper reports, the circus was stopped by an attachment—this followed by many others of a like manner [primarily for wages that were past-due to employees] leads to the appointment of a Receiver. A few days later, on Saturday, March 23rd, the stranded Hall & Bingley Circus is quartered at Jones & Rosser’s stables on hunter Street. Mr. J. L. Lester has been appointed as Receiver.

Auction noticeThe Receivers placed multiple prominent notices in the Atlanta Constitution announcing that the circus was to be sold at auction and, by all accounts, the auction was a success. Businessmen Thomas James and George Gress purchased the circus, with Gress taking the animals and James everything else. Gress was hailed for his generosity when he presented the menagerie animals to the City of Atlanta as the nucleus of a zoological garden.

The Gress collection was modest—no elephants, giraffes, or zebras—but it was enough to start a zoo. The menagerie consisted of a hyena, a jaguar, a black bear, several lions, and two cages of monkeys. Assorted other animals included two wild cats, a gazelle, and a trained Mexican hog. After Gress reportedly sold all the horses he had purchased to local interests and two camels to the agent of a show in Tennessee, he was out-of-pocket $1,350 (a value of over $37,000 in 2019) for cages and zoo animals.

Grant Park seemed a logical choice for the new zoo since it had been home to a small animal collection for several years. In addition to purchasing the animals, Gress donated lumber for buildings, pledged funding for the upkeep of the collection, and opposed an admission fee to “his” zoo.

Starting a zoo must have seemed pretty simple to Gress when he declared that the circus animals are already in cages and all the authorities will have to do will be to build a light structure into which the cages may be rolled to protect them from the weather and from interference. Unlike today, when we would spend months preparing for a grand opening, the Gress Zoo would open to the public in less than two weeks. And what an opening it would be!

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