Kangaroo uppercut

This 1955 photograph looks every bit as dead serious as it does hilarious.

On the one hand, this perfectly timed picture captures everything that’s made clowns so popular for year: Ridiculous predicament, slapstick humor and terrible decisions that make us glad we aren’t that guy.

kangaroo boxing knockout circus
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On the other hand, that kangaroo does NOT look like it’s in the ring to joke around, which is pretty well supported by a clown in the far corner that appears to have a legitimately concerned look on his face.

Of course, the referee doesn’t seem too concerned, but he’s probably used to seeing guys knocked down in the ring and clowns clowning around.

Clown poker

This picture, snapped in 1939, offers a fascinating look into the lives of clowns and other performers in their downtime of which there was plenty when constantly on the road.

Hilarious as a group of clowns casually playing poker looks at a glance, it’s also a very telling sign of how time-consuming the costume and makeup preparation could be.

backstage clowns circus
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This particular group of clowns was on tour with the Bertram Mills Circus, which toured around as one of the more notable companies in the United Kingdom.

Today, the only thing we would likely see these clowns holding is cell phones.

General Tom Thumb

George Sherwood Stratton was a dwarf discovered by famed showman P.T. Barnum.

Barnum featured Stratton, under the stage name “General Tom Thumb,” as one of his most popular human curiosities, bringing him overseas to tour around Europe where he was a huge hit.

tom thumb freakshow circus
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General Tom Thumb’s rise to prominence actually marked an important turning point in how the public generally perceived the objectification of humans in freak shows.

When people went to see General Tom Thumb, spectators were getting an actual performance like this 1860 photograph. He was an actor, singer, and dancer among other things, giving legitimacy to an otherwise highly criticized showcase.

Highwire act

Amongst the many acrobatic feats performed underneath a circus tent is the iconic high-wire act. No group of daredevils have reached the level of fame that one family did in The Great Wallendas.

Before the German family’s fame, the performers toured Europe before John Ringling saw them in Cuba.

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When they came to perform for Ringling, things IMMEDIATELY escalated. The Wallendas’ first US performance took place in 1928 in NYC’s world famous Madison Square Garden where they had to perform without a net after it was lost during their journey to the States. By the 1940s, “The Flying Wallendas” were rebranded under their new name as the faces of fantastic.

Cannon crossing

When spectators come to the circus, they expect to see something to make them gasp. Mary Connors delivered on that expectation with a stunt that likely left everyone in the crowd gripping onto someone or something until their knuckles turned white with fear.

human cannon shot circus
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Connors’ daring stunt went down in England at the River Avon in 1974 when she attempted to clear the entire river as a human cannonball. She made two attempts in a four-day span, though she never cleared the gap.

Craziest of all was Connors’ decision to “take a few swimming lessons” rather than taking life insurance. Bold.

Lion tamer

The bravery of circus performers comes in all forms. While many of the performers wow the crowd by flying freely through the air, others climb into a cage where too much room is far from being the problem at hand.

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Lion tamers faced one of the most extreme dangers on a regular basis, as even the most well-behaved of these giant cats are never truly tamed. This 1949 snapshot of Captain Jim Roose feeding a lion meat straight from his mouth is intense, but not as intense as his other cage companion. The lioness he also worked with was responsible for killing two other lions.

We’d guess Captain Roose wasn’t a big seatbelt guy in his day either.

Horse diving

While many women performing in circus acts take away an entire audience’s breath as trapeze artists who tumble through the air, Sonora Webster Carver had a very different type of high-flying stunt. After responding to an ad for a diver, she was on her way to pioneering a new circus venture.

highdive horse circus
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Carver became one of the first female horse divers, which is exactly what it sounds like. Carver would leap off a ledge on horseback, diving into a body or pool of water. The thought of even a relatively small jump while hanging onto a horse sounds scary enough let alone heights of up to 60 feet that she’d attempt!

Fire

This photograph depicts what was arguably the most infamous day in the history of the circus. The moment took place in July 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. A giant fire broke out, lighting the big tent (covered in highly flammable paraffin wax) on fire. Tragedy soon followed.

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With somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people in attendance, panic broke out when the big top tent was set ablaze. Due to the mass confusion, tons of people were trapped inside, leading to an estimated 167 deaths with over 700 more injured.

The tragic day is often referred to as “The day the clowns cried.”

Lion king

The moment this photograph was snapped in 1905, we can safely guarantee there wasn’t a single person on the planet looking any badder than this man: Captain Jack Bonavita.

Captain Jack Bonavita was a lion tamer of the Russian Circus, and it would seem a pretty good one at that.

russia daredevil lions performer circus
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This guy is seated on his throne surrounded by a staggering 13 lions — no Russian Photoshop necessary — and he could not look like he cares any less about it. Classic Russia: Find the craziest imaginable scenario and treat it as an everyday occurrence. In other news, he’s also rocking an absolutely fire mustache.

Balancing elephant

Unreal. Even the elephants in the circus look like they’re in better shape than the rest of us could ever imagine.

This acrobatic elephant photo dates back to 1920, showing some behind-the-scenes action of circus performers practicing before the big night.

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Impressive as the feat is for a such an enormous creature to balance so well on such a small surface, it’s every bit as remarkable to note the elephant’s capacity to even learn such a daring trick in the first place.

Slowly raising up from a tripod to do a headstand sound grueling. Meanwhile, this elephant doesn’t even bother using its trunk. Show off much? Sheesh.

Cannonball

As the old saying goes, “A family that cannonballs together, stays all together.” That’s a thing, right?

Usually families that work together in the circus do so as some sort of acrobatic team or something along those lines. The Zacchinis were a breed of their own.

zacchini human cannonball circus
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No, really. The Zacchinis were so unique as a human cannonball act, because the father literally invented a cannon that used compressed air to “safely” launch people in the 1920s. What ensued was an entire family of human cannonballs, as highlighted by this 1943 shot of Duina Zacchini showing that the ladies can lift off too.

Bear boxing

Well, this looks like a bulletproof plan for completely safe fun that won’t be controversial in the least bit.

When entering a circus, expect to see exactly that. Circuses gained a reputation over the years for often being rowdy and filled with rambunctious people. Yup, that looks about right.

bear boxing circus act
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This shot from 1928 captures the epitome of human error with a lapse in judgment on a truly grand scale. By putting a muzzle and gloves on, this circus (and many others) figured, “Yeah, this should be perfectly fine.”

Before society came to its senses, this popular attraction actually kind of looked like a boxing match, as bears often fight while standing on their hind legs.

Wall of Death

Our daredevil, Dixie, brings a whole new meaning to femme fatale in this stunning 1938 picture. The way Dixie brings disaster to any man involved with her is a bit more straightforward, as she shows off some stomach-turning stuntman skills.

dixie ridingwall of death circus motorcycle
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Southend, England was one of many homes to the notorious “Wall of Death” motordome: A popular silo-shaped structure where stunt drivers ride up the banked sides, going completely horizontal with some of the craziest “walls” being a fully enclosed metal cage.

The name is self-explanatory, as the ridiculous stunts were not without their fair share of riders flying into devastating crashes.

Pygmie and Biggie

At a glance, this photograph looks more like it’s some type of trick of the camera than it does real.

No photoshop to be found in this 1918 shot. The Pygmie known as Klik-Ko is already tiny compared to the average person, but he’s standing the palm of a giant.

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The man holding his Pygmie pal is the gentle giant George Auger. At a height that towered over eight feet, the British giant’s formidable stature made him the perfect guard to stay by Queen Victoria, which he did for some time before joining the Barnum & Bailey’s circus in 1903.

Clown alley

These circus clowns are hanging out back in an area known as “clown alley.”

Clown alley is essentially the dressing room for clowns: An easily accessible area where they can apply makeup and gather any necessary props or costumes in a quick manner.

clowns makeup circus tent backstage
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Today, clown alleys are really no longer a thing, as using a tent for a changing room is simply outdated. Those tents have been replaced today by things like travel trailers and motor homes. As much fun as it looks like these guys are having using dirty buckets as wash basins, progress is probably for the best.

Caught in the act

Boys will be boys. This 1938 photo shows that as much as the times change, the people don’t. A crew of young boys are seen here trying to sneak a free view at the Bertram Mill Circus in Luton, England only to be caught red-handed by a policeman patrolling the big top tent.

kids sneak in circus tent police
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The attempt alone by these boys is classic. Chances are this policeman was scouring the grounds only to see eight pairs of feet perfectly popping out from under the tent. After getting a slap on the wrist, they could most likely be spotted doing the exact same thing in a new spot.

Bellevue Hospital

The circus has brought joy to people near and far for so many years, but there may never be a group of spectators as deserving of seeing a great show than those at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

Every year from 1908 through the ‘60s, patients were treated to a special performance.

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An entire audience of robed patients – some in wheelchairs, others on stretchers – watched with open eyes as the performers gave a show in front of the temporary grandstands setup in the back courtyard.

The show was only discontinued when the balconies were demolished to modernize the hospital

Lion tamer?

If there is something extremely off-putting about the lion that this clown is taming, trust that instinct. This bizarre looking creature is actually a performer in a lion suit. So, yes, the lion was very much real at one point, but the only way that clown is in any danger is if he knocks his friend upside the head.

circus lion taming costume
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The freeze frame makes for quite the action shot, though it must have looked much stranger up close and in person with the roaring expression frozen in place.

Or maybe we’re all being duped, and it’s actually a young lion in a lion suit. Now that’s a carny trick.

The most dangerous (carny) game

This 1956 photograph reveals some hard evidence of just how slow people can be when it comes to progress. The man pictured in front tossing up a tiny dumbbell while flaunting his unassuming physique is getting warmed up to go in the ring and show his masculinity.

circus man prepares to wrestle bear
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No, he isn’t prepping to duke it out with the dude in the back. He’s getting ready to wrestle a bear. Classic.

This particular site in Belgium eventually banned the cheap thrill. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way. Scratch that: This is somehow still legal in way too much of the world. Baby steps.

Tightrope

This photograph was taken the day before Halloween in 1931, which feels fitting, because this famous clown looks like he’s tightrope walking his way into a horror flick.

Potential for horror films aside, this clown garnered quite a following as Frivelos Recco.

clown tightrope walk
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In this shot, he is practicing in Great Britain’s Stanmore Stud Farm in Hertfordshire, preparing for the Chapman’s Circus Christmas shows.

Now going back to the thought of spotting a clown in this getup, tightrope walking on the roof of some random farm is somehow that much more uncomfortable. These clowns seriously have scary in their blood… and talent.

Back door

A 1928 photograph of this circus’s back door — later called the “backyard” — area shows just how hectic things can be in the area where performers prep for their stage entrances.

Behind all the ropes are elephants and horses among other scattered animals.

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There are cannons and ladders, tools and props for the show, crates of stuff and various performers of all types flowing underneath the ropes into the tent.

Everything looks smooth and easy inside, but it takes a ton of organization and effort for everything to go off without a hitch. People are already animals enough without having to do with actual animals.

Gator wrastlin’

This may not have literally taken place at the circus, but the concept sure is on brand. The moment we cross state lines and step into Florida, things are bound to escalate in one way or another.

Ross Allen was obsessed with reptiles, which led to him founding Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs.

alligator wrestler florida performer
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Swap out zoo animals for a bunch of alligators, snakes and other crazy animals. Allen hired Seminoles for his “Indian village,” though it’d usually be him at the center of attention, wrestling alligators and pulling off other stunts. This photo snapped in 1938 shows Allen wrestling a gator underwater.

Ringling Golden Jubilee

This photograph was taken at some point in the 1930s for, as it states at the bottom, “Celebrating Ringling Golden Jubilee.”

What it should probably say is: “Celebrating successfully bringing our living and breathing nightmare to life!” This is just too much creep in one picture.

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Let’s start in the middle at the top where it appears Ronald McDonald’s evil twin brother has decided to try on a dress. Next we can look to the far right, where a dolled-up face that may or may not be real is in some type of turtle shell that definitely releases millions of spiders. Okay, that’s enough observation for now.

Stilt walker

It doesn’t matter how skinny those legs look, getting chased down by those stilts would be a well-dressed nightmare for the ages.

As if the enormous stilts and slightly undersized dress pants didn’t already make the stilt walker look tall enough, his portly clown pal pulling up the rear only makes it that much more absurd.

circus man stilts performer
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This picture, snapped in 1955, shows a pair of ridiculous performers sauntering up to Tom Arnold’s annual Harringay Circus in London. Tom Arnold’s Circus lasted 11 seasons, going from Christmas 1947 up to Christmas 1957, enjoying a great deal of success in its run.

Clown talk

A clown may have his or her face painted up to be nothing but smiles, but that doesn’t change the fact that when the makeup’s on, they’re on the clock.

This 1945 photo shows Ginger entertaining a crowd outside of Trevor’s Circus before things kick off inside the tent.

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Truly a seasoned vet of his trade, Ginger the Clown clearly knew how to pull in and butter up his crowd before they do that themselves with popcorn inside at the Big Show.

The Big Show set up its enormous big-top canopy tent on its tour of the UK around London County Council parks.

Throwing knives

Sometimes, the center of attention isn’t directed at the person performing a stunt. Instead, all eyes are glued to another person of interest like a magician’s assistant being sawed in half. Scary as a box being sawed in half may appear to the naked eye, that pales in comparison to the actual danger this assistant faced in 1935.

knife thrower assistant circus
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The art of knife throwing existed long before circus acts like Barnum & Bailey’s, but its popularization at these events made the two nearly synonymous.

All the pressure lies on the knife thrower alone, but that type of knowledge certainly didn’t help the minds of assistants like this one as they do their best impression of an ice sculptor while daggers stick into the board all around.

Tea Time

For a tradition that’s considered to be such a classy affair, this tea time sure looks like it’s a real animal house. To be fair, that’s just the way these clowns like it.

This 1936 photo was taken at London’s famous Olympia exhibition center after a performance for the Circus Fans’ Association.

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Even the elephants got to join in the festivities at the Circus Fans’ Association annual dinner. Clearly, everyone dressed in their finest parachute pant linens for such a swanky affair. As for the tea, something about these big fellas suggests a second pot might need to be brewed.

Buffalo Bill’s

This family line of performers is a group from the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that traveled the nation and internationally.

Buffalo Bill ran what was like a more rugged version of a circus or carnival, focusing on incredible feats and staged performances.

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Attractions included sharpshooters like Annie Oakley, stagecoach robberies and Indians attacking wagon trains among other things. It was literally the type of over-the-top dramatized versions of what we would expect to run into when venturing out into the wild west. The novelty of Buffalo Bill and his traveling performers was an especially refreshing change to European audiences that had never seen anything like it.

Big Show

While the main attraction of the Big Show lies within the featured circus tent, there are still plenty of things going on outside and all around.

This 1934 photograph shows that a trip to the circus was actually quite a big affair.

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With the way some visitors were dressing for the occasion, it would seem like the circus is a formal event. Then again, an evening with a clown might have been considered to be much more of a prestigious honor. And really, who wouldn’t want to wear their best slacks when stepping in the ring to sock a bear in the face?

1933 Golden Jubilee

This group photograph was taken to celebrate the 1933 Ringling Golden Jubilee, featuring the congress of freaks with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey combined circus.

In the middle with his arms spread stands the world’s tallest man (7’5”) beside a group of little people.

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The front row includes a man with a third leg on the left, two albino African-American brothers in matching suits in the middle right and further right is a man whose head is turned almost all the way around in reverse like an owl. To say it’s an eclectic bunch would be quite the understatement.