Person : Ricketts, John Bill

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Death Year: 1800

John Bill Ricketts, a Scotsman, appeared in America twenty years after his apprenticeship with Charles Hughes. Ricketts, an accomplished performer and horseman, set-up in Philadelphia “at very considerable expense” an outdoor riding ring he called a “circus” at the corner of Twelfth and Market Streets, which he opened on April 3, 1793. This was the first complete circus in America, because it incorporated the elements of clowning, music, acrobatics, and horsemanship. In his advertisement, Ricketts promised he would dance a hornpipe on horseback, throw a somersault backward, and leap from the horse to the ground and with the same spring remount with his face towards the horse’s tail. In search of new audiences, Ricketts instituted an ambitious touring program traveling up and down the East Coast, from Quebec to Charleston. On at least one occasion he framed two units of his show to tour separately, although that plan was not especially successful. In his eight-year career, he built at least twenty circuses, located in every major eastern American city, including several amphitheatres in Philadelphia and New York.

In 1799, his Greenwich Street amphitheatre in New York City and his remodeled Philadelphia amphitheatre burned to the ground. Financially ruined, he struggled through several more touring attempts. Finally, as his friend John Durang described him, “out of heart at doing business in this bodge way,” Ricketts and most of his company set sail to try their luck in the West Indies. Luck proved to be no better there, for en route French privateers kidnapped him. Rescued, the circus played for several months throughout the islands; several members of his company died, probably from yellow fever. When his brother Francis went to jail for deserting his new native wife, John Bill Ricketts had had enough. “The Father of the American Circus” sold his horses and set sail for England in 1800. He and all hands were lost at sea, a final twist to the pattern of ill luck that had plagued his last years.

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