City Cast

How Philly Introduced the Modern-Day Circus Show

Brittany Valentine
Brittany Valentine
Posted on July 18
photo of blue historical marker that reads "America's first circus building was opened here at 12th and Market.

The Ricketts Circus historical marker is on 1200 Market St. (Brittany Valentine/City Cast Philly)

On April 3, 1793, British performer John Bill Ricketts gave America’s first full circus performance at 12th and Market Streets.

Ricketts began performing at age 17, and acquired some jaw-dropping skills like juggling while standing backwards on top of a horse, and even riding two horses at once.

He officially launched Ricketts’ Circus as a one-man show, but later added singers, dancers, acrobats, and clowns.

President George Washington attended a circus performance during its first season. He called Ricketts one of the most “graceful and expert” performers in the world. Throughout the 1790s, his company toured other U.S. cities, including Albany and Baltimore.

At the time, much of the public viewed circus performers as untrustworthy. To combat this perception, Ricketts donated money to low-income families to heat their homes in the winter. He also housed yellow fever patients in the circus building in 1793.

After his amphitheater accidentally burned down in 1799, Ricketts set sail for the West Indies, but was kidnapped by a French warship commander and taken to the island of Guadalupe. He performed there for long enough to buy a small ship, but it sank on his way back to England, killing him and his performing horses.

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