Kurt's Historic Sites

James Bailey

James A. Bailey

Interment LocationVisited 
New York, NYSeptember 7, 2019 

Photographed September 7, 2019.

The traveling circus can conjure images of a child running away to seek a better, freer life, in fiction and non-fiction alike. How one of the biggest names in circus history got his start in the industry is very much in the same vein. James Anthony McGinnis was an orphan raised by his sister between the ages of eight and twelve. James’s sister routinely inflicted physical punishments upon him, as did his teacher. One day around 1859, James was skinny dipping in a river with friends, and he never surfaced to retrieve his clothes. The assumption was that young James had drowned, but in reality, he had fled his abusive environment. The boy briefly found work on a farm before he became a bellhop at the Hodges House Hotel in Pontiac, Michigan. It was there in 1860 that James met Frederick Bailey, an advance man for the Robinson & Lake Circus. At the youth’s insistence, Bailey took James on as his apprentice. The boy became so enamored with his mentor and the circus that he dropped his McGinnis surname and adopted Bailey’s as his own.

By 1872, James A. Bailey, age 25, headed his own circus, partnered with James E. Cooper. In 1876, Bailey took the circus and menagerie to Australia to start what would be a multi-year, multi-hemisphere tour. Cooper & Bailey Circus entertained in Melbourne, Tasmania, and Java, with other stops in New Zealand, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. When Bailey and his crew returned to the U.S. in 1879, he became the first circus owner in the country to purchase an electricity system. So new and cutting edge was the technology that he was able to charge patrons to tour the generator. In 1880, Bailey and his biggest competitor, Phineas Taylor Barnum, joined forces. They became equal partners in what was to become the grandest circus enterprise of the century. On March 18, 1881, the three-ring Barnum & Bailey Circus opened its season in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden. Though they faced stiff competition from rival Adam Forepaugh, Barnum & Bailey’s 19-state, 11,000-mile 1881 American tour made more than $1.1 million. My father and I visited Bailey’s gravesite in 2019, at which point that 1881 sum was equivalent to upwards of $27.5 million.

Photographed September 7, 2019.
Photographed September 7, 2019.

When the circus empresario died in 1906, the New York Times commented, “It is conceded by those who knew both Barnum and Bailey that the latter was the presiding genius of ‘the Greatest Show on Earth,’ although he was always content to let people award the credit where they chose.” The newspaper quoted Bailey as having said, “What I have done is my business, and there’s nobody can enjoy that fact half as much as I do.” With his more exploitative and public-facing partner having died in 1891, it was incumbent upon Bailey to guide their enterprise into the next century. Included on his list of feats was bringing the spectacle of the American circus to Europe for a five-year tour. The circus’s stops included the United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. With his ensemble including 1,000 people and 3,000 animals, “Bailey conquered the difficulties of railway transportation, foreign languages, and innumerable red-tape taboos by pleasing the people,” the Times hailed, referring to him as “The Napoleon of the Circus.”

Fast Facts

Born: July 4, 1847 in Detroit, Michigan

Spouse: Ruth Louisa McCaddon Bailey (m. 1868-1906)

Died: April 11, 1906 in Mount Vernon, New York

Cause of Death: Erysipelas

Age: 58

Last Recorded Words: “Well, I’ve run a circus for 40 years, and it’s some consolation to know that I’ve built one that can run itself.”

Interment: Woodlawn Cemetery, New York, New York

"Most people spend their lives trying to dodge trouble. The best fun in the world is dodging trouble you've made for yourself."
- James A. Bailey
circa 1902

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

American Experience. 2018. Season 30, episode 9, “The Circus, Part One.” Aired October 8, 2018, on PBS.

American Experience. 2018. Season 30, episode 10, “The Circus, Part Two.” Aired October 9, 2018, on PBS.

New York Times. “Remarkable Career and Character of James A. Bailey ‘The Napoleon of the Circus.'” April 15, 1906. Page 44. https://www.nytimes.com/1906/04/15/archives/remarkable-career-and-character-of-james-a-bailey-the-napoleon-of.html?searchResultPosition=1.

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