|Who Owned the First American Circus?
The answer: JOHN BILL RICKETTS, an accomplished equestrian, came from England in 1792
and established America's first circus in Philadelphia. Probably because of his interest in
horses, George Washington attended several performances of Ricketts' circus. In 1797, the
showman built an amphitheater for his circus in New York City, and he exhibited in other towns
as far north as Albany, New York. [Notes 1, 2]
In 1961, the five Ringling Brothers, John Bill Ricketts, and four others were inducted into the
Circus Hall of Fame, Sarasota, Florida.
Circus Hall of Fame, located at Sarasota, Florida, sent the following biographical sketch:
John Bill Ricketts, the acknowledged father of the American Circus, began his circus career
with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780's.
He built a circus building in Philadelphia in the fall of 1792 in which he conducted a riding
school. After training a group of Pennsylvania horses, he began on April 3, 1793, a series of
exhibitions two and three times a week.
John Bill Ricketts combined instruction and exhibition for the next seven years in Philadelphia,
New York City, Baltimore, Charleston, Boston, Hartford, Albany, Lancaster and Montreal.
His advertisements referred to the equestrian exhibition at Ricketts Circus. Performances
included not only equestrian exhibitions, but clowns and music and later rope walkers were
added. Each stand lasted from three or four days to several months. For each one, he built
In December of 1799, his Philadelphia amphitheater burned and he retired from the circus
business. His name is enshrined in recognition of his circus pioneering in the United States
and his earned title of "Father of the American Circus."
Circus World Museum, located at Baraboo, Wisconsin, provided the following information:
The first circus in the United States originated in Philadelphia in the riding school started by
John Bill Ricketts.
The riding school had as its distinguished patron, George Washington, of whom it is recorded -
He put aside cares and worries and went to Ricketts' riding school to seek enjoyment and
pleasure. The dates of Washington's visits to Ricketts' Circus were April 22, 1793 and January
As part of his plan to draw clients, Ricketts employed a man by the name of McDonald to act
"the clown." Later he hired Sig. and Mme. Spinacuta, the former a tight rope walker and the
latter an equestrian, to entertain his customers.
The above article is an excerpt from the book, Truth and Honor: Ricketts, A Family History Book,
Copyright 1981 by Ray Eugene Ricketts and Robert Daniel Ricketts.
1 True Magazine, 1969 edition
2 We have since discovered that John Bill Ricketts had a
semi-permanent building for his circus in Montreal, Canada.