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Ammons, A. R. (18 Feb. 1926–2 Feb. 2001), poet, was born on his family’s tobacco farm near Whiteville, North Carolina, the son of Willie M. and Lucy Delia McKee Ammons. The main family book was the Bible. Archie Randolph Ammons spent his formative childhood years working on the farm and as a result always felt close to nature and the vicissitudes of weather. After graduating from Whiteville High School in ...

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Bailey, James Anthony (04 July 1847–11 April 1906), circus owner, was born in Detroit, Michigan. His surname was McGinness or McGinnis. Details about his parents are unknown. He was orphaned by the age of eight. At eleven or twelve he ran away from his sister’s home and began living on his own in Pontiac, Michigan. He began his circus career in 1860, doing odd jobs for Frederick H. Bailey, the advance man of the Robinson and Lake Circus; Bailey took such a liking to the young lad that he not only asked him to become his protégé on the road but had him adopt his name as well....

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Barnum, P. T. (05 July 1810–07 April 1891), showman, was born Phineas Taylor Barnum in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of Philo F. Barnum, a farmer and storekeeper, and Irena Taylor. While attending public school in Bethel, Barnum peddled candy and gingerbread. He later wrote that he had always been interested in arithmetic and money....

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Beatty, Clyde Raymond (10 June 1903–19 July 1965), animal trainer and circus owner, was born in Bainbridge, Ohio, the son of James Edward Beatty and Margaret Everhart, farmers. After first trying at age thirteen to run away to join the circus, he succeeded at fifteen, following his freshman year at Bainbridge High School....

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Clark, Bobby (16 June 1888–12 February 1960), clown, was born Robert Edwin Clark in a church rectory (his grandfather was the church sexton) in Springfield, Ohio, the son of Victor Brown Clark, a railroad conductor, and Alice Marilla Sneed. His father died when Bobby was six. As a young boy Clark sang in the church choir and played the bugle. His fascination with outlandish costumes, which became one of his theatrical trademarks, was apparent at an early age. When he was in the fourth grade Bobby met Paul McCullough, four years his senior, and a close friendship was formed that lasted over thirty-five years. The two boys soon put together a bugling and tumbling act that they performed at the local YMCA. Clark and McCullough’s act was received so favorably by the residents of the area that, at the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, respectively, they decided to embark upon a career in show business. They began to place advertisements in various theatrical publications. The response was favorable and Clark and McCullough, as they now called themselves, were hired by a minstrel troupe as tumblers, buglers, and handymen, with a combined weekly salary of twenty-five dollars. They were on their way....

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Walt Disney. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114742).

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Disney, Walt (05 December 1901–15 December 1966), animator and motion picture producer, was born Walter Elias Disney in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Elias Disney, a building contractor, and Flora Call, a teacher. After a childhood near Marceline and in Kansas City, Missouri, Disney studied at the Chicago Institute of Art in the evening while attending McKinley High School during the day. In 1918 he enlisted in the American Ambulance Corps, serving in France and returning to employment as an artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he befriended artist ...

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Adam Forepaugh. Center, with Peter Sells, left, and Lewis Sells. Chromolithograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-5230).

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Forepaugh, Adam (28 February 1831–22 January 1890), circus owner, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of John Forepaugh, a butcher and veterinary surgeon, and Susannah Heimer. After leaving Philadelphia at the age of sixteen, he worked his way westward to Cincinnati and eventually earned a small fortune as a livestock speculator. After returning to his hometown he began to invest in omnibus lines while buying and selling horses for horsecar lines in New York City, where he next set up business....

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Artoria Gibbons. 1920s Collection of Amelia Klem Osterud

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Gibbons, Artoria (16 July 1893–18 March 1985), tattooed lady, was born Anna Mae Burlingston in Linwood, Wisconsin, the daughter of the Norwegian immigrant and farmer Gunder Huseland, who at the time went by the name Frank Burlingston, and his wife Amma Mabel Mason. Anna was one of seven children. The farm was located on an island in the Wisconsin River that was referred to as “Treasure Island” or “Burlingston Island.” In 1907 the family moved to Colville, Washington, and shortly thereafter, Anna's father died. She and two of her sisters went to work as domestic servants in Spokane, Washington, to help support the family. She met the tattoo artist Charles “Red” Gibbons in Spokane; he was working in an arcade and had been tattooing professionally for a number of years. They married in Spokane in 1912; the couple had one daughter....

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Hart, Tony (25 July 1855–04 November 1891), actor and singer, was born Anthony Cannon in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Anthony Cannon and Mary Sweeney, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. He put on amateur performances as a child, but a pattern of delinquency began with disruptions at school and culminated in the near murder of a rival during a performance; his parents placed him in the Lyman School (a state reformatory at Westborough, outside Worcester) in 1865. He escaped several months later and traveled to Boston, where he supported himself as a singer, a bootblack, and a newsboy, and then to Providence, where he sang and danced in saloons and was dubbed Master Antonio by a saloon keeper. He joined a touring circus, and then Billy Arlington’s Minstrels; in 1870, at age fifteen, he joined Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels. Dressed as a little girl, he evoked tears with a sentimental song, “Put Me in My Little Bed.”...

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Charles W. Carey Jr.

Kelly, Emmett (09 December 1898–28 March 1979), clown, was born Emmett Leo Kelly in Sedan, Kansas, the son of Thomas Kelly, a railroad section foreman, and Mollie Schimick. His family bought a farm near Houston, Missouri, while he was still a little boy, and he received his entire formal education in that town’s one-room schoolhouse. He dropped out of the eighth grade to help on the farm and, having been encouraged to make the most of his artistic abilities by both his mother and a former teacher, enrolled in a correspondence course offered by the Landon School of Cartooning in Cleveland, Ohio....

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Lillian Leitzel Left, helping Dolly Jahn celebrate her birthday, 1926. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-106958).

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Leitzel, Lillian (1891?–15 February 1931), circus performer, was born Lillian Alize Elianore in Breslau, Germany, the daughter of Edward Elianore, a Hungarian army officer turned theatrical impresario, and Elinor Pelikan, a Bohemian circus aerialist. There is much dispute over her birth date and name. The year of her birth is variously recorded somewhere between 1891 and 1895. There are also half a dozen variations on her given names and their spelling, although Leitzel never used her father’s name for any length of time during her life. If the facts of Leitzel’s life are clouded in controversy it is because she, herself, made it a habit to change the facts of her story each time she told it to a different reporter. Being exceedingly vain, she would also have taken care to present herself as being as young as possible....

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North, John Ringling (14 August 1903–04 June 1985), circus owner and producer, was born in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the son of Henry Whitestone North, a railroad engineer, and Ida Ringling, the only sister of the famed Ringling brothers whose circus he eventually came to control. North attended public schools in Baraboo, graduating from high school in 1921. He attended the University of Wisconsin and Yale but left the latter school in 1924 to marry Jane Connelly. They had no children and divorced in 1927. North worked briefly for an investment house on Wall Street and then as a real estate salesman in Sarasota, Florida, for John Ringling (his uncle and the man for whom he was named). When Ringling died in 1936, control of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus passed into the hands of creditors. Childless, Ringling left the bulk of his estate to the state of Florida, but in a codicil contested by other members of the family he named his nephew John Ringling North as executor. Using that position as leverage, North first convinced the other surviving members of the family, who owned a majority interest in the circus stock, to name him president of the circus corporation for the next five years. He then acquired a loan that allowed the family to pay off the circus’s creditors and regain control. A labor dispute during 1938, the first year of his management, left the circus crippled and helpless in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and threatened to ruin North’s chances of saving the circus. In response he took the Ringling show off the road for the remainder of the season and sent its acts out with another circus also owned by the corporation....

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Oakley, Annie (13 August 1860–03 November 1926), shooter and Wild West star, was born Phoebe Ann Moses near Woodland, Ohio, the daughter of Jacob Moses and Susan Wise, farmers. Annie, as her sisters called her, grew up with poverty and hardship. Her father died when she was six, and in 1867 her mother married Daniel Brumbaugh, who died three years later. During this period, Annie began to work at the Darke County Infirmary. She also “hired out” to a farm family for two years but ran away after being overworked, beaten, and perhaps sexually abused. Annie returned to the infirmary and occasionally lived at home with her mother and her mother’s third husband, Joseph Shaw....

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Pastor, Tony (28 May 1832–26 August 1908), variety performer and impresario, was born Antonio Pastori in New York City, the son of Antonio Pastori, a theater violinist who also ran a fruit store and barber shop, and his wife (name unknown), who ran a perfumery and, for ten years after her husband’s death, a saloon. Pastor attended New York public schools, but by age eleven he was singing for a temperance group. At thirteen he was a blackface minstrel. In 1846 his father hoped to stop his career by sending him to live on a farm, but by the year’s end he was an “infant prodigy” at Barnum’s Museum in New York. Apprenticed to a circus, Pastor learned tumbling, riding, and mimicry; he became a clown and developed a “rube” act. From 1851 till its collapse in 1853 he was the Nathans-Sands Circus’s ringmaster....

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Max Patkin With Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns, c. 1951. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Patkin, Max (10 January 1920–30 October 1999), baseball clown, was born in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel H. Patkin, a delicatessen operator and later a repairman, and Rebecca Patkin (maiden name unknown); both parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. He graduated from West Philadelphia High School; two years at Brown Prep confirmed his lack of academic promise. Since seeing ...