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Sawdust and Spangles/Foreword


The notes from which the following narrative was drawn were dictated by Mr. W. C. Coup at odd moments in the big show tent, the special car or the hotel where he chanced to find himself with a half-hour at his disposal. The manner and the motive of their writing unite to contribute to their charm and effectiveness. His unbounded enthusiasm for his peculiar calling and his desire so to state the facts of his experience as to give the general public a fairer and fuller understanding of its real conditions inspired him to the labor of crowding into his busy life the pleasant task of putting upon paper the main points of his interesting career.

Nothing could have been more fortunate than the fact that he was compelled to do this in a manner wholly informal,—intending later to put his haphazard notes into good literary form. His recollections fell from his lips as they came into his mind, in the forceful and picturesque phraseology of the typical showman. To preserve this original quality has been the effort constantly held in view in grouping these notes for publication. The terse idiom of the offhand dictation has been consistently retained and gives the true "show" color and flavor to the stirring scenes, adventures and incidents with which the book deals.

Of Mr. Coup's prominence in his profession it is scarcely necessary to speak, and I think none will venture to question the statement that he was the founder and pioneer in America of the circus business pure and simple, as distinguished from other lines of show enterprise, and that the story of his life would incidentally furnish a concise history of the circus on this continent. His name was a family word in homes of the people of every part of the United States during the period of his greatest activity. The main incidents of his career may be tersely stated as follows:

William Cameron Coup was born in Mount Pleasant, Ind., in 1837. While he was still a boy, his father bought the local tavern in a small country village. The business of hotel keeping did not commend itself to the future showman, who left home and took the position of "devil" in a country newspaper office. Soon, however, he became dissatisfied with the opportunities which the printing craft seemed to present, and started out to find something which better suited his unformed and perhaps romantic ideas of a profession. After a hard tramp of several miles he chanced to encounter a show, and immediately determined that this was the field to which he would devote his energies and in which he would make for himself a name and a fortune. With this show he served an apprenticeship, in a humble capacity, and gained a clear idea of the essentials of the business.

In 1861 he secured the side-show privileges of the E. F. & J. Mabie Circus, then the largest show in America. He remained with this firm until 1866, when he secured similar privileges with the Yankee Robinson Circus, with which he allied himself until 1869. In the latter year he formed a co-partnership with the celebrated Dan Costello and entered upon the first of the original ventures marking as many distinct epochs in the history of the circus in America. This departure was the organization of a show which traveled by boat and stopped at all the principal lake ports of the great inland seas. This enterprise was a decided success.

At that time Mr. P. T. Barnum had never been in the circus business, and Mr. Coup had not personally met this king of showmen. He keenly appreciated, however, the prestige which Mr. Barnum's name would give to a circus enterprise, and went to New York for the purpose of interesting Mr. Barnum in an enterprise of this character. This object he had no difficulty in accomplishing, and in the Spring of 1870 they put an immense show on the road, which toured the eastern States and was highly successful.

The next year marked a turning point in the career of Mr. Coup and also in that of the traveling show business. He was the first man who ever called the railroad into service for the purpose of moving a circus and menagerie. This significant step was taken in opposition to the judgment of his partner, P. T. Barnum, and in the face of the doubts and objections of the leading railroad officials of the country. But Mr. Coup's faith in the results of this "rapid transportation movement" was firm, and he astonished Mr. Barnum and the entire public by the phenomenal success of this venture, which brought a rich harvest of money and reputation.

The project of building a permanent amusement palace in New York came to Mr. Coup in 1874. Under his supervision, and while Mr. Barnum was in Europe, he erected, on the present site of the Madison Square Garden, the famous New York Hippodrome. His labors in this connection were so arduous that, when the great enterprise was thoroughly established, he felt obliged to take a long rest. To this end he severed his partnership with Mr. Barnum, and in 1875 took his family to Europe.

Immediately following his return to America, in the spring of 1876, Mr. Coup announced that he had formed a new co-partnership with Mr. Charles Reiche, for the purpose of starting another mammoth enterprise to be known as the New York Aquarium. A large building especially designed for this purpose was erected at the corner of Thirty-fifth Street and Broadway, and was opened October 11, 1876. Into this enterprise Mr. Coup threw the energies and ambitions of a lifetime, and so long as he retained its management the great undertaking was notably successful.

His labors in this connection brought him into relationship with the most celebrated scientists of the world, and many of them became his personal friends. Scribner's Magazine devoted many pages to an article describing the Aquarium, and referred to Mr. Coup as a benefactor of science and as a valued contributor to a more popular knowledge of biology. Probably no other recognition ever received by Mr. Coup from the press gave him the satisfaction which he gained from this magazine article.

Because of disagreements with his partner, who was determined to open the Aquarium Sundays, for the patronage of the public, he disposed of his business at a great sacrifice, and started out on the road with the "Equescurriculum," an entirely novel and original exhibition consisting of trained bronchos, performing dogs, goats, giraffes, etc., and troupes of Japanese acrobats. Each year new attractions were added to this show, and, in 1879, the New United Monster Shows were organized by Mr. Coup and developed into one of the largest consolidated circuses in the United States. Four year later, he established the Chicago Museum in the building then known as McCormick Hall and located at the corner of Kinzie and Clark streets, Chicago. Wild West shows and trained animal exhibitions engaged his energies from 1884 to 1890.

The "Enchanted Rolling Palaces were put out in 1891 and created a profound sensation throughout the entire country. This show was a popular museum housed in an expensive and elaborate train of cars especially constructed for the purpose. With this enterprise he toured the southern and eastern States. This was practically his last important undertaking, and his latest years were spent in practical retirement, although he occasionally varied the monotony of life at his country seat at Delavan, Wis., by engaging in new ventures and making short tours with trained animal exhibitions. His death occurred at Jacksonville, Fla., March 4, 1895.