This week I’m welcoming author, Eleanor Kuhns.
ELEANOR KUHNS is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in Campbell Hall, New York, received her master’s in Library Science from Columbia University, and is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York. She is the author of A Simple Murder, Death of a Dyer, Cradle to Grave, and other mysteries.
Here Comes the Circus
When I was researching Death in Salem, I came across a factoid that captivated me. In 1794, the first elephant arrived on these shores in Salem. This was an animal that no one, except possibly the merchant sailors, had ever seen. I was so interested in the elephant that I put his arrival, and the tricks he’d been taught, in the book. And the circus is such a fascinating topic I plan to set a future novel against a circus background.
At roughly the same time as the elephant’s arrival the first circus was performed in the United States. Like so many parts of American culture, the early circus was a transplant from Great Britain, brought over by John Bill Ricketts in 1793.
England’s circus had begun in 1768 with a retired Sergeant-Major named Philip Astley. A trick rider, he began exhibiting his horsemanship just outside of London. He performed in a circle – or circus (Latin for circle) – like most equestrians. In 1770 Astley decided to draw other entertainers to what was basically a horse show: i.e. he hired acrobats, ropedancers (wire walkers) and jugglers to attract a larger audience. He ended his show with a Pantomime that included Harlequin, Columbine and Clown, characters from the Elizabethan stage theater. Of course they became another prominent and familiar part of the circus: the clowns. The new circus became very popular.
So why did John Bill Ricketts bring his circus to Philadelphia? Well, Astley had built a large enclosed ring (that he called a Hippodrome) not only in London but also in France. With the brewing violence of the French Revolution, Astley fled Paris. And England began preparing for war, a war that began a few years later with Napoleon’s rise. Ricketts had already brought some of his performers to the United States. With the upset in Europe more and more of the British circus folk joined him in Philadelphia.
A few years later, Ricketts took the circus on tour. Do not imagine this early circus as performing under a big canvas tent with trained elephants, lions and other exotic animals. In the beginning they performed outside in a handy field and passed around the hat. The circus still did not have the more exotic animals like lions and elephants. The animal acts at this time consisted of trained dogs, pigs and sometimes bears. And of course trained horses as this was still primarily an equestrian show. Later, temporary wood enclosures, usually open to the sky, were built in the towns for the performances. The first canvas big top was not used until the mid-nineteenth century when the circus truly became a traveling entertainment.
By 1900 circuses dominated American popular culture. 1905 was the Golden Age. Then hundreds of outfits existed, playing to between several hundred and 20,000 people a night.
One final note: the circus, or at least acrobats and jugglers, actually have their beginnings in the Bronze Age. The ancient Egyptians taught these arts to the Greeks, and the Greeks taught them to the Romans. (Acrobatics arose independently in China.)During the Middle Ages, the jugglers and acrobats performed at fairs all over Europe and in England. In the mid-1600s in England, however, the fairs and the entertainment stopped. The Puritans or Roundheads formed the Commonwealth in England and prohibited all entertainment including Christmas celebrations.
And if anyone is interested in pursuing a circus career, there are a number of circus schools around the world, (Ukraine, Germany and France) including several in the United States.
The Devil’s Cold Dish
Will Rees is back home on his farm in 1796 Maine with his teenage son, his pregnant wife, their five adopted children, and endless farm work under the blistering summer sun. But for all that, Rees is happy to have returned to Dugard, Maine, the town where he was born and raised, and where he’s always felt at home. Until now. When a man is found dead – murdered – after getting into a public dispute with Rees, Rees starts to realize someone is intentionally trying to pin the murder on him. Then, his farm is attacked, his wife is accused of witchcraft, and a second body is found that points to the Rees family. Rees can feel the town of Dugard turning against him, and he knows that he and his family won’t be safe there unless he can find the murderer and reveal the truth…before the murderer gets to him first.
My ✰✰✰✰✰ Review
This post Revolutionary war mystery brings the political and social customs of the time to life. Will Rees is a weaver by trade, but he also has a farm in Dugard, Massachusetts. He hates farm life, so after first his wife dies, he leaves his son, David, with his sister and her family who are suppose to take care of the farm while he hires out to do weaving jobs around the country. When he returns home, with a new, pregnant wife, he finds out that his sister’s husband had beat his son, and they had run his farm into the ground.
Most of the people in the town of Dugard, where Will lives and grew up, hate him because he has, over the years, slighted them in one way or another. His sister Caroline, who has a vicious tongue, blames him for all her problems because she is poor and he has so much more than she, spreads rumors that his pregnant wife, Lydia, is a witch. When two men who live in their area are murdered, Lydia is accused of killing them via her witchy deeds, and Will is suspected of helping her. When he goes to town to look for allies, he has few, if any.
This is the story of a man who is trying his best to protect his family and homestead, and to investigate murder in a time when vigilantes came after private citizens, laws were pretty much up to the current magistrate, superstitions ran rampant, and accusations of witchcraft resulted in arrest and hanging.
This novel is rich with historical detail and diverse characters. Oh, and did I mention—it’s a page-turner.
The Devil’s Cold Dish can be purchased on Amazon:
If you’d like to question Eleanor about the circus or start a discussion regarding her historical mysteries, please feel free to leave a comment, we’d both love to hear from you.