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Behind The Harrowing 'Circus Riots' Of 1855 That Turned Toronto Into A Battleground

May 13, 2021

Image: Clowns - clipartpanda.com
 
The sight of flames, the sound of roaring lions, and the acrid smell of burning rubber are what alerted 1800s-era Toronto to a very unusual Friday the 13th according to social.entrepreneur.com. Just a few hours earlier, the circus had come to town, but they brought more with them than high-flying trapeze acts. As it turned out, drunken clowns and territorial members of a not-so-secret society don't mix, and their meeting resulted in one of the most violent, unforgettable moments in Toronto history.
 
Life was pretty boring in Toronto in the early 1800s. It was an up-and-coming city, but it held fast to its old-fashioned, country-strong roots. There wasn’t much to do except walk around, work, and watch tumbleweeds roll by. Then, the railroads came along.
 
Booming Industry
 
With the railroads came people — lots of people — and Toronto transformed into a chaotic city overstuffed with huge families, a flourishing industry, and countless immigrants looking for a fresh start. And nothing is more attractive to bustling cities filled with families than the circus.
 
Rowdy Crowds
 
Before Toronto was known for its hospitality, it was known for its, well, lack thereof. As the population soared, so too did the number of Toronto’s taverns, liquor stores, and brothels. If you were an entertainer looking for a rowdy audience, then Toronto was the place for you.
 
Send In The Clowns
 
And since the circus was filled with such entertainers, they high-tailed it to Toronto. S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus had enough acrobats, equestrian acts, trapeze artists, and exotic animals to excite even the soberest Torontonian, but the clowns were the real stars of the show.
 
Clowns On The Loose
 
By day, clowns were everyone’s favorite klutzy red-nosed jesters, but by night? It was a different story. Just because the big top’s curtains were drawn didn’t mean the clowns weren’t craving a little nighttime fun themselves, so one night in 1855, they decided to hit the town.
 
Wrong Brothel
 
Naturally, the clowns started the night by picking out a brothel — King & Jarvis, to be exact. They wanted to let loose and put their hard day spent entertaining the masses behind them. Unfortunately for the clowns, though, they just happened to pick the wrong brothel.
 
Not a Warm Welcome
 
When they walked in, they were greeted with disapproving stares from the local volunteer fire brigade. Now, this fire brigade wasn’t made up of a few golden-hearted heroes; the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company was rough, impulsive, violent, and as the clowns soon learned, territorial.
 
Brawling Firefighters
 
Everyone in Toronto knew about the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company, and not because of their heroism. Back then, all the firefighter companies were independently run, meaning they were all in competition with one another. Sometimes, a fire would devour a building while the competing firefighters brawled in the street, completely unawares.
 
The First Punch
 
Clearly, the guys from Hook & Ladder weren’t about to be messed with, let alone by a group of circus clowns. Neither group knew much about compromise, so instead of talking things out, someone — no one knows if it was a clown or firefighter — threw the first punch.
 
They Won The Battle...
 
That night, the firemen were dealt their first loss. The clowns were scrappier than they’d anticipated, and could even pack a mean punch. By the end of the fight, the clowns paraded back into the brothel victorious. Little did they know, the war between clowns and firemen had only just begun.
 
Friend In High Places
 
As the clowns enjoyed their victory, the firemen seethed with rage. Who did these disrespectful circus freaks think they were, marching into town and stealing the firefighter’s favorite brothel?! Luckily for the firefighters, they had friends in high places who wouldn’t mind getting down and dirty.
 
The Orangemen
 
These friends were Protestant-Tory elites known as the Orangemen. They formed a political society called the Orange Order, and when they weren’t hanging out at the Orange Lodge, these men were using their network of members to nab all the top jobs in the city, from politicians to policemen to firemen.
 
Forming A Plan
 
So when this troupe of drunken clowns stumbled into the brothel and successfully kicked out the Hook & Ladder guys, it was seen as a declaration of war. That same night, a few firemen called up their fellow Orangemen from around town and formed a devious plan.
 
Friday The 13th
 
The plan was carried out the very next night, which just happened to be Friday the 13th. As the crowd cheered on the performers from inside the big top, another crowd began to gather on the outside. Local vendors who’d set up shop around the big top and circus encampment were told to pack up and go as quickly as possible.
 
An Angry Mob
 
The crowd that had gathered outside the big top got bigger as local Orangemen and other angry citizens joined in. Rumor has it that the Chief of Police, Samuel Sherwood, heard rumbles of an angry mob forming at the fairgrounds, but conveniently turned a blind eye.
 
Chaos In The Big Top
 
Meanwhile, things at the circus were getting dicey. The angry mob had officially waged war against the clowns, but everyone from acrobats to carnies to innocent circus-goers were in the line of fire. Rocks flew through the air from both sides as chaos erupted in the big top.
 
Targeting The Clowns
 
The Hook & Ladder firemen stormed the big top with axes. Lions roared from their cages as people ran wildly in and out of the tent. Before long, the big top and circus encampment had been completely trampled and set ablaze by the rioters. Of course, the real targets were the clowns.
 
Outnumbered
 
And this time, their scrappy fighting skills only got them so far. They were wildly outnumbered, and their bright makeup and red noses made them easy to spot amid the mayhem. Though some of the clowns dove into the nearby lake as a means of escape, most of them were pummeled to a pulp.
 
Just In Time
 
The police force and local government were so entangled with the Orangemen that the mayor himself had to hurry over to the riot, and just in time, too. Right as he got there, he saw a fireman lift an axe above the mangled-but-living body of a clown, seconds away from committing murder.
 
Finding The Rioters
 
Thankfully, the mayor grabbed the axe before the murder was committed. He called in the militia for assistance. The clowns, nursing bloody bruises and deflated egos, got the heck out of dodge while the rioters were hauled into police custody.
 
Standing Out
 
Of the entire group of rioters, 17 people were charged, and just one person was convicted. Conveniently, the police couldn’t remember if any Orangemen had been involved in the riot, though pretty much everyone knew this was a lie. Unfortunately for the circus performers, they were pretty easy to spot in a line-up.
 
"Freaks"
 
No one knows for sure who was arrested after the riots, but it's not hard to believe that some of the circus performers — whether directly involved or not — had been hauled in for questioning. From those silly, boundary-pushing clowns to mind-bending acrobats, Victorian-era circus people were often called "freaks"...
 



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