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As 'The Greatest Show on Earth' ends, a reminder of Cincinnati's robust circus legacy

Competing troupe, poster maker made their mark
Posted: 12:00 PM, Jan 19, 2017
Updated: 2017-01-19 21:45:52Z
Cincinnati's connection to 'The Greatest Show'
Cincinnati's connection to 'The Greatest Show'
Cincinnati's connection to 'The Greatest Show'
Cincinnati's connection to 'The Greatest Show'

CINCINNATI -- Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: The "Greatest Show on Earth" is coming to town March 10-19 -- for the last time.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' announcement last week that its 146-year run will end in May will please its critics and make its lifelong fans wax nostalgic.

Here in Cincinnati, it will stir memories of circuses past. And what a past it was, one filled with decades of spectacles put on by the industry's longest-running circus, but also by smaller ones, such as the Terrace Park-based John Robinson Circus. That circus traveled a circuit of 15 states from New York to Arkansas from 1842 to 1911. There will be fond memories of Robinson's mascot, Tillie the elephant, as well.

Circus fans whose trapezes swing into the art world might harken back to the days when Cincinnati's Strobridge Lithographing Co. was the nation's leading maker of colorful, wonderfully detailed outdoor posters that advertised the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as well as magicians, theater productions and motion pictures.

Declining attendance, high costs, changing public tastes and pressure from animal rights groups have caused the big top to collapse, but they can't kill Cincinnati's connection to the circus.

Tillie touched the lives of all four John Robinsons, and though her tombstone shows she died at age 120, circus historians estimate she was 65 years old.

Where did the Robinsons bury Tillie?

Circus founder John H. Robinson (1807-1888) reportedly ran away from his South Carolina home at age 15 and eventually hooked up with a slew of circuses, performing as a stilt walker and stunt rider. He first saw Cincinnati when he fell ill on the circus circuit and stopped to see a doctor here. By 1842, he had his own little troupe, and by about 1850 he was wintering his performers and menagerie of animals in Terrace Park.

There would be four more John Robinsons associated with "Uncle John's" circus over the years, and it was the second one, known as "The Governor," who would hit the jackpot with a young elephant named Tillie in 1872. She became John G. Robinson's big draw to his traveling band, which filled 35 railroad cars at its peak.

Erin Purcell, a Terrace Park resident who documented Cincinnati's circus roots, wrote in a  two-part report  that "Tillie was the obvious leader of the Robinson elephants. She led the act when they were inside the ring and kept everyone else in check outs of it."

Tillie was so beloved by the family that they shaped a front window of their Terrace Park house on Circus Place in the form of a capital "T."

The Robinsons kept four elephants -- Tillie, Tony, Pitt and Clara -- when they sold their business to an Indiana circus in 1916 (it was absorbed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1929). After that, they sometimes put on shows for local children at their "Elephant Hole."

When Tillie died, the local press ran a full obituary and schools canceled classes. At Tillie’s memorial service in Terrace Park, a plane flew over and dropped carnations, and her three elephant buddies stood behind canons as they were fired in her honor.

But what happened to Tillie? Phil Nuxhall, Spring Grove Cemetery historian and author of two books on the people buried there, said rumors that she was laid to rest at the venerable graveyard are untrue. In his book "Phil Nuxhall's Stories in the Grove," Nuxhall mentions reports that Tillie's legs were removed and used as umbrella stands.

Former Terrace Park resident Lynn Nelson, shown here as a young girl posing with one of the John Robinson Circus elephants, said Tillie was buried in a dry well on the family's property.

Purcell's grandmother, Lynn Nelson of Hyde Park, who was an active resident of Terrace Park for more than 30 years, said she knows the real story.

"You know there's a tombstone in the yard of the Robinsons with Tillie's name on it, and everybody assumes the elephant was buried underneath that stone," Nelson said. "That's not correct.

"She died in the elephant house. She was sick, and (John "Papa" Robinson) could feel she was dying. He went to her the night she died. You know she could talk, right? She was calling for him. She stuck her trunk through the bars and he held her trunk until she was gone," Nelson said.

A man, whose name Nelson couldn't recall and was 9 years old at the time, witnessed what became of Tillie, she said.

"There was a dry well on the property not too far from the elephant barn. The man told me he was present when they put Tillie in the well, that he looked down into the well and saw the body," Nelson said.

To get Tillie into the well, John "Papa" Robinson had to have her body dissected, Nelson said.

"They cut off her legs and made them into umbrella stands. I've seen three of those legs," Nelson said.

"The other elephants," she said. "knew something was up. They were let out of the barn so as not to witness the passing of their friend, Tillie. For three nights, they made these mournful calls. They seemed to sense she was gone, and they cried these mournful sounds."

The Robinsons claimed Tillie was 120 years old, which would have made her the oldest elephant in America. But Purcell noted in her report that circus historians estimate she was about 65. The Robinsons, Purcell wrote, “were a colorful family, full of showmanship and circus quirk.”

Strobridge Lithographing Co. of Cincinnati printed dozens of posters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during its heyday.

Strobridge championed the circus

Pennsylvania book and engraving specialist Elijah Middleton founded a lithographic print shop here in 1847. It came into prominence under the leadership of his one-time partner, bookseller Hines Strobridge. Strobridge bought Middleton out in the 1860s and moved the company into a modern factory just north of the western bend of the Miami-Erie Canal in Over-the-Rhine.

Strobridge faced stiff local competition from other printers such as Gibson, Krebs, U.S. Printing, Donaldson and the Enquirer Job Printing Co., but stood out by hiring talented artists such as Matt Morgan, Harry Ogden and Paul Jones.

Strobridge expanded with plants in Norwood and New York City, yet John Robinson Circus apparently was not one of its clients. The Enquirer landed that job until their print shop burned down in the 1880s. According to Over-the-Rhine vintage poster shop owner Jack Wood, the Robinsons then financed and hired Russell & Morgan Printing Co. to produce their posters. Russell & Morgan later became U.S. Playing Card Co. Strobridge stuck with the bigger circus and retained its name until selling to H.S. Crocker Co. in 1961.

"Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. were huge for Strobridge at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, and then it only increased," Wood said of the company's circus business.

In addition to posters, he said, Strobridge printed programs and any other papers the circus needed when it toured the world. He said he has seen Strobridge ephemera in German and French and that he has heard that Dutch versions exist as well.

"Strobridge probably printed more circus posters than anybody in the country," Wood said.