In 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot forged his place in history by making “for exhibition of trial and skill” a lock of iron, steel, and brass that, with its key, weighed “but one grain of gold.” Scalliot connected this tiny lock to a thin gold chain of 43 links and fastened them “about the neck of a flea, which drew them all with ease. All these together, lock and key, chain and flea, weighed only one grain and a half.” Scalliot’s achievement has endured in the annals of London and may have inspired Sobieski Boverick, a watchmaker in the Strand, to even greater things. Almost two centuries later, Boverick was showing his miniature ivory “landau with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea.”
Like the fleas, the blacksmith and the watchmaker were on to something. That “exhibition of trial and skill,” that elaborate ivory coach and six, the hardware hitched to a single “flea, which drew them all with ease,” sound very much like billboards for shows that once traveled America and the world. Whether Scalliot was first or not, at some place long ago, perhaps in Elizabethan England, the noble institution of the flea circus was born, and it thrives to this day.
Man and flea have been intimate with each other seemingly forever, and Homo sapiens realized that Pulex irritans could be entertaining many centuries before discovering that it could be deadly. In the sixth century A.D., rat fleas from Egypt spread bubonic plague into the Roman Empire, killing millions of people; some scholars say this vast epidemic brought on the Dark Ages. Another plague, known to history as the Black Death, swept Europe in the 14th century, killing perhaps a third of the continent’s population. The Jesuit priest Luigi Gonzaga became Saint Aloysius after he volunteered in 1591 to help those suffering from plague in Rome and died from the disease. By the 1700s, flea-borne plague had taken an estimated 137 million lives. A broad epidemic spread from China in the late 19th century and lasted well into the 20th. (Thousands of Americans, including me, were given plague shots before leaving for Vietnam in the 1960s; mine produced an egg-sized black carbuncle around the injection site.) As recently as 1994, there were 693 suspected cases of bubonic or pneumonic plague in India.
This was nearly a century after scientists first confirmed the connection between fleas and bubonic plague and developed a protective serum. Working in Hong Kong and Vietnam, the Swiss-born French physician Alexandre Yersin discovered the responsible bacillus in 1894; he shared recognition for the discovery with the Japanese researcher Shibasaburo Kitasato. Efforts to perfect a serum were already making progress when Paul-Louis Simond demonstrated four years later that fleas were the main carriers of the disease from rats to man; they can also transmit a form of typhus, as well as blood ailments, tapeworms, and allergies. But most of the 2,000-plus species and subspecies of flea are just that: pests, not vectors of disease.
Since apparently nothing could be done about them, over the centuries they became familiar objects of jest and even verse. More than 400 years B.C., the great comic dramatist Aristophanes had fun in The Clouds explaining how Socrates measured the leap of a flea. Two millennia later, Shakespeare and Rabelais made light of the creature, and the Metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne used it in his entreaty to an unnamed virgin. “The Flea” begins:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Brendan Lehane, the author of The Complete Flea, called Donne’s poem “the erotic apex of the literary flea,” which is saying a lot, because there was a busy school of flea-inspired ribald poetry, prose, and illustrated jollity. After all, “because of its size, its leap, its graft and its want of shame, it has seen a good deal more than any butler.” And because the flea tends to seek the warmest folds and crevices, these literary ventures often start with an eager swain volunteering to relieve the victim of her itch by personally searching out the little pest and proceeding from there.
The flea circus was not—is not—triple-X rated, but rather family fun, a more profitable form of mass entertainment. Louis Bertolotto, the first flea maestro to win international notice, was born in Genoa and wound up in Canada. In the 1830s, he was charging a shilling to witness his “Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas . . . one of the Greatest Natural Curiosities Ever Exhibited” in London’s Regent Street. His fleas not only pulled what became the standard tiny flea-circus carriage but also a full-rigged man-of-war. They portrayed an Oriental mogul complete with harem, a fancy-dress ball with six-legged ladies and gentlemen dancing to a 12-piece orchestra, and at the climax they executed a moving tableau of the Battle of Waterloo, with Wellington, Napoleon, and Blücher in full uniform.
No one since seems to have equaled the grandiosity of Bertolotto’s exhibition, but many, probably thousands, of entrepreneurs have knowingly or ignorantly modeled their offerings on his extravagant example. In the 1830s, an “Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas” ran briefly on lower Broadway but closed after a cold spell so the exhibitor could “fill up the vacancies that grim death had made.” Later in the 19th century, some of the medicine shows that traveled big- and small-town America took on flea circuses as an extra attraction.
But the first American to rank with great flea impresarios like Bertolotto was William Heckler, a former circus strongman who took up fleas at the turn of the 20th century and 15 years later had studied them closely enough to publish a manual of flea training titled “Puli-cology.” In 1920, after traversing the nation, he opened in Manhattan’s theater district with a cast starring Princess Rajah, the Oriental Dancer. Five years later his troupe moved their show into a feature spot at Hubert’s Museum on Times Square. There, through the Great Depression and World War II, their circus held its own alongside bearded ladies and half-man–half-woman oddities. In addition to the traditional athletic events, one of Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone said to be made of discarded fingernail clippings.
A New York sportswriter reported in 1937 that Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world (1908–1915), was stationed out front as a Heckler shill, and two years later the 52-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander was luring customers with accounts of how, as a St. Louis Cardinal, he struck out Tony Lazzeri and beat the Yankees in the 1926 World Series. The folklorist Steve Zeitlin wrote of a publicity man who won some laughs by checking a Heckler performer billed as “The Great Herman” into the Waldorf-Astoria. The clerk almost checked Herman out by closing the guest book on him. The Times Square show ran until the 1950s, when porn shops drove out such wholesome fare.
Heckler’s was a sophisticated version of the lesser flea shows that plied the back roads during the early 1900s. They were so numerous, and so often scoffed at, that the flea circus became a topic of comedy in the emerging media of film and radio. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made a short, The Chimp (1932), in which a bankrupt circus pays them off with a flea circus and a chimpanzee named Ethel, which also happens to be the name of their landlord’s wayward wife. In It’s in the Bag (1945), comedian Fred Allen played a down-on-his-luck flea circus promoter called Fred F. Trumble Floogle, who contended with Robert Benchley as a pest exterminator. The cast included Jack Benny, Jerry Colonna, and Minerva Pious playing Mrs. Nussbaum, a character from Allen’s radio show.
Before television, traveling rail shows crisscrossed the nation, and a select few featured both dead whale and live flea, contrasting the monstrous with the minuscule. In 1935, for example, the Eureka Whaling Company of Long Beach, California, was touring with a 55-foot, 68-ton main attraction “in a state of perfect preservation,” accompanied by various other natural wonders. Those included Madame Sirwell’s European Flea Circus featuring “over 50 performing fleas that kick little footballs, pull a small cart, run races, walk a tight wire and many other astonishing feats.” There were others.
Apparently the one I saw and smelled when I was a tyke in Southside Virginia, the one that set off this painstaking research, was the Hutton Shows’ Great London Tramway Exposition. Its whale also happened to measure 55 feet and weigh 68 tons. (Sideshow historians suggest that certain touring whales were synthetic, made of substances other than blubber, but this is such a disillusioning thought that I refused to pursue it. Besides, no artificial whale could have been so aromatic.) The Hutton Show included both a flea circus and the famed Barnum & Bailey Circus/World’s Fair/Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not sword swallower Mimi Garneau, who in 1928 had been the first woman to gulp down a neon tube. Over the years her esophagus started giving her trouble, so she created a flea act to fall back on and, by 1940, was doing double duty swallowing cutlery and directing her tiny circus.
Booking fleas with whales and sword swallowers, or mixing them with great comedians, chimpanzees, and exterminators, guaranteed hilarity without getting near the question of exactly how a flea circus worked—or, indeed, whether actual fleas were even involved. The question recurs today, at every performance of every flea circus, and it’s a challenge getting a clear answer from their conductors.
In the beginning, there were fleas.
The seemingly serious literature of the genre tells how carefully individual fleas were selected, trained, and retained. Females were preferred, but personality played a part. The slow but steady were broken to harness, pulling chariots and carriages; the faster, more excitable types became soccer players or high divers. But because even the stodgiest are capable of leaps that would equal a human’s jumping over the Statue of Liberty, they had to be discouraged from doing just that. One way was to confine them in a test tube, so that each time they jumped they would bump their heads, until they caught on and stopped jumping.
But they were still too frisky, so to keep them on the job they were glued or otherwise hitched to something. Dray fleas were harnessed to their vehicles by a fine thread or microscopic wire. Soccer players lay on their backs, and when a cotton ball soaked in something repulsive was rolled to them, they kicked it away. Musicians in the orchestra had tiny instruments glued to their forelegs and, like the dancers, were set in motion by vibrations of their little stage. There was an explanation for each of the things the spectator was told he was seeing.
Circus proprietors related how they dealt with constant turnover of their short-lived casts and sometimes encountered customs problems when ordering special fleas from exotic places. Some demonstrated how they let their performers feed regularly on their forearms, and transported them from gig to gig in custom-built luggage. So historically, yes—there have been fleas in flea circuses, though whether they were engaged at the high levels of athletic and terpsichorean skill alleged by their owners is arguable.
That’s historically. Today, there are flea circuses all over America and beyond. I have tracked flea experts up and down the East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina. I have located others in Longview, Texas; Naperville, Illinois; Ossining, New York; and points between. A certain Madame Rosa is conducting a show in Antwerp. At 15, Britain’s Sven Svenson claimed the title of youngest flea tamer in the United Kingdom. Whether their circuses have fleas is something they like to leave to your imagination. Suffice it to say that most flea circus entrepreneurs of today double as magicians. Some are professional actors; all are actors at some level. Few can devote all their time to their circuses.
Paul Szauter, who becomes “Dr. Wilson” when he dons top hat for his magic shows on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island, is by day a mouse genome specialist at the Jackson Laboratory. One cool evening, he put on a special performance for a roomful of young and old vacationers in the rustic Community Hall at Otter Creek. He wears a dark pigtail and has a sly, mysterious look on stage, as if daring anyone to question his legerdemain. But sure enough, a skeptical 11-year-old shouted “Show us your other hand!” just when the show’s star performer was said to be doing a high dive into the tank.
Jack Ritter, past president of the Magic Club of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and mayor of nearby Mechanicsburg, conducts a flea circus in his spare time, or vice versa. He spent so much time and money setting up his circus that his wife told him, “You might as well have bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus.” But Ritter thinks his fleas are a political asset. “It’s fun,” he says. “It keeps my name out in public. I do this rather than give a talk to the Rotary about the history of Mechanicsburg. Who cares?”
Adam Gertsacov, of Providence, Rhode Island, and Yonkers, New York, wants to give his Acme Miniature Flea Circus performances “the aura of a sideshow in the 1890s,” a feeling that many flea managers share. They like being part of the long, romantic tradition of show business. Though they typically operate out of a handy suitcase that opens into a midway with flags, carousel and Ferris wheel, they consider themselves colleagues of the great sword swallowers and prestidigitators of the past, part of the fabled world of “learned pigs and fireproof women.”
Gertsacov delves into flea circus history; indeed, he has helped make it. He studied acting and matriculated at the Ringling Brothers clown college before an old trouper told him to “get rid of that clown stuff; get yourself some fleas.” He could picture the act: “You’re so big, they’re so little.” This was not advice that Gertsacov wanted to hear, but he followed it, and eventually presided over the “triumphant return of the flea circus to Times Square” in 2001. He performed there for several months before taking his attraction back on the road.
Show people tend to loosen up under friendly questioning. Jim Frank, who lives in Laurel, Maryland, puts flea circuses in three categories: “One, dress ’em up as familiar people—Lincoln, Napoleon—see how small I can make a costume; two, hook ’em up with brass wire to pull chariots and such; and three, present fleas that cause things to happen, cause reactions—imagine the expressions on Benny Hill’s face. That’s my bracket, the illusion bracket. People tune their shows to their own skill level. Some use gearing, clockwork, small motors. . . . But if I’m outside, any speck of dust can be a flea. A puff of breath and it moves, and they’ve seen the flea. There are many ways to influence kids to see an illusion.”
Gertsacov agrees. Without putting the conversation off the record or even on deep background, he admits that “part of the fun is the secrecy. Obviously it’s hard to see fleas. People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.”
He enriches it with an illustrated history of the flea, reciting classics of the flea canon and ending with the shortest poem of all:
It’s a rare showman who can squeeze a living out of a flea circus. But if it paid off for enthusiasm, Jim Alberti of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, would be chartering his own jet instead of piloting his pickup from bluegrass concert to school fundraiser to county fair, handily supplementing his Social Security check. His father and grandfather before him ran flea circuses, and Jim is blessed with a spouse who understands that the bug is in his blood. He was teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1988 when he told her he’d like to quit and do his show full-time. “We could do that,” she said. “I’ve seldom loved her more,” Jim told me.
After failing to catch him at the Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and the James Riverfest in Lynchburg, Virginia, I finally met him on a sweltering day at the annual Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was setting up his show on a sunbaked concrete walkway far out on the fringe of the festival; as I helped him erect signs, I thought he could never draw a crowd there. But a couple of passersby slowed down out of curiosity, and a few more stopped when he donned his derby and red vest, signs that the show was about to begin. He has a line of patter to accompany his chores. His fleas go south for the winter, he says. “They have a condo in Florida. It’s a French poodle.” By the time he introduced his star performer, Captain Spalding, to do his daring double flip into the tank, dozens of kids had appeared, snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced, like the resurrected cast of an old Our Gang movie. They listened open-mouthed to his patter and seemed mesmerized as he wove his hands to illustrate what was happening.
As Jim says, “It’s not easy to make something out of their imagination—a little like James Joyce taking a thought and making a book out of it.” His performance may or may not have equaled Ulysses. But as I watched the kids watch him, it was clear that Jim, like Scalliot, Boverick, Bertolotto, and Heckler—not to mention Adam—had ’em.
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