James Robinson

By Molly Thomas


Acrobatics-tumbling, leaping, vaulting, a carrying act with a young girl

Equestrian Acts-a carrying act with John Robinson and later with Clarence Robinson, a two-pony act with another young apprentice, “Robinson’s Ride” (hurdle jumping), a “sensational” pirouette act

Bareback Riding-forward and backwards somersaults over 4-5’ wide banners, 23 consecutive somersaults

Performed for Queen Victoria at Alhambra Palace in London, England, May, 1858

The “Running Globe”

“Indian Scenic Act”


James Robinson (also called Jim Robinson, or “Jemmie”) was a celebrated American equestrian. He was born in 1838 (if we believe his own statements,[1] and those of circus historian Stuart Thayer)[2] or in 1835, according to T. Allston Brown’s account.[3] Robinson’s birthplace is also questioned. While many sources agree it is Boston, Massachusetts, a biographical Daily Cleveland Herald article suggests Charleston, South Carolina.[4]

We do know that James Robinson was born Michael James Fitzgerald. He was placed in a religious orphanage at a young age after his father died, and eventually ran away from the orphanage. In 1844 he became an apprentice to the clown John Gossin. Gossin then “sold the boy’s time” a year later, in July 1845, to circus showman and manager, John Robinson. James became his apprentice, but since he had refused to tell his name or where he had come from, Robinson renamed him “James Robinson.” This was common practice in the circus. Fitzgerald was actually the second of John Robinson’s apprentices to be renamed James Robinson, the first was Juan Hernandez, another bareback rider who eventually reclaimed his original name after his apprenticeship.[5]

As a circus apprentice, James learned various skills, but bareback riding quickly became his expertise and passion. In 1848, at age eleven, he was performing professionally as a bareback rider and acrobat with Robinson & Eldred’s New York Circus, touring through Georgia and Florida. His acts were tumbling, leaping and vaulting, a carrying act in which he balanced a little girl, a two pony act with another young male apprentice, the “running globe,” an “Indian scenic act,” a principal riding act which used a pad and a bareback riding act. Another of his acts was with John Robinson, where John would stand on his horse with James balanced on his head while the horse circled the ring, John holding onto James’ ankles for support.[6]

By 1850 James was a star, and advertised as “without a rival in the known world” by Robinson & Eldred.[7] Gifts were showered on him as the circus toured through South Carolina and Pennsylvania.[8] During one engagement in Savannah, Georgia he was awarded a gold watch and chain in celebration of his skill.[9]

In 1851 James Robinson became the second rider ever to do a somersault on his barebacked horse, successfully emulating another famous male equestrian, John Glenroy.[10] As Glenroy had achieved it in 1846, Robinson’s accomplishment may not have been considered overly spectacular. Nevertheless, Robinson & Eldred again advertised him as “the best equestrian in the world.”[11] Whether the statement can be proven is unclear, but the American public and Robinson himself certainly seemed to believe it.

In 1852, Robinson & Eldred took their “Great Southern Circus” through Virginia, and James led the male equestrian exercises.[12] In 1884, he describes these acts: “I turned somersaults, both forward and backward, over banners four and five feet wide; banners of that width are not attempted these days. I would stand well back on the horse, at the tail, with my back to his head, and throw a backward somersault. Hard, indeed with the horse moving from you, but I do not remember ever missing one of these.”[13]

In 1856, his apprenticeship ended. He left Robinson & Eldred for Spalding & Rogers’s railroad circus, which included other famous acts such as the Levater Lee Troupe of pantomimes, Madame Olinza (a Russian tight-rope walker), Kendal’s Brass Band and Le Jeune Burte (a Maryland hurdle racer).[14] James was a headliner and apparently completed twenty-three consecutive somersaults, a remarkable feat, while performing with Spalding and Rogers.[15]

In 1857 he performed at the Washington Circus and Amphitheatre.[16] In the fall he left for Europe and spent two years touring with several different managers. His last contract was with Howes & Cushing’s United States Circus, performing for Queen Victoria at the Alhambra Palace in London, England in May 1858.[17] He returned to America for the 1860 season. Interestingly, while he was away, an Australian rider named James Melville became “the doyenne of the New York press.” Subsequently, when Robinson performed with Nixon & Co. at Niblo’s in January, the Clipper remarked that Robinson had lost some of his star appeal.[18]

Overall though, Robinson’s career continued with success until his 1889 retirement. His life was built around the circus. In 1862, Louisville, Kentucky, he married Laura Gorman, a sister of Barnum & Bailey’s equestrian director, ‘Bud’ Gorman.[19] In 1863 Robinson became a proprietor with agent Frank J. Howes and created “The Champion Circus.” It was situated in Chicago across from city hall, and was dubbed “The Very Best Circus Ever in Chicago.” In April 1864 they toured by rail, and Robinson challenged “any rider in the universe” to compete against him for $10 000.[20] Some of Robinson’s crowd favourites were a “sensational pirouette act” and a hurdles act which he called “Robinson’s Ride.” That year Robinson also took on an apprentice, Clarence Armstrong, who he renamed Clarence Robinson. They performed the same act James originally performed with John Robinson during his apprenticeship, with Clarence riding on top of James’s head, for eight years.

Fully grown, James Robinson stood just five feet-three inches tall, and weighed 120 pounds. His flat-footedness, he claimed, gave him better balance on his horse’s back. [21] In the memoir of a local Savannah man, a young Robinson is described as “stockily built” with “coarse features.”[22] Much later, in 1884, The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette described him in middle age as “a small man with dark keen eyes, fine regular features, smooth brown hair, slight mustache and closely knit compact figure, evidently a man of the world and at ease with it – so much so that his five and forty years were borne more lightly than by most men at thirty.”[23]

In performance Robinson likely wore satin breechclout and spangles, with pink tights.[24] Instead of a large horse, he rode thoroughbreds that were thin and light.[25] Robinson’s horse was called Bull, and had “a beautiful steel gray” colour. Loosely quoted in a 1917 Opera House Reporter tribute, Robinson remarks: “What a sensible animal!…When I turned my somersaults he’d meet my feet just right with his body. He knew as much about it as I did.”[26]

At his career’s peak, James was one of the highest paid equestrians in North America, earning $350-500 a week, plus expenses for his horses and his wife. But in 1878, he declared voluntary bankruptcy, apparently $11,288 in debt. Nevertheless, he was still advertised as “the highest paid man on earth.”[27]

Shortly before his death in 1917, James proclaimed, “my success at riding was due to my God, my helpmate, my horse, my pipe, and my distance from booze.” He also credited 55 years of marriage, and his wife’s, “real backing and help.”[28]

His chief competitors were James Melville, Charles Fish, and Robert Stickney. In 1868, twelve-year-old Miss Cordelia was announced as the best female equestrian in America, performing everything James Robinson could, except his consecutive somersaults with similar “ease, abandon and daring”. “Should no mishap befall her,” it was predicted, “a few more years will cause her to rank with that greatest of male equestrians—James Robinson.”[29] Competition, comparison, and showmanship were an integral for circus performers. As Thayer notes, “they must see themselves as the center of the world, otherwise the effort of constant practice of their craft has no meaning. The best ones…constantly compare themselves to their rivals…”[30] James Robinson exuded supreme confidence in all of his acts and his athletic ability was trumpeted everywhere. “He jumped and danced on that unsteady platform, leaped garters and hurdles, even jumped from horse to ground and quickly back to the horse. But it was his somersault riding that made him a champion.”[31] And as a champion, his influence on circus performance is undeniable. For years after his retirement, every American bareback equestrian was compared to him.[32] This legacy seems to evidence the numerous claims that he was indeed the greatest bareback rider in the world.


[1] “The Man Who Rides, Interview with the Champion Bareback Equestrian James Robinson,” from Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, April 20, 1884, reprinted in Circus Scrap Book, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan), 1929, pp. 6-7, accessed through Circus Historical Society, Inc. Web. Last modified May 2006. (accessed September 4, 2015) http://www.circushistory.org/Scrap/Scrap29Jan.htm

[2] Thayer, Stuart, “James Robinson, ‘The Man Who Rides.’” In American Circus Anthology, Essays of the Early Years, arranged and edited by William L. Slout, Circus Historical Society, Inc. Web., Last modified December 2005, (accessed September 4, 2015) http://www.circushistory.org/Thayer/Thayer3n.htm

[3] Allston, T. Brown, A History of the American Stage, (Dick & Fitzgerald, New York: 1870), 318. Accessed online through Victorian Popular Culture. Website editor: Adam Matthew. Web., accessed May 4, 2015.

[4] “Scenes in the Ring.—Spalding and Rogers’ Railroad Circus,” Daily Cleveland Herald, September 3, 1856, Web., June 24, 2015, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers,            http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/ncnp/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=NCNP&userGroupName=yorku_main&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=GT3009205074&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0

c:set var=”TI” value=”Scenes in the Ring.—Spalding and Rogers’ Railroad Circus”/> <p> <b><i>The Daily Cleveland Herald</i></b>. Sep 3, 1856</p.

[5] Thayer, “James Robinson.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] “ROBINSON & ELDRED’S NEW YORK CIRCUS,” The Sumter Banner, February 27, 1850, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053240/1850-02-27/ed-1/seq-3/.

[8] “ROBINSON & ELDRED’S Great Southern Circus!,” Lewistown Gazette, September 6, 1850, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83032276/1850-09-06/ed-1/seq-3/.


[9] “ROBINSON & ELDRED’S,” The Sumter Banner, February 27, 1850.


[10] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[11] “ROBINSON & ELDRED’S GREAT CIRCUS,” Semiweekly Camden Journal, March 11, 1851, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn93067976/1851-03-11/ed-1/seq-3/.


[12] “THE SOUTHERN CIRCUS,” The Daily Dispatch, November 16, 1852, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1852-11-16/ed-1/seq-3/.


[13] Waddell, Doc, “A Tribute to James Robinson, Great Rider,” from The Opera House Reporter, Des Moines Iowa, 1917, reprinted in Circus Scrap Book, Vol. 1, No. 2 April, 1929, pp. 5-7, Web., accessed July 22, 2015, Circus Historical Society, Webmaster J. Griffin, last modified May 2006, 


[14] “Spalding & Rogers’ NEW RAILROAD CIRCUS,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 7, 1856, p. 4 of 4, col. 2, full, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,<http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1856-04-07/ed-1/seq-4/.


[15] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[16] “WASHINGTON CIRCUS AND AMPHITHEATRE,” Evening Star, February 19, 1857, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1857-02-19/ed-1/seq-2/.


[17] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[18] Ibid. New York Clipper review.


[19] Waddell, “Tribute,” 5-7.


[20] “ROBINSON & HOWE’S CHAMPION CIRCUS,” Cleveland Morning Leader, June 23, 1864, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035143/1864-06-23/ed-1/seq-1/.


[21] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[22] Hawes, “Memoirs of Charles H. Olmstead,” 406. 362.


[23] “The Man Who Rides,” Circus Scrap Book.


[24] Hawes, “Memoirs,” 406. 362


[25] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[26] Waddell, “Tribute,” 5-9.


[27] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[28] Ibid.


[29] “AMUSEMENTS, A WONDERFUL EQUESTRIAN,” Public Ledger, February 20, 1868, Web., September 10, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85033673/1868-02-20/ed-1/seq-3/.


[30] Thayer, “James Robinson.”


[31] Ibid.


[32] “AMUSEMENTS. THE BIG SHOW,” Rocky Mountain News, (Denver, Colorado), June 15, 1893, image 1, col. 1, entry 6, 2/3 down, Web., September 10, 2015, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, http://find.galegroup.com/ncnp/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=NCNP&userGroupName=yorku_main&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=GT3010359092&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0

c:set var=”TI” value=”Amusements”/> <p>Broadway <b><i>Rocky Mountain News</i></b>. Jun 15, 1893</p.

In this article, the equestrian William Datton is compared favourably to John Robinson, who was retired by then.


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