Interview with a late 1800s circus worker

[The following is from my newsletter, The Magnet]

When I was in high school, I worked on a carnival that traveled around rural Colorado and Wyoming. I manned a basketball game, which was called "Mini-Hoops." It had been called "Basketball Toss" but a couple of years before I started working there the Rocky Mountain Strike Force raided the carnival. The agents measured the diameter of the hoops and found them to be smaller than regulation basketball hoops. They told the carnival owner it was fraudulent to call them "basketball hoops" and so he had to change the name to make it clear that the hoops were smaller than normal. I worked on the carnival for two summers and got to know a lot of people who had worked in carnivals all their lives. They had great stories, and they also used fascinating jargon. Ever since my stint as a carny, I've been interested in sideshow, circus, and carnival culture.

Carny jargon goes way back. The Folklore Project (1936–1940) was a U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to collect the life histories of almost 3,000 people in the United States. In July 1938, writer A. C. Sherbert visited retired carnival worker W. E. "Doc" Van Alstine in the Jefferson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and interviewed him. Sherbert described Van Alstine as looking "younger than 88. His hair is iron-grey, face oval, dark complexion, medium height, rheumatic — walks with difficulty. He always wears an old-fashioned black, derby hat, with wide, rolled brim."

In the interview, Van Alstine describes his career as a carnival worker, using colorful carny jargon:

I recall the thrill of thrills when a clown — circus folks call the funny men "Joeys" — said, "Hey, lad, run out to a butcher shop and get me a pound of lard." The Joeys used lard for taking off their "clown white," or make-up. I was so excited at havin' a performer actually speak to me that I couldn't say yes or no. But with the ten-cent piece he give me clutched tight in my fist, I run like lightnin' to the nearest butcher shop. Boy, oh boy, was I happy!

I well remember when I goes back to school after my four days with the circus. I cut quite a figger among the handful of bumpkins that was my schoolmates.

Bein' with a circus made me a hero among them youngsters, and did I glory in it. I knew I'd have to stay in school awhile longer — I couldn't help myself, but in the back of my head I know that when I got a little bit older I was goin' to join up with a circus and be a showman for always, and always.

He also describes violent fights between carnies and locals (known as a "Hey Rube"):

A "Hey Rube" is practically unknown today. A Hey Rube was a fight between the circus folks and the town yokels. These ruckuses used to came regularly every so often in the old days. Many of the Hey Rubes was started by folks figgerin' they was't gettin' all the circus advertised; if the stupendous wasn't stupendous enough, the gigantic wasn't gigantic enough, the colossal wasn't colossal enough, or the "largest in captivity" wasn't large enough, the town folks felt like they had grounds for a fight. Another common cause of Hey Rubes was because petty thieves, purse-snatchers and pickpockets, followed circuses from town to town. The circus got blamed for what them slickers did, but they was nothing they could do about it. When the crooks hit a crowd too hard, and too many people got plucked, the town folk got together and tried to take it out on the circus people. Pretty near every Hey Rube I ever seen ended with the town folks comin' out second best physically, although the circus usually lost out financially. Lawsuits always followed a Hey Rube, and circus people had no chance for a square deal in a prejudiced small-town court

I was in a Hey Rube in Lincoln, Illinois, once. It was one of the toughest battles I ever seen. The town boys was coal miners and some of the toughest customers I ever seen. We strung out in a circle around our stuff and stood 'em off with "laying out pins" and whacked 'em with "side-poles," finally giving 'em the run, but they sure could take it.

Read a PDF transcript of the full interview. And here's a reading of Van Alstine's interview.