This brief but information-packed autobiography details the life of Jake Posey, who drove forty-horse teams for several circuses during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He traveled with Barnum & Bailey, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and other important but now not generally known circuses like the Sparks Circus. I really enjoyed this book, as I am very into circuses and circus history. If you don’t have a general knowledge of the history of the circus, this might not be the book for you, as a lot of it is him listing the people in the circus and the routes they were taking. He seems to be most interested in getting across a lot of hard facts and lists, but he also puts in many brief anecdotes that make for fascinating reading. I learned about several new diseases (black measles, mud fever, glanders), and gained an even better appreciation for how difficult it was to control so many horses and drive them. I guess I’d thought that it wasn’t as physically punishing as it clearly is. At one point he had to drive the team for eight hours and afterwards, his arms were so swollen that they had to cut his shirt off.
I think it’s a perpetual struggle to fully understand just how hard life was for our ancestors. The amount of people being injured, getting sick, and being killed by accidents in this book is unreal. On one tour of the Barnum & Bailey circus to England, thirty people died of illness, and other people get hit by trains, get their legs broken, and so on. Posey’s abbreviated style adds to the sense that these are expected events. Posey himself seems like he was a very tough person who didn’t take any nonsense from anyone, and I liked reading from his point of view. At one point the police accuse him of stealing and then try to beat him up at the station, so he takes the nightclub and beats up the policeman and breaks his collarbone instead. Then the policemen beat him up and break his jaw. As I read this, eating vegan chocolate chip cookies I got magically delivered to my house, I sent another prayer of thanks to everyone before me who worked hard so that I could live a comfortable life and not have to rescue teams of horses from the mud.
Also included is a nice picture section and two lists in the back detailing the Barnum & Bailey itinerary for 1898-1902, and Buffalo Bill’s official roster for 1907.
Recommended for the more hardcore circus fan, or for those who are ok with somewhat dry lists bracketing very interesting anecdotes. For the King Edward VII aficionado (me), this includes two run-ins with him, which was a wonderful surprise.
Warnings for: suicide, lots of accidental deaths and injuries (some in graphic detail), violence, animal death (an elephant being killed in an awful way), period-typical racism and stereotypes.