The vintage circus poster seems designed to capture the imagination of anyone who loves horses---as it did mine. It features a smartly dressed woman sitting sidesaddle aboard a shiny white horse, both looking serene and confident as they are lifted into the night sky by a golden hot-air balloon.
“Jupiter: The Balloon Horse” and his “ascension act” are billed as the “Latest and Greatest Thriller” from the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, circa 1909. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. Was this a real act? I had to find out more.
The first decade of the 20th century was a time of transition. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903, and by 1909 aircraft pioneers were recording “firsts” all over the world---first attempt to cross the English Channel, longest endurance flight (almost two and a half hours!), the first air shows featuring airplanes, zeppelins and balloons.
The public fascination with aeronautics seemed insatiable. At the same time, circuses and other forms of traveling entertainment were big business. In fact, according to “The Business Side of the Circus,” published in Everybody’s Magazine in July 1910, the two biggest shows---Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers---traveled with 650 to 700 horses, including about 400 “baggage horses” and nearly 300 trained performers. That is in addition to the rhinos, giraffes, elephants, lions, tigers and other animals that were part of the troupe. The big circus payrolls covered more than 400 performers plus 600 laborers and support staff.
And, yes, Jupiter was real. Among the many daring and exotic performers, it was a single white horse who was the headline act in 1909. Newspapers across the country announced the arrival of the Barnum & Bailey circus in their towns, and many breathlessly described what The Evening Chronicle of Charlotte, North Carolina, on October 14, 1909, called the “Most Astounding of All Animal Acts," writing: "One can hardly describe the act of this horse and do it the justice that it deserves.... Jupiter, a beauti-ful white Arabian, is driven into the arena by a young and beauti-ful woman. There is a balloon to which, instead of a basket, there is attached a platform that is de-void of railings. Horse and rider take position on this platform. Slowly the balloon ascends to the dome of the arena.... Pleasure gives way to surprise and then to fear as it is realized that should the horse become nervous there is nothing to prevent his taking a step [that] would precipitate himself and his rider to the ground far below.
“With this realization comes the very thing that would make the animal nervous---the explosion of a series of rockets attached to the platform. The shower of fireworks envelopes [sic] horse and rider. Involuntarily comes an audible gasp from the on-lookers, which is relieved as the balloon reaches the ground and the beautiful animal and his fearless rider are seen to be all right…. In Germany this act was extolled as the best [arena] number that the world had ever seen. The man who knows anything about horses will say the same thing.”
In reality, historians agree, the balloon was window-dressing: The platform was actually raised with wires and pulleys. But one fact remains: Night after night, Jupiter stood stock-still on a platform that carried him high into the air, remaining calm despite all of the distractions of the fireworks and the noisy crowd. Even today, those of us “who know anything about horses” have to be impressed.
A long-ago headline act for “The Greatest Show on Earth” showcased a feat that would still amaze many equestrians more than 100 years later. By Laurie Bonner