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Water for Elephants. Book by: Sara Gruen Presentation by: Katherine Likman. The History of the Circus. The Start of the Circus in America.

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water for elephants

Water for Elephants

Book by: Sara Gruen

Presentation by: Katherine Likman

the start of the circus in america
The Start of the Circus in America

The circus was introduced to Americans shortly after the American Revolution in about 1793. The first circus was established by John Bill Rickets. The first forty years of the circus only had one to two acts- trick riding and clown acts. In the 1830s farmers would collect exotic animals and sell them to circuses for petting zoos, menageries, and exotic animal acts. In 1850 circuses became a business and some acts went abroad.

the ringling brothers
The Ringling Brothers

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers- Albert, August, Alfred T., Otto, Charles, John, and Henry founded the Ringling Brother’s Circus in the United States.

In 1907, the Ringling Brother’s Circus combined with the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.

p t barnum
P.T. Barnum

In 1875, an associate of Mr. P.T. Barnum asked to use Barnum’s name and use his financial backing to create a circus in Wisconsin. It was called “P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome”

james anthony bailey
James Anthony Bailey

Mr. James Bailey teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s. Within a few years the Cooper and Bailey Circus was the top competitor of the P.T. Barnum “Greatest Show on Earth.” It got that way because of “Columbia”, the first baby elephant born in the U.S. used as an exhibit for the Cooper and Bailey Circus. Barnum attempted to buy the elephant but was out bided. Barnum then suggested that the two circuses combine and then began the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

the two circuses combine
The Two Circuses Combine

In 1907 the Ringling Brothers Circus bought Barnum and Bailey Circus and until 1919 ran the two circuses separately. Only two of the five Ringling brothers remained and they agreed that running the two circuses separately was difficult. The remaining brothers combined the circuses an had their first combined show on March 26, 1919 in New York City.

water for elephants1
Water for Elephants

The story begins when a 93 year old Jacob Jankowski who lives in a retirement home hears about a circus that was coming to town, all the other people in the home have families that have promised to take him to the circus. One of the men that Jacob has a problem with says that he carried water for the elephants and Jacob insists that he is a liar. Water for Elephants follows the journey of a much younger Jacob Jankowski in the form of memories from the older Jacob’s hospital bed, as he goes from a veterinary student at Cornell college hoping to join his father’s veterinary hospital to Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus. A much older Jacob tells the story of his time at the circus. At the beginning of the book, Jacob looses his father and mother to a car accident and because Jacob’s father was a kind man he never had is customers who were in need of money pay for their animal’s visits. So Jacob was left with no money to inherit. After Jacob buries his parents he goes back to Cornell to finish his exams but ends up walking out of the exam room because of his grief and he runs away. After a while Jacob comes across a train track at night. He jumps onto the train and ends up in the middle of a card game. The men playing are carnies and they threaten to throw Jacob off the train. But they don’t in hopes that they can use Jacob as one of the labor men and he later makes friends with a few of the carnies. After a while of living with Walter a midget clown and his dog Queenie, sleeping on a dirty horse blanket, and working as a labor man. Uncle Al, the owner of the circus discovers Jacob’s education as a vet, he is hired to care for the animals. August, the head animal trainer, abuses the animals and the people that work in the circus such as not feeding the tigers and threatening the help. Jacob then discovers Marlena, Augusts' wife and the horse rider act also known as the Liberty Horse act. One of Marlena’s prized horses, Silver Star, is diagnosed by Jacob with a leg abrasion. Jacob decides to put the beloved Silver Star out of the its misery by shooting it through the heart.

water for elephants2
Water for Elephants

Because this book takes place in the time of the Great Depression, most of the smaller circuses are suffering from the financial downturn and so they leave their acts and animals where their final show ended. Jacob decides to put the beloved Silver Star out of the horse’s misery by shooting it through the heart. Because this book takes place in the time of the Great Depression, most of the smaller circuses are suffering from the financial downturn and so they leave their acts and animals where their final show ended The people of abandoned circuses are left to find work elsewhere. The Benzini Brother’s Circus goes around fetching up the stranded acts and animals and pays them to partake in their circus yet the financial depression affects the Benzini Circus too by not being able to get food for the animals and they “red light” the people that are not needed anymore. Jacob is only at the circus for a few weeks when they come across the Fox Brother’s circus where they find Rosie, an elephant that will replace Marlena’s Silver Star in her act. August also beat Rosie because she didn’t listen to him but Jacob later finds out that Rosie’s original trainer was Polish and trained and directed the elephant in the polish language. Jacob could speak polish so when he discovered that Rosie could understand him, he taught August so that he would not get so mad at Rosie. As they train Rosie, Jacob and Marlena develop a secret relationship. Marlena and Jacob start to spend time with each other while training Rosie and at dinner parties that August and Marlena hold in their rail car. August finds out that Jacob and Marlena are together so he hurts them both. Uncle Al shares with Jacob that August is a paranoid schizophrenic. After August hurts Marlena, she moves out to a hotel nearby when she isn’t performing and leaves August.

water for elephants3
Water for Elephants

Uncle Al finds out about the affair and gives Jacob an ultimatum,

reunite August and Marlena as a happily married couple or Walter and Camel get red-lighted. Camel, who helped Jacob learn the ropes of the circus has been living with Walter and Jacob after developed Jake leg from drinking Jamaican ginger extract Jacob goes to the hotel where Marlena is staying at to comfort her. Marlena and Jacob reveal their true feelings for each other and Marlena agrees to come back to perform but she still refuses to see August which makes Uncle Al angry. After a few days Jacob goes to August’s rail car while the train is moving with a knife intending to kill him but he backs out and goes back to his car. When he gets there he discovers that Camel and Walter have been red-lighted. For revenge on the unfair ways of Uncle Al and August, several of the red lighted circus workers create a stampede in the menagerie during a show playing what they called the disaster march. During the madness, August finds Marlena and begins screaming at her. Jacob sees Rosie and Marlena but Marlena does not see him, Rosie does. Then Rosie takes her stake from the ground, a trick only a clever elephant would know, and hits it onto August’s head. August lies on the ground unconscious, then the stampeding animals trample him. After what happened at the circus performance, the Benzini Brothers Circus was shut down. Jacob and Marlena leave to begin their life together with a few of the circus animals. Jacob goes back to Cornell to take his final exams so he will be a certified vet. The Ringling Brothers hire the team and they stay with the circus for seven years before Jacob gets a job as a vet at the Chicago zoo. The story ends with Jacob as a 93 year old man waiting for his family to pick him up to go to the circus but they never show up, so he goes to the circus by himself and Charlie the director of the “not so great circus” asks Jacob about his time at the circus and he tells him the whole story. Charlie then agrees to let Jacob work at the ticket booth. Jacob has finally found a home.


"Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus." Wikipedia. N.p., July 24, 2011. Web. 25 Aug 2011. .

Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. NY: Algonquin , 2006. 335. Print.